My dearest Night Hags:

It’s back to school season, which means prime time for the most tedious of all anxiety dreams: the school related ones. Give me Freddy Kreuger any day over a variation on (1) didn’t study for my test (2) can’t remember my locker combination (3) SOMEHOW NAKED IN CLASS or (4) have to go back to finish my degree. My brain is so mad that I threw away 3 years of professional training and an ungodly sum of money to write newsletters about ghosts that it makes me suffer through “I never finished college and have to go back” dreams like three times a week. Creativity is a valid choice, brain!!!!

So this week we are talking about SLEEP PARALYSIS DEMONS. They are legion! Cultures from all around the world have stories about witches, spirits, monsters, and demons that cause the symptoms of sleep paralysis. This has expanded into modern digital folklore, with memes and message boards. Many of these stories dovetail with health and science in fascinating and revealing ways, so let’s get into it!

Scientific Perspective

Sleep paralysis is a parasomnia that occurs somewhere in between sleeping and being awake, when muscles are still paralyzed by sleep, but the brain is awake. People with sleep paralysis report a host of consistent and terrifying experiences. They feel awake and have a realistic perception of the environment around them, but they cannot move. They report an overwhelming sense of fear and dread, and often a sinister presence nearby. They can experience chest pressure and difficulty breathing.

So imagine this: You wake up, or at least, you think you’re awake, but you can’t move AT ALL. You know you’re in your bed, in your room, but there’s someone in there with you, or worse – ON TOP OF YOU, squeezing the air out of your lungs. Sometimes there are beings standing or hovering over you, sometimes they lurk in the shadows of your room. You strain to move the smallest part of your body, and once you do, you are suddenly awake – gasping for air and terrified. This is not a regular ass nightmare or bad dream – it feels very real, very physical, and you may not even know if you were actually dreaming or awake. My sister told me that during one of her experiences with sleep paralysis, a screaming demon woman hovered above her until she was able to turn her head and look at the clock. When she woke up, the time was the same. Was she dreaming? Was she awake? WAS THIS REALLY NECESSARY, HUMAN BRAIN????

Henry Fuseli's painting The Nightmare, depicting a small goblin like creature sitting on the chest of a sprawled sleeping woman. In the background is a scary black horse watching them

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781

Medical research calls this a parasomnia (sleep disorder). According to researchers, it’s the result of confusion between the brain and the central nervous system. The wires are crossed – the brain thinks it’s awake, and the body thinks it’s asleep. The sleeper becomes fearful, OBVIOUSLY, and the brain tries to make meaning out of the sensation, potentially generating hallucinations of evil beings nearby. Normal muscle paralysis during sleep can make the chest feel heavy and constricted, leading to feelings of suffocation. It’s really not much of a stretch to see how the brain could concoct dreamlike explanations for the experience – which feel very real to the sleeper.

Factors like sleep deprivation, stress, and concomitant sleep disorders (apnea, narcolepsy) can increase the likelihood of sleep paralysis, but there’s no real cause or cure. It’s just something that happens to about 8% of the population. Doctors speculate that a history of trauma can also contribute to the occurrences, which makes sense given how much of your inner life is worked out in dreams.

Sleep Paralysis in Culture

Scroll through a couple of stories about this phenomena and it quickly becomes clear why we see these experiences as supernatural, or caused by monsters. The experiences feel real, not like dreams. The sinister presence and heightened fear sound like something out of a horror movie, which is actually what inspired a lot of them!! Folklore is a way of making meaning out of the world around us, and even in this allegedly enlightened, scientific age, we need to tell stories to work out the worst things around us.

Let’s make a visit to the Nightmare Menagerie of sleep paralysis monsters, shall we?

Henry Fuseli's The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches, depicts the hag as a witch looming over a naked child while surrounded by advancing figures. In the foreground by the child there is a hand holding a knife
Henry Fuseli, The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches, 1796
(can someone check on Henry? Is he ok?)

The Old Hag – Newfoundland

The Old Hag is a terrifying witch with a wrinkled face and long hair that climbs onto victims and strangles them in their sleep. She can appear in the room, next to the bed, or on top of the sleeping person. One woman described the attack like this: “A woman was crawling across the floor and up onto the bed. I could actually feel the mattress shifting under her weight, but I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything. She got on top of my chest and started strangling me. That’s when I got a good look at her face: it was me.” SHE WAS THE HAG, THE HAG WAS HER, this could be a dissertation for the right person to throw their academic career away on.

The Old Hag is commonly understood now as sleep paralysis. People who suffer attack describe themselves as being “hagged” or hag-ridden,” which researcher Shelly Adler links to the use of the word “haggard,” or tired-looking.

0/10 stars, this bitch is mean AND ugly!

