Sleep Paralysis: Evil Spirits & the Terrifying Night Hag

sleep-paralysis-night-hag (Image: Fritz Schwimbeck; depiction of an evil succubus)

Anyone who has ever experienced sleep paralysis will testify that it can be a terrifying ordeal. For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, it occurs as a person awakens, or less commonly while falling asleep. Even though they’re conscious, they’re unable to move, and the condition may be accompanied by the frightening sensation of having something – or someone – sitting on their chest, pinning them down.

sleep-paralysis-night-hag-2 (Image: Gerard Van der Leun)

Today, science can pretty much explain how sleep paralysis occurs. It happens when your brain and your body are out of sync; when you’re sleeping, complete muscle atonia may be induced to keep you from thrashing about or acting out your dreams – for the most part.

When your brain wakes up before your body fully shakes off the effects of sleep, the result may be a brief spell of paralysis, and an inability to talk or move. Sometimes, it’s accompanied by the vestiges of dreamland, or feelings of helplessness, a sensation of impending doom, or terrifying hallucinations and the haunting feeling that there’s something lurking in the shadows.

sleep-paralysis-demon-jinn-evil-spirit (Image: Henry Fuseli; ‘The Nightmare’)

Considering the symptoms, it’s not surprising that a plethora of blood-chilling stories have arisen to explain what transpires as the waking body encounters sleep paralysis. In many cultures, the sensation is attributed to a sinister hag-like entity, which torments its victims as they lie powerless on the cusp of wakefulness. From a folkloric perspective, the evil spirit is responsible for pinning them down, which explains the feelings of paralysis and the eerie sensation that one is being watched.

So prevalent is the horrifying supernatural night hag across the world that a number of names have been attached to it over the centuries. In Turkey, sleep paralysis is known as karabasan and was thought to be the work of a malevolent creature known as a cin, or a jinn in wider Islamic mythology. The evil spirit’s motive is said to be the slow strangling of its victim, who can only break free through prayer or – rather weirdly – removing the creature’s hat.

sleep-paralysis-demon-jinn-evil-spirit-2 (Image: cea +)

In Fiji, on the other hand, the feeling is called kana tevoro and is often attributed to the spirit of a dead relative that has returned to take care of some unfinished business. Many cultures incorporate similar stories of cursed supernatural entities haunting people at night, with a series of fascinating – and terrifying – variations of the myth.

In Pakistan, sleep paralysis is believed to reflect an encounter with a Shaitan – a jinn or devil sent to terrorize its victim, conjured by black magic and only banished by way of an exorcism or a consecration of the home by Imams. The Nepali Khyaak, meanwhile, lives under the stairs of houses; and in Tibet, the word for sleep paralysis – dip non or dip-phok – refers to a spiritual pollution.

sleep-paralysis-the-nightmare (Image: yves Tennevin; Eugène Thivier’s ‘Le Cauchemar’)

The term which might be most familiar today, however, is an Icelandic one derived from Old Norse. There, the always-female spirit was called a Mara, which formed the root of the word ‘nightmare‘, and was widely used throughout Northern Europe to refer to an evil succubus (that brought bad dreams to those it attacked) before acquiring its more modern meaning.

Related – Melonheads: Unearthly Cryptids that Stalk the Midwestern Woods



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