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Encounters with the Unknown—Alternate Perceptions Magazine, January 2022

The Old Hag, the Hmong people, and an MIBish Black Sorcerer?

by: Brent Raynes

On December 1st Martin Powell, a professional author of Alabama, notified me, “It had been several months, but I had another bout of Sleep Paralysis last night (at least, I suppose that's what it is). Also, for the second time in my life, I experienced the ‘Old Hag’ again. Utterly terrifying while it's happening, but fascinating after I've had some time to reflect on it.

“When I'd snapped out of it, around 4 a.m., I was shaking with a splitting headache, and couldn't go back to sleep. One of our dogs, Lucy, was also sitting up wide awake at a time when she's almost always peacefully snoring away. She was acting spooked and she didn't go back to sleep either.

“I've had the symptoms of Sleep Paralysis since I was a kid, but the Old Hag entity is a recent newcomer. My wife and I have a friend who's also had Old Hag encounters. She told us about it after I described my first experience. In her case, she's also paralyzed, but she only hears long fingernails scrapping on the bedroom door, while a raspy voice whispers awful things about her.”

A short time later I asked Martin how he had observed the Old Hag entity himself. “I’m afraid I can’t really say for sure,” he replied. “I heard and felt her more than saw her. For the most part during my sleep paralysis (or whatever this is) all I could see was something low and hunched over moving around our bedroom.”

“She whispered raspy words I couldn’t understand, though they seemed to be aimed directly toward me, with a sort of crackling, smoker’s cough laugh. Most of the time she appeared to be crawling on the floor around the bed. I could hear something that sounded like someone crawling on their hands and knees on the carpet. She touched me briefly, with a long, withered hand and arm that arose from below my line of sight, patting my chest a few times, sort of like ‘good dog…good boy…’ My ribs and sternum ached for days afterward.

“As Leia [Martin’s wife] had mentioned, she had nightmares that night which seemed unconnected to my experience – but who knows? When I could move again, around 4 a.m., I sat up in bed for several minutes listening to something that sounded sort of like a sizeable cat scampering up and down our carpeted hallway. Our dog Lucy sleeps at the foot of the bed, and she usually sleeps the night through, but she was also sitting up very nervously. Booker prefers to sleep in his crate with the door closed. It makes him feel safe. Around that same time he let out an eerie howl in his sleep, something he hadn’t done before or since. It was a weird, rough night for all of us.”

Intrigued by Martin’s recent brush with the Old Hag archetype, I responded with the following: “In John Michael Greer's Monsters: An Investigator's Guide to Magical Beings (2001) he described how a tribal people from the hill country of Laos, in Vietnam, known as the Hmong, were emigrated by the thousands to the U.S. Beginning in 1977, he wrote how dozens of nearly always males, typically in good health, began to die silently in their sleep without any identifiable cause. Doctors were baffled and were forced to label the deaths simply as SUNDS (Sudden Unexplained Noctural Death Syndrome). Researchers trying to get to a cause found that a high percent of the immigrants at night experienced panic or extreme fear, partial or complete paralysis, a sense of pressure on the chest, a feeling that an alien being (animal, spirit, or human) was in the room. A number of the researchers noted the similarity of their symptoms to the Old Hag experience. In their homeland of Vietnam this was caused by a spirit attacker named dab tsog (pronounced da cho) who sits on top of sleepers and suffocates them. With the Hmong removal from their homeland, their traditional rituals and sacrifices to their religion were disrupted. Greer wrote: "Surveys have shown that an extraordinary 50 to 60 percent of the Hmong population in America have undergone at least one Old Hag experience of the classic variety - a rate of two to three times that of the general population. Of those Hmong who have converted to Christianity and thus abandoned most or all of their native spiritual traditions, the rate is even higher: some 72 percent, according to one study, which would give Christian Hmong the highest rate of Old Hag experiences of any known population anywhere.

“Hmong interviewed by folklore researchers have explained that the sudden deaths were unheard of in Laos, where ritual counter-measures could be readily put to work. Only in the refuge camps and in America did the traditional protections break down and allow the dab to kill.

“Within a few years of the exodus to America, many Hmong left the urban communities where they first resettled and moved to more rural areas, where traditional clans and extended families could be reunited and religious practices renewed. In response, SUNDS deaths-which had climbed steeply from 1977 to 1981 - have decreased steadily ever since.”

Next Martin replied back with me with a very fascinating story shared previously with him by a Hmong person. He wrote, “Brent, I lived in the Twin Cities for 15 years (during my paleo days) and I got to know several folks from the large Hmong community there. One of my Hmong friends, who also worked at the museum with me, was noticeably upset one morning as her grandfather had died unexpectedly. What had disturbed her the most, though, was something that had happened at his wake. A ‘black old fashioned limousine’ (her description) had parked at the residence of the wake and a tall, skeletal Asian man clad in black emerged from the back seat of the car and proceeded to enter the house. The people gathered there gave him a wide berth and shielded their eyes from him. He approached her grandfather's coffin, gently stroking it and whispering something in an odd language no one recognized. After a few minutes, the stranger seemed satisfied, spoke to no one, smiled eerily at my friend, and abruptly left. Later, her older relatives described their weird visitor as a ‘black sorcerer’ who ‘gathered souls’. Half of his face and body, she said, appeared like an out of focus photo. This aspect, she was told, was because the sorcerer existed half on Earth and also in the Spirit World.”

What causes the Old Hag experience in so many people? Is it all simply a psychological, neurological process that overlaps into Jung’s collective unconscious? Or is it something more?

One thing is for sure, it’s not a new thing, and it’s long been associated with the supernatural. “In centuries past, sleep paralysis was blamed on Incubi and Succubi, hairy demons who sexually assaulted victims; Piskies, Cornish faeries; the Hilla, “a great hairy thing which lay on [victims] with a dead weight that almost stopped their breathing’; the Irish Tromlui, a giant spectral bird leg; demons, vampires, and spirits; and, of course, witches,” Joshua Cutchin wrote [Chapter 6 of Where the Footprints End, Vol. 1, 2020]. “In fact, Old Hag Syndrome, a folk name for sleep paralysis, derives its name from the witchy apparitions sometimes described by experiencers.”

In an article entitled The Old Hag Syndrome: A Night Terror, by Rob Schwarz, the author raises a question that nags at the heart of this phenomenon with me and others: ‘’The sense of evil, or the noises, that accompany the “Old Hag” could be nothing more than hallucinations occurring in that state of half-dreaming.

‘’But then, how do you explain the people who have reported similar experiences without the paralysis? The commonality of every reporting? And why, of all the possible hallucinations we could experience, do we sense evil?

‘’Scientists and paranormal enthusiasts may be at odds about what causes the Old Hag Syndrome, but one simple truth may be enough to keep you up at night: ‘’Whatever the cause, it does exist.’’

Michael Grosso, Ph.D., who himself has experienced the Old Hag a number of times, writes he can also “testify to its uncanniness.” He also wonders about it too, pointing out how noted medical folklorist David Hufford has shown how “the psychic basics of hagging turn up in hauntings, witchcraft, and reports of demonic and other supernatural encounters.”

Grosso concluded his thoughts on the subject with: “Poltergeists and hagging would seem to reflect the rowdy side of the Otherworld.” (1)

Reference: 1. Experiencing the Next World Now, by Michael Grosso, Ph.D. (2004)

Wednesday, May 29, 2024