A nightmare is an ugly Demon or Hag, who sits on a person’s chest during the night, causing great discomfort, a sensation of heaviness and suffocation and bad dreams. It also is the term for the bad dream itself—the definition that prevails in current popular usage.
In centuries past, Demons were believed to bring erotic dreams as well as terrifying ones, tempting their victims with forbidden lust. Mare is Old English for Incubus, a male Demon. The erotic dreams also could be caused by succubi, female Demons. In the 16th century, the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus even claimed that menstruation brought on nightmares. more likely, erotic nightmares were a result of repressed sexual desires.
The belief in nightmares as real Demons is ancient. The storm god Alu brought nightmares to the Babylonians, while Greeks suffered the onslaughts of the giant, Ephialtes. The Zohar, or “Book of Splendor” in the Kabbalah, asserts that succubi did indeed cause nightmares in men. In medieval times, nightmares were sometimes thought to be caused by spells cast by witches or by possession. People protected themselves against the dreaded Demons by reciting charms and prayers and making the sign of the cross before they went to sleep.
Modern research has found the “Old Hag” syndrome to be commonplace around the world; in the United States, it afflicts about 15 per cent of the population. The syndrome is characterized by a person awakening to find himself paralyzed and in the presence of a nonhuman entity, sometimes humanoid in shape and with prominent eyes, which often sits on his chest and causes feelings of suffocation. The experience sometimes is accompanied by musty smells and shuffling sounds. Occultists still attribute such attacks to evil spirits.
One scientific theory put forward suggests that the Old Hag syndrome might be a side effect of a poorly understood sleep-pattern derangement, such as narcolepsy.
- Hufford, David J. The Terror That Comes in the Night. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.