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The "Old Hag" Syndrome

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The Old Hag

The Old Hag

You wake up unable to move, barely able to breathe... you feel an oppressive weight on your chest... and you sense some evil presence in the room... The old hag strikes!

A reader writes:

About a year and a half ago, I was awoken in the night by a strong, warm breeze. I could not move and could not scream. It lasted about 30 seconds and was gone. I saw nothing. Last week it happened again. I was lying in bed and again was awoken. I felt a very strong force holding me down. I could not sit up. I tried to scream for my daughter and could not get any noise to come out. I tried to hit the wall with my arm and this force would not let me. It again lasted about 30 seconds and was over. I really don't believe in ghosts and didn't see anything at all. I am just really scared and confused.

Have you ever had a similar experience? The above incident is a classic example of what has become known as the "old hag" syndrome and is one of many such letters I receive from readers each month. The victims awake to find that they cannot move, even though they can see, hear, feel and smell. There is sometimes the feeling of a great weight on the chest and the sense that there is a sinister or evil presence in the room. And like the above reader, they are often quite frightened about what is happening to them.

The name of the phenomenon comes from the superstitious belief that a witch - or an old hag - sits or "rides" the chest of the victims, rendering them immobile. Although that explanation isn't taken very seriously nowadays, the perplexing and often very frightening nature of the phenomenon leads many people to believe that there are supernatural forces at work - ghosts or demons.

The experience is so frightening because the victims, although paralyzed, seem to have full use of their senses. In fact, it is often accompanied by strange smells, the sound of approaching footsteps, apparitions of weird shadows or glowing eyes, and the oppressive weight on the chest, making breathing difficult if not impossible. All of the body's senses are telling the victims that something real and unusual is happening to them. The spell is broken and the victims recover often on the point of losing consciousness. Fully awake and well, they sit up, completely baffled by what just happened to them since now the room is entirely normal.

Confronted with such a bizarre and irrational experience, it's no wonder that many victims fear that they have been attacked in their beds by some malevolent spirit, demon or, perhaps, an alien visitor.

The phenomenon occurs to both men and women of various ages and seems to happen to about 15 percent of the population at least once in a lifetime. It can occur while the victim is sleeping during the day or night, and it is a worldwide phenomenon that has been documented since ancient times.

"In the 2nd century, the Greek physician Galen attributed it to indigestion," according to The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits by Rosemary Ellen Guiley. "Some individuals suffer repeated attacks over a limited period of time; others have repeated attacks for years."

Another example:

I am a 27 year old female and have been suffering for the past 12 or so years. It started just being unable to move, like someone was on top of me, pinning me down. And although I was trying with all my might to move or to scream, all I could do was barely wiggle my toes and faintly murmur. In the beginning it was very frightening and I would try with all my might to wake up. Upon waking I would be unable to resume sleep for at least a few hours. Now I have become somewhat used to them. Sometimes I even lie back and see how long I can take that awful, overpowering feeling. In the end, I always try to wake myself up. Over the years this "thing" has kind of metamorphosized into a dark being, something who is doing this deliberately to me for some reason. I guess this is something that I may have invented in my head to deal with it. I am not really sure. After I got used to it, I never really questioned it. It still occurs about every 2 months or so. Sometimes once a night, other times it can happen several times in one night.

What's going on? Is there a rational explanation for these freaky experiences?

Next page: The scientific explanation

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