What Are Night Hags?

(Last Updated On: October 27, 2020)
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

If you have never experienced a night hag before, count yourself in the lucky majority. About 5% of healthy people have suffered an episode of sleep paralysis before, episodes that often bring with them the titular night hag. Those stats can shoot up to 40% depending on your overall sleep/mental health, with a smattering of genetic luck of the draw. But it’s a quite common worldwide phenomenon–demons visiting us in our sleep or while we’re awake and unable to move. You’ve probably seen Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) and wondered what that was all about–or you relate to it. Let’s take a step back though–what are night hags?

Spooky Scary Stories

Obviously the night hag phenomenon predates contemporary psychology. So we definitely had a lot of other approaches to tackling the night hag nuisance. 

We’ll allude to a lot of sleep paralysis symptoms for now, mostly because those symptoms are basically the folklore surrounding the night hag. Chief example of this, the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names for sleep paralysis. If we were to take the Chinese “鬼壓身/鬼压身” from the olden days, we get “ghost pressing on body” in English. Japanese loose gives us “bound in metal” (which is quite metal if we do say so ourselves) and Korean gives us probably the most apt translation; “being pressed down by something scary in a dream.” Obviously these aren’t the only three languages you can observe this with. Many historical translations for sleep paralysis and accompanying demons have to do with pressure or pressing. 

There’s a reason for this, and it does have to do with sleep paralysis–and Fuseli’s The Nightmare. You know, the one where the night hag is sitting on a sleeping persons’ chest. The Greeks believed this would cause you to asphyxiate. Icelandic folklore gives us the word “Mare” or “Mara” — the believed causes for these nightly visitors. In their case, they were believed to cause nightmares (that’s where English gets the word!). The Mare is closely aligned with what most would just call a succubus/incubus

The Swahili language describes demons that strangle people in their sleep, and the Egyptians believed night hags to be an old queen trying to capture souls. 

Point is, a lot of societies throughout history have some kind of demonic figure that strangles you in your sleep and maybe sits on your chest–giving you nightmares.

Sleep Paralysis

It’s agreed upon that night hags are a byproduct of sleep paralysis. Which, in short, is when your brain wakes up but your body doesn’t. Your body paralyzes itself when it’s sleeping–especially in the deep rapid eye movement (REM) phases of sleep when your brain is most active. That’s why sleepwalking or acting out one’s dreams is fairly uncommon. 

Night hags don’t always accompany sleep paralysis–though your mileage may vary. Even without actually seeing something (sometimes you hallucinate), many report feeling a presence in the room with them. Most of the time it’s a malevolent one too. There’s also something to be said about the general feeling of terror reported from sleep paralysis independent of evil demons–you know, because you want to move but your body can’t.

It also probably doesn’t help that sleep paralysis typically occurs when you’re either about to fall asleep or in the process of waking up. Other symptoms of sleep paralysis include the sensation of pressure on your chest. That’s where you get the demons that asphyxiate and sit on chests. 

The average person doesn’t really have to worry about sleep paralysis–as less than 10% of people have experienced an episode. But sleep paralysis is a lot more common for those who already have sleeping issues, like those nasty cramps and sleep apnea. People who suffer from insomnia or have wack sleep schedules also are more likely to have such episodes. Anxiety is also pretty up there in comorbidities–which kind of sucks because you’re definitely going to start getting anxious about a sleep demon visiting you. 

Luckily, you can kind of combat the sleep demons. Mostly with healthy sleep habits! Sleeping and waking at regular times, not drinking alcohol or caffeine shortly before bed, the works. 

Maybe numbers are a bigger nightmare for you than demons. We still have you covered for that here.



About Kyler 728 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.