Whispers of the Old Hag: why Sleep Paralysis is probably behind some of our creepiest myths

This piece originally appeared in the July/August 2008 edition of Weird Tales magazine, issue #350. It once appeared online, but their online archives appear to be gone, so I’m taking it upon myself to post it here for posterity’s sake. Halloween seemed like the perfect day to do it, too. If you’ve ever suffered from sleep paralysis — waking up and being unable to move — you should read this.


by Eric San Juan

The thing was made of light and shadow; skeletal, pale, with ribs like talons and deep eager eyes. I did not know the time. Didn’t care to know, really. Midnight; 4 a.m.; whatever. How could I care when it stood there, just outside my bedroom door, framed in moonlight and a clinging mist; a malevolent thing, angry and waiting? The time didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was being watched.

I longed to scream, but the sound would not come. A hoarse croak. A gasp of breath. Nothing more. I was silent; immobile; paralyzed.

It’s impossible to recall how old I was when it first happened. Twelve. Maybe fourteen. The experience was terrifying, a mix of dread and horror and of being utterly overcome by something alien. The experience was no dream. It was real and true. And it would happen again.

John Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare"

John Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare”

Once, an unseen presence woke me in the night and sat on my chest. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it perched upon me. As it sat there pressing the air from my lungs, the walls filled with whispers. Most of them were incomprehensible, but at times snatches of words tormented me: accusations, laughter, distant discussion tantalizingly close to being understood. I strained to call to them, to tell them I was trapped, to beg to be released from this unseen prison, but again my voice was frozen.

On another occasion, I could see the presence. A curtain was spread across my doorway, pulled slightly open, and as I awoke from a soft afternoon sleep I saw it, a black shadow pacing back and forth just outside the room. “Who’s there?” I called, but no sound came. Again my voice was frozen. Again I could not move. Again the whispers came. Just beyond the curtain they chattered, always on the very edge of understanding.

The visits continued sporadically over the years. A woman I knew, a self-styled fortuneteller, the sort who thinks she knows the secrets of the universe, told me something was happening. That I was breaking through some wall. Some barrier. That maybe, just maybe, it was dangerous.

She wasn’t far off the mark. As it turned out, I was treading in territory that had tormented man for all recorded history. I was swimming in the blackest waters of night; grasping at nightmares made real. Yet it was not the journey into otherworldly hells she suggested.

I was suffering from sleep paralysis: a bizarre fluke of consciousness that occurs while on the borderlands of sleep, thrusting the victim into a place between dreaming and waking. A very scary place.

When one enters REM sleep, something called “REM atonia” kicks in, a state during which the body’s muscles do not move. You are, in essence, paralyzed. This is perfectly normal. It happens to every sleeper. In the case of sleep paralysis, however, the mind awakens, becomes aware and conscious ― mostly ― even while the body still sleeps. And then come the hallucinations.

From "The Nightmare," courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

From “The Nightmare,” courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

The feeling of a presence, almost always malevolent, is common. The feeling of being watched, sometimes of a crushing pressure, is also typical. There is always dread. Always fear. Sometimes unbridled panic. And sometimes voices, barely understandable but tantalizingly recognizable. I’ve heard people chatting in the next room or just outside my window, familiar voices and alien voices, the voices of loved ones and the voices of strangers. Yet none of them were real.

“Not real” ― but for all the terror they brought me, they might as well have been. The foothills between waking and sleep are a harsh place, a landscape of half-seen truths and elusive lies. Tarry too long, dwell upon the seeming realism of the frightening episodes too obsessively ― believe too much of what you see ― and you could find yourself swallowed up by your own mind. This was the danger from which I ran.

I’d left fears of demons behind with childhood. Poltergeists, hauntings, ghosts; sure, the images could provide a chill, but the same could be said for anyone with a vivid imagination. This doesn’t mean we really believe in such things. We don’t. As a society, we’ve moved beyond taking such fears seriously. But hang on ― because humanity has a new terror of the night. A new presence that comes in the evening and whisks away the unsuspecting. Demons of the modern age. They come from space, drifting out of the sky bathed in cold lights, bringing their emotionless and distant violations with them.

The gray alien ― the now-familiar visage of the silent, petite, triangle-faced, giant-eyed extraterrestrial ― that’s today’s demonic visitor. Frighteningly inhuman; rendering people helpless; changing the way some live their lives. Alien abduction is a terror many do believe in. Could sleep paralysis explain these experiences? All the calling cards are there. Waking in the night, unable to move. The feeling of a presence in the room. Losing control of your body. Even a sense that time isn’t quite flowing right. Like pieces of some twisted puzzle, it all fits. So if these experiences are simply the result of sleep paralysis, are people investing themselves in the belief that they have been taken by aliens when the real explanation is something much less sinister?

"My Dream, My Bad Dream," by Fritz Schwimbeck

“My Dream, My Bad Dream,” by Fritz Schwimbeck

It wouldn’t be the first time sleep paralysis has done exactly that. The belief that this experience is something more than a biological quirk in the body’s sleep mechanism has been around as long as man has feared the night. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare makes mention of “the Old Hag.” The Old Hag is a demon of the night right out of foggy old myths, describing an entity ― whether a witch, demon, or spirit does not matter ― that sits on its victim, rendering them unable to move and making it difficult to breath. Sound familiar?

The myth of the Incubus, a demon which lies upon sleeping women in order to violate them, may have sprung from the same source. Peer at the mosaic of language and things begin to fall into place. The Old English word for the Incubus was maire, which means “one who oppresses or crushes.” In German, it is mare. And from these we get “night mare,” or simply nightmare. What it all means is: “A perfectly normal sleep thing that scares the screaming holy fuck out of us.”

I recalled this one recent evening when, after having drifted off to sleep, I awoke, unable to move. Outside my bedroom window were voices. My father, I think, and my wife. Others, too. I could not understand them. And then something malevolent came into the room. And stood at the foot of the bed. And watched.

This experience was nothing new, not for me and not for mankind. From restless spirits to space-faring entities, from the Incubus to the gray alien, from Romeo and Juliet to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we can cast our fears in a new guise. We can give it a new name and a new face. Yet ultimately, the haunts of our evening remain the same: a hiccup of sleep and a lack of understanding. Once I understood that, it was an easy enough demon to exorcise. I needed neither holy water nor holy man. No scientists; no laser beams; no necklace of garlic. Just some understanding . . . and the terror was no more.

Sometimes, that’s all the exorcism you need.


  1. Nerd Out With Me

    Great read! I can relate, used to get it all the time. Finally figured out the triggers – (falling asleep in the afternoon with the tv too loud) it stopped. Though, I did enjoy experimenting with it when it would happen. 🙂

  2. Pingback: The Ghosts of Lakehurst Hangar No. 1: A real life ghost story – Your AWESOME Editor

  3. Pingback: A Quickee Linkee – ERIC SAN JUAN

  4. Pingback: A few appearances from around the web – ERIC SAN JUAN

  5. Pingback: A Month of Kurosawa: Dreams (1990) – ERIC SAN JUAN

  6. Pingback: Listen to Soundtracks for Horror Films, a film score by yours truly – Eric’s Music – ERIC SAN JUAN

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *