night terrors and common hallucinations

I saw a program on TV a few years ago about sleep disorders and they mentioned night terrors and some of the sufferers they interviewed described seeing a woman with long, black hair pressing on their chests. I believe the narrator described this as a common hallucination. Is that so? I was just poking around on wikipedia and it said that sufferers rarely recall anything.


Completely anecdotal, but I vividly recall my night terror hallucinations 2.5/3 decades after having them, and none of them involved human beings, or any other finely detailed imagery. They were primarily psychedelic shapes-- basic thngs like spirals, grids, starbursts-- that seem to be universal for “altered states.” For whatever reason, though, my brain chose to interpret them as terrifying things (try explaining thirty years later why a dream of being chased by eggs through a Tron-like grid landscape is scary), rather than grooving out on mandalas and stuff.

Reprinted by popular demand (ok, cause I want to):

The Invisible Scary Skeletons kept me up late last night.

I have had on true “night terror” that I recall. I was about 17 or 18 and found myself sitting bolt upright in bed. There was no dream that I recall and that made it all the worse. I had no idea how long I had been sitting like that, but my feelings were only that of extreme fear. My heart was racing and my eyes were wide open, but not seeing anything. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see, but that I did not recognize any visual input. It has been over 20 years since that experience, but I can still recall the feeling and hope it never happens again.

SSG Schwartz

What you’re describing sounds like sleep paralysis rather than night terrors: a separate sleep disorder. It is fairly common, and often associated with hallucination and an overpowering sense of the presence of something evil. I believe it’s what the word “nightmare” originally described.

The classic depiction is The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli.


In Fuseli’s picture it’s an incubus on the victim’s chest. The equivalent female demon is a succubus. This would be ‘the woman with long black hair’ mentioned in the OP.

My son had night terrors when he was much younger. They were awful. He would start screaming and crying and we would go to him and hold him and rock him and try to comfort him, but we could not wake him up. His eyes would be open but it was clear that he could neither see/recognize/or hear us. His screams of terror would last up to 20 minutes before he would finally either fall back asleep or actually wake up. I am SO glad he outgrew those. I felt so helpless!

Yes, the feeling that an old woman is sat on a sleeper’s chest seems to be very common. Do a Google search for “the old hag” for more anecdotes.

I’ve been meaning to ask why this seems to be so common, here, for some time, but kept forgetting.

A visualisation of the suffocating feeling you can get from sleep paralysis?

Concur with Sleep paralysis (I believe it’s also called Isolated Sleep Paralysis). The general gist is you wake up (usually on your back) and the part of you brain during sleep that makes it so your body (typically) doesn’t knock things all around the room and act out your dreams when you sleep inhibits your movement, a side effect of this hormone also seems to be an uncanny feeling of complete, abject terror. It is oftentimes accompanied by a floating feeling, or pressure on your chest… as well as vivid hallucinations.

Many cases are what you describe, an old woman (often called the Old Hag) sitting on your chest. One common hallucination is the origin of “Nightmare” typically depicted as a sort of “hellhorse” either a horse with flaming hooves and mane, or a dark horse that is presided by an eerie fog or smoke.

It is often thought popular tales of the day inspire what you’ll see, or that these bouts of sleep paralysis fuel the legends, I’m guessing both. On a history channel show I saw, a very religious boy said he felt as if he were visited by demons. Something vaguely humanoid was behind his head “grasping” it with it’s long fingers. While small shadowy imp-like creatures danced around his room. He eventually began being “carried” down the hallway (and he actually saw the hallway), and ended up in his room somehow, in complete terror, but able to move again.

There’s some investigation into alien abduction being a sort of “advanced” sleep paralysis, all the symptoms are there, “floating” out your window, oddly shaped figures, feelings of terror. The “advanced” part comes in that you hallucinate to see a ship around you instead of just your house, but it’s not that hard of a leap (I mean the kid above thought he was moving throughout his house, that’s also a hallucination). You can see how these can perpetuate folk legends. The rumor mill spins out stories about aliens, people have vivid hallucinations involving being abducted, indistinguishable from reality, present these as fact (they don’t know any better), rumor mill picks up… makes more people have experiences, etc.

Apparently a good number of people (I believe 60%, but don’t quote me) experience some form of sleep paralysis once in their life, but whether they remember the experience or not is a different matter entirely. Only a handful of people (such as the boy above) experience it on a semi-regular basis though.

Really? I always thought the Old Hag and the succubus/incubus were different hangups. Namely that the dream demons (succubus/incubus) were more sexually focused (i.e. they would try to kiss you or rape you).

Missed the edit window.

Reading ald’s link, I see about the incubus, and how my derivation of Nightmare as a horse may be incorrect. However I have personally had the horse thing… possibly due to my own misconceptions about the phenomenon… isn’t the mind grand!

I’ve had night hallucinations on and off for 20 years–most of them innocuous, bright lights when the room is dark or odd objects appearing where they shouldn’t–but I’ve had “hags” a couple of times. They are frightening, especially because of that nightmare feeling of an inability to move.