Kanashibari – Japan

The Japanese call the experience of sleep paralysis kanashibari, and up 30% of the population claims to have experienced it. Kanashibari translates as “bound up with metal,” which is a horrifying but ACCURATE way to describe the paralyzed feeling. It’s often accompanied by a vision of a person or child sitting crouched on the chest, making it hard for the sleeper to breathe. Kanashibari can be caused by spirits, ghosts, or inflicted via curses, and stories about the phenomena go back hundreds of years.

Interestingly, the culture seems to have accepted and absorbed kanashibari, making it less dangerous than something like the Old Hag. Children try to summon it at night, and the demons they see reflect pop culture and media. One of the most popular is Sadako from Ringu, which is exactly how the fuck I would expect a Japanese “pressing spirit” to look. No thank you!! You kids have fun!!!!

5/10 stars, the kids like it!

Screenshot of Ju-on (The Grudge), 2002 (dir. Takashi Shimizu)

Screenshot of Ju-On: The Grudge, 2002 (dir. Takashi Shimizu)

A woman sleeps in a bed while a shadowy figure with long hair arches over her

The Karabasan – Turkey

In Turkey, sleepers are attacked by karabasan, or “dark pressers.” These are supernatural forces that can assume the form of a person – sometimes hideous, sometimes a person they know. They sit on the chest and crush the sleeper, making it difficult to breathe. Turkish sleepers also believe that they can be harmed in their sleep by jinn – the Arabian spirits that have been Anglicized into “genies.” The jinn can take over human bodies and cause mischief and problems. In Turkey in particular, they are blamed for mental and physical disorders, including, it seems, RUINING PEOPLE’S SLEEP.

-2/10 stars, anything called a dark presser is from Hell.

Dab tsog – Laos

The dab tsog of the Hmong people is similar to other sleep paralysis demons, with the distinction that it is actually physically dangerous. The dab tsog is known as a nocturnal pressing spirit. It is evil and lives in caves and caverns. The dab tsog attacks Hmong men in their sleep, sitting or lying upon them, squeezing them tightly, and trying to suffocate them. In Hmong tradition, it attacks men because they are the keepers of the ancestor spirits, and it is their duty to ward evil spirits off by cultivating protection and making offerings. If they fail in their duties, the dab tsog can reach them and kill them in the night.

This is a fucking terrifying story, even more so because it’s actually true. STAY WITH ME NOW, I READ A WHOLE BOOK ABOUT IT. In the 1980s, as Hmong refugees were relocated to the United States, Hmong men were dying of SUNDS (Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome) at alarming rates. More than 117 of them passed away in their sleep, and doctors were baffled. Hmong people blamed the dab tsog, but how could that be it??

A dark photo of a girl leaning against a wall. Almost all of her face is in shadow with only her mouth visible - which appears to be dripping blood
First of all, Hmong immigrants were subject to pressures that increased the risk of sleep paralysis. They were under stress – they couldn’t speak the language, they were separated from family, and had a difficult time finding work and feeding their families. They had recently escaped an incredibly traumatic war and refugee experience. They worked odd hours and didn’t get enough sleep. It’s not surprising that they would experience an outsized amount of tsog tsuam (crushing attacks).

What was killing them, however, was a genetic predisposition to Brugada Syndrome, a rare condition that causes a disruption of the heart’s normal rhythm. Complications most often happen when the patient is sleeping, and it’s believed that sleep paralysis can trigger an attack. The Hmong men’s deathly fear of dab tsog, combined with stressors that increased the risk of sleep paralysis, contributed to their deaths from SUNDS. Notably, the death rate dropped off 18 months to 2 years after arrival in the US, as they settled in and were under less despairing conditions.

The experience of the Hmong is an excellent illustration of the way that folklore, and stories, make sense of the world. It took folklore to unravel the mystery of their genetic condition and understand the sleep paralysis that triggered it so that science could help prevent more deaths. As Dr. Philip Hiscock, who studies the Old Hag, told a reporter: “A lot of folklore is folk science.” I say ignore it at your peril.

-50/10 stars this is just fucking awful.

Sleep Paralysis is Modern America

Sleep paralysis demons aren’t just an old school phenomena – in fact, the term came from Internet culture. There are theories that alien invasion scenarios are derived from sleep paralysis experiences. In The Nightmare, a man tells the story of seeing two “beings” with big eyes and a menacing vibe that seem exactly like our modern conception of aliens. The abduction experiences have a lot in common with sleep paralysis – immobility, fear, sinister beings.

Some modern Christians view their sleep paralysis experiences as attacks from demons, or the devil – which is not that far off from the folklore about the pressing spirits. A while back I wrote about the Hat Man, a sinister man made of shadow who appears to wear a hat – brought on by sleep paralysis or drugs.

Meme culture has expanded sleep paralysis demons to be ironic or funny – imagine Mitch McConnell glitching at the foot of your bed at 3am or Jason Aldean cranking up “Try That in a Small Town” while you lie paralyzed with bleeding ears. Culture will always find a way, you guys.

Sweet dreams, babes!