Sleep paralysis: Cross cultural interpretations of the Old Hag Syndrome

Carol RoachStarred Page By Carol Roach, 6th Sep 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Health>Mind & Spirit>Sleep

Conditions that affect sleep, our health, and mental health include such topics as sleep paralysis.


Sleep paralysis, or dream paralysis, is one of the most frightening experiences in the realm of sleep disorders that a person can have. In this article we will discuss how sleep paralysis is seen throughout the world. For a discussion on nightmares and night terrors click here.

Origin and Folklore centering around sleep paralysis

It ancient times until recently sleep paralysis or dream paralysis was known as “the old hag syndrome.” It got its name from a superstition or fear that an old hag, or witch, was sitting on the person’s chest making him/her unable to move or to breath while he/she was in bed and between sleep and wakefulness.

The legends may date back as far as in the incubus and succubus in the paranormal world. At that time people believed it was the devil sitting on the victim’s chest. Then there are other theories that the origin of old hag syndrome is Icelandic or Scandinavian and that old hag is the Goddess Mara.

Old hag syndrome is called “witch riding on your back” in African culture

It is known "pee umm" and "khmout sukkhot" in the Laotian, Thai, and Cambodian culture. Here dream paralysis is described as a ghostly figured holding a person down, but it is not possession by spirits which is referred to as "pee khao" and "khmout jool."

Folklore centering around sleep paralysis

Folklore centering around sleep paralysis

In the Hmong culture (people living in Southeast Asia, Laos, Viet Nam, Thailand, and Burma) it is known as "dab tsog" or "crushing demon."

In Vietnamese culture it is known as "ma dè", meaning "held down by a ghost" or "bóng dè", meaning "held down by a shadow". Many people in this culture believe that a ghost has entered one’s body, causing the paralyzed state."

The Japanese call it kanashibari, meaning bound or fastened in metal.

The Maltese call it attack of the haddiela which are paranormal creatures likened to poltergeists. The Maltese will ward off these haddiela by hiding a knife under their pillow.

In the Kurdish culture dream paralysis is known as mottaka. This ghost appears if the person has done a bed deed of some sort.

The karabasan are creatures that attack the victim and robbed them of their breath, in the Turkish culture.

"se me subió el muerto", are the dead, in Mexican culture, who sit on the chest of the dreamer.

A slightly different version is the "Suk Ninmyo" from New Guinea where the trees attack humans to sap them of their essence while they sleep.

Whatever the origin of old hag syndrome and thus dream paralysis, this experience is truly frightening and the person experiencing old hag syndrome or sleep paralysis truly is unable to move, lying frozen in the bed, while all kinds of creepy things are going on in the room, or so they perceive.

Sleep Paralysis: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment for Dream Paralysis

Prevalence of sleep paralysis

It is estimated that as much as 80 percent of people may experience this horrifying nightmare at least once in their lifetime.

The symptoms of sleep paralysis are:

  • The inability to walk or talk while experiencing night paralysis - This night paralysis can last for quite a few minutes and is very frightening. The sleepers may panic because they are not sure what is happening to them, they cannot move, yet there are all kinds of scary things around them.
  • A feeling of intense pressure on the chest accompanied by the unable to move
  • Hypnagogia -, is a state of being awake, yet asleep.
  • Very vivid hallucinations
  • Loss of muscle tone (catalepsy)

  • Sleep Paralysis Causes

    Factors that may trigger dream paralysis

    • Attempting to create a lucid dream
    • stress
    • some medications
    • sleep deprivation

    Causes for sleep paralysis

  • Narcolepsy sufferers can suffer from sleep paralysis.
  • Dream paralysis is also linked to epilepsy.

  • It is normal to experience paralysis during REM sleep because the body is protecting itself from being seriously harmed by acting out the content of a dream. However, people do not wake up during REM sleep.

    This sleep wake syndrome found in sleep paralysis is believed to be a malfunction of the neurological impulses sent out during the different stages of the sleep cycle. In REM sleep the Pons area of the brain releases chemicals to stop the sleeper from moving; but the chemical has not fully worn off as it should have when the person is about to wake up. That is why the sleeper who is between sleep and being awake cannot move.

    Also lower levels of melatonin seem to be implicated in preventing the body’s motor function to return to normal during the wakeful state. It is at this time that the sleeper can experience the horrifying hallucinations.

    Sleep Paralysis: Causes and Treatment for Dream Paralysis

    We have looked at the medical theory for sleep paralysis and now we will look at some other

    Theories about the causes of dream paralysis.

    Astral travel

    The theory of astral travel as it relates to sleep paralysis purports that when the body travels to another astral plane, the soul, which should go with the body to this other realm, is somehow trapped in the body and it is at this precise point that the worldly and other worthy forces unite and are seen by the dreamer. These forces prevent the soul from traveling to the other astral plane.

    In conjunction with the astral travel theory there is the theory that the mind has already separated from the body, but has not yet entered the astral plane and when sleep paralysis occurs, it is still in the etheric stage (not yet in astral travel).

    Treatment for sleep paralysis

    Doctors often treat night paralysis the same way they would with narcolepsy patients. The brain chemical Hypocretin (hi-po-KREET-in) is believed to be responsible for narcolepsy and so the doctors will prescribe medications and suggest lifestyle changes such as proper amounts of sleep, diet, exercise and cessation of drugs and alcohol.

    All photos taken from the public domain

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    author avatar Kingwell
    8th Sep 2015 (#)

    Have you read my post on the old Hag? I admit it was written quite a while ago . I experienced it many times as a boy and young man but am thankful that it hasn't bothered me recently. Blessings.

    Reply to this comment

    author avatar Carol Roach
    9th Sep 2015 (#)

    no I haven't please send me the link I would like to read it.

    Reply to this comment

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