Once, I half-woke to see a man’s arm with thick black hair on the bed before my face (I live alone, and there is normally no one in bed with me except for a cat or two). The sensation that there was someone lying beside me with his arm over me was very strong–I could feel the weight of it. For a moment, I couldn’t move, then jerked to sit up and turn on the light.

The other time, there was a little “imp” jabbing me in the back with something pointy (If you remember the old TV movie “Trilogy of Terror,” think of that little Zuni fetish doll that was chasing Karen Black around); again, I wasn’t able to move away. Actually, there was a languid feeling about it at the time, and it wasn’t scary until I was more fully awake.

When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse… on a few occasions… of an evil giraffe (head and neck) penetrating into my bedroom from the window! Scary!

It’s 4:59 in the morning here in Seoul and this was seriously the last thread I was going to look at before going to sleep. Now I can’t even turn the lights off–I’m serious, the image of a faceless woman with long black hair pressing on my chest has scared the shit out of me. And I keep thinking something is watching me.

Based on that link I had sleep terrors after a bad medical incident in 05. I had them for months. After about 16 months or so, they slowed down and now I can’t recall the last one I had. I had no hallucinations with them.

I have what I call “death” dreams, although there’s really no dreaming to them… I wake up believing (without ever remembering what’s proceeded this feeling) I’m >thisclose< to dying and I have to do something to prevent it from happening. That usually means praying for salvation like my ass is on fire (I of the formerly religious fundamentalist childhood) until I ‘understand’ I’ve been pardoned, thus being allowed to remain alive.

Needless to say, these are lots of fun. :frowning:

I used to have them almost all the time, but the more I reconcile my ideology on the hereafter, the less they show up. Fortunately, even if they still do, I have infinitely better control over them than before. Now if I can realize what I’m doing immediately, I can just tell myself it’s some sleep state and not reality, thereby curtailing it from spiraling. Then I can look at it objectively and see the facts; hey, I’m still breathing! :smiley:

Still a bitch though, especially when I can’t get fully awake and realize it’s just the Same Old, Same Old attempting to run amok.

There’s loads of possible objects that could cause a suffocating feeling, yet an old woman sat on the victim’s chest seems to be exceedingly common.

I have had night terrors regularly from when I was a small child up till just a couple of weeks ago, though that one was the first in about eight years.

The ones I can remember usually involved an absolutely enormous spider - seriously two feet across. It usually wasn’t being threatening, just THERE. It was often on my curtain and a couple of times on my pillow next to my head. I’d wake up, and there it would be - absolutely real. I’d have to leap out of bed and run to get away from it.

The worst time was when I’d just had my first baby - I had a series of them and they got increasingly more dangerous. The first time I was in bed with him in a 4th floor apartment. I woke up and saw the spider in a web across the open door, so I grabbed the baby and jumped out of the window (there was a narrow balcony that ran the length of our apartment). My mother was staying with us at the time, and she realised what I was doing, so she opened the balcony doors in the living room, stepped out and guided me back in. No harm done but all of us were shaking.

A few weeks later when my Mum had gone home, I woke in the night knowing that some awful nameless danger was RIGHT HERE and I had to save the baby and get away. I woke up screaming and my husband woke up too, realised that I was going to grab the baby, so he grabbed me to stop me. I was yelling, “We’ve got to go!” at the top of my voice and he was trying to tell me that it was all OK. When I realised that he wasn’t going to avoid the danger with me, I decided that he’d have to be left to die but I couldn’t leave the baby. Hub still had my arms pinned, so I wriggled free and hit him as hard as I could. I decked him and grabbed the baby, who also began to scream, and at that point I woke up, all three of us yelling and crying. It took a looooooong time for my husband to forgive me for that one, even though he knows I can’t help it.

One night long before we had kids, it was hot, so we were sleeping with the windows open, again in an apartment. I had a night terror, can’t remember what that one was, and screamed my head off. Husband managed to wake me and shush me, and we lay there as we saw lights flick on all over the neighbouring apartments. Gradually they all went off again, but about ten minues later we saw a police car come into the apartments, lights flashing but no siren. It sat there for a few minutes, then circled round a few times and left. Oh the shame…

I have never dreamed that a woman came to me though. But my son who had them as a child would tell me that “The brown men” came to his room and he didn’t like them. This was never overtly connected to his night terrors though - he would just walk through the apartment screaming and screaming for half an hour at a time. Nothing we did could help and touching him made it worse, so all we could do was follow him around to make sure he didn’t hurt himself, as he wept and screamed. It was absolutely heartbreaking but he never remembered them in the morning.

That etymology skips a few steps. The “mare” suffix means a succubus and exist by itself or in compositions in lots of languages. The roots of it in that sense might have to do with crushing.

In Norwegian a nightmare is “mareritt” - “mare’s ride” i.e. being ridden by a “mare”. In Swedish it’s “mardröm” - “mare dream”. An unlike English the words are sufficiently different in pronounciation and spelling from “female horse” to avoid the confusion.
In modern Norwegian the word “mare” has pretty much lost it’s meaning as “female supernatural creature riding sleepers” and is used in the sense of any serious problem burdening you down. “His economic problems were riding him like a mare”.