Night Terrors

David J. Hufford. The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centred Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. -- From Magonia 14, 1983, reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

This important book is the first major full-length study of ‘bedroom-invaders’, or rather a variety of them known as the ‘old hag’. This is characterised by an experience in either a hypnogogic or hypnopompic state, of a terrifying sense of presence in the room, accompanied often by the appearance of an hallucinatory figure, a feeling of great terror, and a paralysis and choking sensation. The hallucinatory experiences seem to take place in a waking state, and occasionally other people present will see the victim lying rigid, staring in panic into empty space.

The case of ‘Miss Z’ reported in MUFOB New Series 4 is a classic example of ‘the hag’. Many features in that account are described in this book: the monstrous figure, the absolute conviction of being awake, a subjective feeling of communication, and the curious distortion of perspective which made Miss Z think the figures were retreating down a long corridor.

A feature which crops up in Hufford’s cases is the sound of footsteps, often in circumstances where no real footsteps would have been heard. The only feature from similar cases in INTCAT which is missing from Hufford’s analysis is the curious buzzing sound which seems almost impossible to describe, although this is touched on in an Eskimo case only briefly touched upon.

Hufford describes how two groups of specialists, psychologists and folklorists have blurred-over the specific nature of this experience, which was the original ‘night-mare’, and have gradually assimilated it into a confused hodge-podge of night terrors, bad dreams, etc. In a sense the ‘old hag’ has been exorcised. Folklorist (and ‘rationalists’ in general) have resorted to similar ‘exorcisms’ when confronted by themes such as the ‘old hag’ syndrome in Newfoundland folklore. They have argued a ‘cultural source hypothesis’, which goes roughly:
  1. It’s all tradition, no one actually claims these experiences
  2. It’s all misinterpretation due to the effect of culturally stimulated imagination
  3. It’s all lies, claiming traditional accounts for oneself
  4. Some people are victims of hoaxes by people using the tradition
  5. People might have had such experiences, but the have been involved in Altered State of Consciousness inducing procedures
  6. They are mad!
Clearly, the idea that normal people might have abnormal or paranormal experiences is taboo. Because folk explanations are often unacceptable, the experience is often thrown out with the explanation.

Often an omnibus ‘primitive peasant’ type of solution is proposed – the people making the reports are a bunch of savages who can’t tell the difference between being asleep and being awake – and used to dismiss them. Hufford finds that this hypothesis won’t hold. Though interpretation of the experience varies from one culture – and even one individual – to another, and it is probable that the prevailing cultural climate affects the superficial content of the reports, the core experience is often remarkably consistent across time and culture; as too are apparitions, near death and out-of-body experiences.

Hufford tentatively suggests a physiological basis for ‘the hag’, based on a combination of sleep paralysis, hypnopompic/hypnogogic hallucinations, and the intrusion of Rapid Eye Movement states into waking. There are some problems with this: for example ‘the hag’ can lead to OOBEs, which are not associated with REM. Perhaps in his effort to define the phenomenon closely he is in danger of overlooking the possibility of it being part of a class or continuum of experience. For example, it appears to be closely related to Green and McCreery’s ‘Type 2' false awakenings, although these seem to have a more dream-like tone.

Whatever the physiological basis for the experience, this hardly explains the content, and no such explanation appears on the horizon. Nor does he hesitate to discuss ‘the hag’ in terms of ghosts and haunted houses, a few examples of which are given, or to bring in UFOs (he’s read Keel and Vallée) and OOBEs (he warns against stimulating these, in perhaps over-dire tones). This truly open minded treatment is a great pleasure, and a most welcome change from axe-grinders: The implications for ufology go far beyond the similarities in some features of the experience. Highly recommended.

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