The Terror That Comes in the Night

David J. Hufford

Although this was published well over twenty years ago, when placed within my own little world’s timeline, The Terror That Comes in the Night was a long time coming—and well worth the wait.

The bulk of the book is a collection of fascinating first-hand accounts of a particular kind of sleep-related experience that seems to form a "complex and stable pattern" across many cultures. Hufford’s first encounter with a tradition that actually incorporated this experience was during his time at the Folklore Department of Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada. The inhabitants of this island referred to it as "the Old Hag", and generally connected it with witchcraft attacks. However, he soon discovered that islanders who had never heard of the Old Hag had experienced exactly this phenomenon. Casting his net wider, he found reports of it from all over North America, in statistically significant numbers. It seemed that even in cultural settings where a language for the experience is unavailable, and where people had refrained from talking about it for fear of being seen as crazy, the same core features are discernible.

He ends up whittling the experience’s "primary features" down to four core components:

  1. The subjective impression of wakefulness (to be distinguished from "false awakenings"—after properly waking, such experiences are easily seen in retrospect to be dreams, whereas generally Old Hag-type experiences are seen to be waking experiences even with hindsight)
  2. Immobility (whether felt as paralysis, restraint, or fear of moving)
  3. Realistic perception of actual environment (i.e. you really seem to awake be in the place where you’re sleeping)
  4. Fear (often intense beyond any other experience)

I suspect many reading this will nod in recognition—"Yep, been there." In fact, in the various surveys that Hufford conducted in the 1970’s, he found that on average 15% or more of any given population will probably have experienced this very specific, highly bizarre phenomenon. There are many "secondary features" that occur with greater or lesser frequency, but which, again, you may well finding yourself recognising clearly: the sensation or perception of a presence close to you; the sounds of footsteps; an intense crushing pressure on the chest, perhaps combined with breathing difficulties; tingling sensations in the body.

As fascinating as all this empirical data is, the unique aspect of Hufford’s study is the way his conceptual frame for the data manages to remain subservient to the data itself. He does an admirable job of summarising the tangles of research into this and related phenomena through the past hundred years or so, and its relationship to folk traditions stretching back to medieval witch trials. In the process, he shows how the very strangeness of the phenomenon has acted as a kind of disorientating, corrosive agent, not just on the people experiencing its existential terror first-hand, but most significantly on the ostensibly scientific investigators who have concerned themselves with it.

I’ve taken it for granted for a while now that the modern Western "scientific method" is very far from a guarantee of objective assessment; that very often, its apparent neutrality acts as a subtle cloak for personal biases. Or, more accurately, the neutrality of the method is frequently quite myopic when it comes to wider, cultural biases—the overvaluation of the "objective" over the "subjective" being the key blindspot.

Hufford highlights how the investigators of dreams, nightmares and sleep-related phenomena seem to have jumped rapidly from a few reports of this experience to a catch-all theory to explain it away—neglecting much information that confounds these theories. Despite some associations with narcoleptic disorders, it seems, despite the extremity of this hallucinatory oddity, there is no significant correlation to pathology of any kind. It happens to all kinds of folk. And of course Hufford barely breaks a sweat in dismantling the more sweeping assessments of Ernest Jones, the leading Freudian investigator of nightmares. (It seems, in fact, that the original meaning of the word "nightmare" comes very close to describing precisely this phenomenon. The word has become too diluted, though, to salvage for this experience, and Hufford ends up going with "the Old Hag"—itself quite unsatisfactory, I think—to distinguish it from general "bad dreams", as well as the more sexual incubus/succubus experience and other, superficially similar phenomena.) Crucially, Hufford dispenses with the almost universal tendency in western academia to fall back on the "Cultural Source hypothesis", which states that such bizarre experiences are fundamentally influenced by fanciful cultural traditions. Not necessarily so, says Hufford. This happens to people who have never heard of it, all over the place.

Two particular examples scientific hubris are especially illuminating. A section of Ernest Jones’s book, On the Nightmare, is entitled ‘The Connections between the Nightmare and Certain Medieval Superstitions’. Hufford notes:

Jones’s use of the term "medieval" was loose at best. Much of his concern is with the witch hunts that occurred during the Renaissance and into the seventeenth century, and he does show some awareness that the beliefs he is considering existed long before medieval times and still persist. We are left to suspect that the word "medieval," like the word "superstition," was intended primarily to indicate his distaste for the beliefs.

p. 129

More important, and tying in with the book’s central concern with the proper place of empiricism in science, is an article on ‘Eskimo Sleep Paralysis’ that Hufford draws on for an example of an Old Hag attack from outside his own culture. The authors of the article, ignorant of similar experiences across many cultures, blithely dismiss the report they gathered as "a dissociative type of hysterical reaction", one involving the "non-empirical world" of the Eskimos.

Given that the word "empirical" refers first and foremost to a reliance on observation and that the observations of the features of this attack as summarized and exemplified in this article show an excellent congruence with similar observations made elsewhere, the use of "non-empirical" here seems a conceptual trap. The investigator in such cases may well disagree with victims about the ontological significance of the phenomena, but there rarely seems any empirical dissonance when firsthand accounts are employed.

p. 235

In other words, there is a confusion between the word "empirical" (i.e. based on observation) and the meaning "true". Or, "empirical means what we observe, not what anyone else observes, mate." Such cultural bias goes to the heart of the various degrees of corruption in western sciences.

I have to heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in folklore, the supernatural, dreams and altered states. Anyone who recognises any of their own experiences in the brief descriptions above really must read it. Only once or twice will the lay reader possibly get put off by terminology or statistics. For the most part, it’s wonderfully accessible. Even Hufford’s refusal to leap to conclusions, to take everything one step at a time, feels alive and refreshing in combination with the often hair-raising narratives he presents, and in contrast to other authors on "the supernatural" with great big axes to grind.

Hufford stresses that his book is a beginning. If people have followed him over the last twenty years, it seems I’ll enjoy catching up. I’ve yet to read Benny Shanon’s much-lauded magnum opus The Antipodes of the Mind, but his talk at last year’s Exploring Consciousness conference makes me think that his study of apparently transcultural motifs in ayahuasca visions may demonstrate that Hufford’s cautious but open-minded current of genuine empiricism is thriving.

There are obviously more unchartered territories than our weariness with information overload and endless "theories of everything" would have us believe—especially in the liminal spaces between waking and dreaming. And in recognising this, I try to bear in mind Terence McKenna’s words in True Hallucinations, as he enters the Columbian Amazon:

Two all-inclusive categories emerged for us on the broad river whose distant banks were no more than a dark green line separating river and sky: the familiar and the unfamiliar. The unfamiliar was everywhere forcing us to draw inane analogies in common conversation: The Putumayo is like the Holy Ganga. The jungle evokes Ambon. The sky is similar to the skies of the Serengeti Plain, and so on. The illusion of understanding was a lame way of getting one’s bearings. The unfamiliar does not give up its secrets in this game—the Putumayo does not become like the Ganga. The unfamiliar must become known as itself before it is correctly recognised.

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