#FolkloreThursday: Demons in the Night

The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli (1781)

This week’s theme is World’s Scariest Monsters, which leaves a lot to play with but the thing that has always scared me the most is my sleep paralysis, and the demons that come with it, including the Night Hag.

The first time I saw The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli, was when I was in high school and watching the movie Gothic. In short, the movie is about the infamous trip that the Shelley’s took to Lord Byron’s villa in 1816. The movie, and the poster, played on the motif of the painting and absolutely terrified me but I loved it.

Gothic, 1986

It wasn’t until I was older, and had experienced sleep paralysis several times, that I understood the painting and made the connection. So what the hell is the Night Hag?

To understand the Night Hag, you have to understand the mechanics of sleep paralysis. The short version is that the sleeper–either just as they’re waking or right as they’re falling asleep–finds themselves unable to move. It feels as if something is sitting on their chest, keeping them immobilized. They can’t speak or cry out in any way and so they’re essentially trapped in their bodies. Hallucinations are common in this state, which only serves to amp up the fear that the sleeper is already experiencing.

Forgotten Realms

Before we understood the nature of sleep, and how our brain and body interact while we’re sleeping, it was believed that this paralysis was caused by a literal demon, or night hag, sitting on the sleeper’s chest. These night hags, or night mares, would ride the sleeper, leaving them terrified and exhausted come morning. The demons involved in this are often thought to be incubi or succubi but if we move outside of Judeo-Christian lore, we find that these kinds of creatures are everywhere, in every culture. Sleep paralysis is universal, and was often believed to be caused by a malevolent spirit.

Interestingly, psychologists have recently suggested that some of the accusations at the Salem Witch Trials may have been caused by sleep paralysis:

… I going well to bed, about the dead of the night felt a great weight upon my breast, and awakening, looked, and it being bright moonlight, did clearly see Bridget Bishop, or her likeness, sitting upon my stomach. And putting my arms off of the bed to free myself from that great oppression, she presently laid hold of my throat and almost choked me. And I had no strength or power in my hands to resist or help myself. And in this condition she held me to almost day.
—John Londer, June 1692 (as cited in Boyer & Nissenbaum, 1993)

Sharpless, Brian A., and Karl Doghramji. “The History of Sleep Paralysis in Folklore and Myth.” Sleep Paralysis: Historical, Psychological, and Medical Perspectives, Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2015, pp. 17–44.
“Execution of Bridget Bishop at Salem, 1692,” illustration by Joseph Boggs Beale, circa 1885

Now, I started experiencing sleep paralysis in my early 20s, and I remember every single episode. I usually have them once a year and there never seems to be anything in particular that brings on an episode. They just sort of… happen. I find myself floating towards wakefulness but I can’t move my arms–which is doubly worse for me because of my claustrophobia–and so I try to scream or utter any kind of sound but my lips won’t open. I’ve been told by partners who saw this happening that I make a really weird, keening sound over and over again.

The worst part, though, are the hallucinations, because I get them and they suck, y’all. The worst one happened about 10 years ago. I woke up, or thought I did, to find that my bedroom was on fire and there was what I can only describe as a demonic horse standing at the foot of my bed.

Like, a literal NIGHT MARE in my bedroom, staring at me as the curtains went up in flames. it was the most terrifying episode I have ever experienced.

Sleep paralysis has been depicted in different movies and television shows over the years but the best one that I have ever seen, the one that feels exactly like what I’ve experienced, is Nellie’s sleep paralysis in The Haunting of Hill House, from 2018. For someone who has never gone through it, those scenes may feel overly-dramatic but I can assure you, they’re most definitely not. That is really how it feels.

It’s not hard to understand why people could believe that they were being haunted by a night hag when they experienced sleep paralysis. It’s utterly terrifying and it’s a situation where your brain is in over-drive, panicking and possibly hallucinating, which means that you are at the mercy of your own mind and who else knows what scares you the most more than yourself? You literally create your own scariest monster, a monster that you can’t escape, and no one can save you but yourself.

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