David J. Lovato
The old hag goes by many names. In the Philippines it’s called the Batibat, in Laos it’s known as a dab tsuam, and in Old English they call it a maere, which is where we get the word “nightmare.” But in all of these places, and under all these names, the story is the same.
You wake up suddenly, and you can’t move. Well, sometimes you can move your eyes, but that’s it. You’re paralyzed. You can’t even scream.
Sometimes she’ll be at the foot of your bed. Sometimes she’ll be watching you from the corner of the room. Sometimes there will be more than one, all standing around your bed, staring down at you. But usually, she’ll be right on top of you, crouched or sitting or even standing right on your chest.
Modern science calls it sleep paralysis, or SP. In early America they called it being “hagridden.”
The hag isn’t always involved, but SP is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations, like a lucid dream, or more like a lucid nightmare. If it happens with your eyes open, whatever you’re staring at will often become part of these visions. That’s how it was for me; I would just be lying in bed, unable to move even my eyes, powerless to make a sound. Sometimes I would see strange lights, and always I would feel a presence, something in the room just outside my field of vision, something that wanted me dead.
These are two types of SP: vivid hallucination SP, and evil presence SP. There’s a third type though, and I haven’t experienced that one before. I hope I never do, but my hope these days is running a little thin.
The topic came up one time, a few months ago, at my friend Steve’s house. I don’t remember how we got to talking about SP, but that’s how it is with good friends; one topic just leads to another. He told me he had it often, almost every month, in fact. And his was almost always the third type: suffocation SP.
It’s like the other kinds I brought up, only in addition to being unable to move, you can’t breathe. According to legend, it’s because of the hag sitting on your chest. Sometimes she collapses your lungs, sometimes she chokes you with her hands, and some will swear she just looks into your eyes and steals your breath.
Steve started having SP when he was young. At first it was mild, just an inability to move. As he got older he would sense something in the room with him, something small and far away. Month after month, year after year, it got closer, he said.
Then one night he saw it. He said he was propped up with his back against his headboard, because he had fallen asleep while reading. His book was on his chest, and it felt like it weighed a solid ton. He couldn’t move as he stared at the foot of his bed, illuminated only slightly by moonlight coming in through the window. He felt that evil presence, for once coming from right ahead of him.
Then the darkness changed, like something even darker was moving into his line of sight. A small, round shadow started to rise from just past the bed, and when it stopped, to him it looked like a short, cloaked woman, barely taller than his bed.
The book on his chest pressed harder and harder into him, and he could barely breathe. Then he was suddenly awake. That’s how it usually happens, you just snap out of it. There was nothing in his room, he could breathe fine, and the place even seemed a little less dark.
He told me she showed up again a few weeks later, but this time she was on the bed. She was small, like a child, and her cloak covered her face, all but a knobby chin. She just sat there, a few inches shy of his feet, while he struggled to move, struggled to breathe, struggled to at least peel his eyes from her.
The next time he saw her, he had again fallen asleep while reading. The book was touching his neck this time, and the hag was on top of his stomach. She weighed more than someone that size possibly could have, and the book felt like it was cutting into his skin. She reached forward and took the book, which was an immense weight off of him, and then she started to tear out the page he was on.
This time, when he woke up, it was daytime. He was alone again, sitting up as he had been, and his book was on the floor next to his bed. He reached down to pick it up, and when he did, a single torn page fell out of it and fluttered to the ground.
Needless to say, he stopped reading in bed. I told him he was being silly, but he also spent pretty much all of his savings on a camera, one with a motion sensor. He kept this plugged in all night and wore it around his neck like a necklace. A few times he caught pictures, but it was always just from him stirring in his sleep.
I woke up one morning to a phone call. It was Steve’s mother, and she was in tears. She asked if I could come over, that’s all I could make out of what she was saying, so I told her I’d be right there.
Steve had died in his sleep. It’s called SUNDS, or “sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome.” It’s very rare, mostly affects young males, and is in essence a medical term for an otherwise healthy person dying in their sleep for no reason.
Obviously I was grief-stricken, and Steve’s mother was as well. She looked like she wanted to say something to me, but things kept coming up, people kept calling and asking questions. Soon that look she had slipped from my mind, but now I can’t forget it.
A few days later I had another SP episode. It was the kind I normally have, the evil presence SP, but this one was different. It was more vivid, more real, and that feeling that something was just out of my line of sight was stronger than ever. The closest thing I can relate it to is when you blow a bubble and it gets so big that there’s one moment you just know it’s about to pop. And then it does.
At Steve’s wake his mother pulled me aside. She told me he had been sleeping with a camera around his neck. This was nothing new to me, but then she told me it had taken a picture, and according to the coroner, it must have been taken right before he died. The police had searched thoroughly, there was no doubt at all that he had died of SUNDS, with no sign of foul play, so they passed the picture off as nothing. A camera anomaly. Steve’s mother showed me the picture, and asked if I had any idea what it was.
I told her I didn’t. I don’t really feel like it was a lie, because I don’t know what it was. But I do know what it looked like: A gnarly old woman, shrouded in darkness, with a knobby chin, an ecstatic grin, and bulging, staring eyes. The kind of eyes that could stop your breath.
I have a lot on my mind, and I still haven’t put Steve’s death behind me. But I just can’t shake this feeling that I’m never really alone anymore.
I tried sleeping with the light on, but I soon realized that only makes it easier to see, so it makes me feel more vulnerable. I tried bringing my dog to bed with me, and even though she used to sleep at the foot of my bed every night, she won’t stay anymore. If I shut the door, she just sits at it, scratching and barking until I let her out.
It’s so hard for me to sleep. I know any night now that bubble is going to break, and I’ll see the top of a hood start to peek up from the foot of my bed. I don’t know what I’ll do then. What can I do? There’s no such thing as monsters, everybody knows that. And yet I wonder how something that doesn’t exist can be described by different cultures in different places at different times, always the same story, just with a different name.
Maybe that’s what bothers me so much: It all comes down to a different name, which makes it so easy to write it off. To me it was murder, but they called it SUNDS. They call it sleep paralysis, but I’m being hagridden. And when they find me dead in my sleep the same way they found Steve, they’ll call it a coincidence.
I don’t feel like going alone into the dark. I’ve decided that when she comes for me, I won’t look away. When she stares at me, I’ll stare back. Maybe if I see her coming, she can’t hurt me. Maybe if we all see her coming, she’ll go away forever.