Nocturnal Assaults: Aliens in the Dark

Alien abductions and Old Hags - things that go bump in the night.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs, Paranormal

Skeptoid #08
November 21, 2006
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Also available in Japanese | Russian | Spanish

I was five years old when my single mother was attacked by a ghost in her bed in the middle of the night. She awoke suddenly under the pressure of two unseen hands pushing her down flat against the bed and holding her there. For several minutes she struggled, unable to speak or move. Finally she broke free and scrambled out of the room, and spent the rest of the night on the floor of the room that my brother and I shared. She never went back into her own bedroom alone again. And so I grew up with this history, hearing ghost stories from time to time that other people told, but knowing that we had actually had a real ghost in our home when I was young.

I was an inveterate reader of books about monsters and ghosts — everything from Bigfoot to Dracula, from banshees to fairies, from zombies to werewolves — and one subject that particularly piqued my interest was that of nocturnal assaults. Noctural assaults are attacks just like that suffered by my mother, though often more graphic: the attacker can sometimes be a visible apparition. I was highly intrigued to learn that the physical descriptions of the attackers have been eerily similar over the ages, varying by country and sometimes by century. In Anglo cultures the most common attacker is called the Old Hag, a terrifying old woman dressed in black rags who holds her victims down in their beds or even sits on their chests with her full weight. References to the Old Hag and her nocturnal attacks go back as far as the Middle Ages. She's been part of our history for so long that if you haven't slept well, you're said to look "haggard". In India she is the Mohini, a beautiful but deadly enchantress. As often as the Anglo attacker is decribed to look like an old hag, attackers in India are just as frequently described as a beautiful young woman with terrible powers. In Slavic cultures, the most frequent description is of an elf-like gypsy man with wild glowing eyes who sits on your chest, riding you like a horse. The more I researched it, the more cultural groups I found to have their own unique noctural assault perpetrators.

As a budding young scholar of the supernatural, I was fascinated by these cultural commonalities. Similar attacks, throughout history, made by specific attackers who stayed within their own cultural communities. And then I had a breakthrough. Beginning in the late 1960's, a new attacker began muscling in on the Old Hag's territory, and quickly took over responsibility for most of the attacks reported in the United States. Do you know who I'm referring to yet? In 1965, Betty and Barney Hill went public with an episode they said happened to them in 1961, when they were abducted from their car by aliens, and suffered terrible medical experiments aboard a spacecraft. Curiously, the attack they described bore no resemblance to a classical nocturnal assault; however the creature they described — an alien of the type we commonly call a "gray" — became America's new supernatural superstar. Nocturnal assaults continued to happen at the same frequency that they always had, but now the reported attacker was, more often than not, a gray alien. The gray alien burst upon the scene of America's consciousness just as the Old Hag was beginning to seem a little outdated and, well, haggard. Just as children in India grew up with stories of the Mohini as the evil specter who might paralyze you in the middle of the night, we're now in a generation of Americans who have heard that gray aliens are those little beings who are going to come into your bedroom at night and attack you.

Is it really as simple as that? Is the attacker that your scared brain visualizes based solely on what your cultural experience tells you to expect?

It was about 25 years after my mom's attack that I first heard of sleep paralysis, which, as you probably know, is the clinical name of these nocturnal assaults. Sleep paralysis can be characterized by an inability to speak or move, a feeling of intense crushing weight on the chest, and/or hallucinations which can be visual, auditory, tactile, or even strange smells. It happens only during REM sleep, often just as it's beginning or ending. Sleep paralysis is five times more likely to happen to people sleeping on their backs, facing up. Drugs such as Prozac have been found effective in controlling sleep paralysis attacks. Although most sleep paralysis episodes do not include the visual apparition, more than enough do include it to account for all reported nocturnal assaults. Sleep paralysis is well understood, well documented, and is an accepted psychological phenomenon among almost all medical professionals.

So why, then, did it take me a further several years before I made the connection between my mom's attack and sleep paralysis? I had spent so many years fully believing that my mom had been attacked by a ghost that it never even occurred to me to seek more reasonable explanations elsewhere, even when the obvious answer was staring me in the face, literally, as I was reading books about it. Perhaps this is the same reason that even in an age where most people have at least heard of sleep paralysis, believers in alien abductions and noctural ghost attacks firmly stick to paranormal explanations for their own sleep paralysis experiences.

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Many believers, when confronted with this explanation for their experience, will point out differences between their experience and the known symptoms of sleep paralysis. Of course, visual, audible, and tactile hallucinations are part of the known symptoms of sleep paralysis, so it's kind of hard for them to come up with details that can't be attributed to known sleep paralysis effects. And that's an uncomfortable position to be in as a skeptic: no matter what the believer reports, we can explain it with "It's a hallucination." That's just like creationists being able to explain anything with "God did it," no further evidence needed. The difference is that we can actually test nocturnal assault sufferers, and whenever we do, we end up with video of them lying in their bed looking paralyzed, with a conspicuous absence of gray aliens in the room.

So it took over thirty years, but I finally did explain my mom's noctural assault, at least to my own satisfaction. You might wonder what her own assessment is, in light of this explanation. She went to medical school, spent her whole career in biotech, has a very scientific mind, and is convinced to this day that she was attacked by a ghost. She never read the Betty and Barney Hill story.

Brian Dunning

© 2006 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Hoffman, Matthew. "Sleep Paralysis." WebMD Sleep disorders. WebMD, 1 Jul. 2008. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <>

Hufford, David J. The terror that comes in the night: an experience-centered study of supernatural assault traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1996. 61-77.

Schenck, Carlos H. Sleep: the mysteries, the problems and the solutions. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. 160-177.

Tavris, C., Aronson, E. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). San Diego: Harcourt Books, 2007. 88-93.

Wynn, Charles M., Wiggins, Arthur W. Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where real science ends...and Pseudoscience Begins. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2001. 49-68.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Nocturnal Assaults: Aliens in the Dark." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 21 Nov 2006. Web. 28 Aug 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 35 comments

"The difference is that we can actually test nocturnal assault sufferers, and whenever we do, we end up with video of them lying in their bed looking paralyzed, with a conspicuous absence of gray aliens in the room".

this is where we need more details to understand how an hallucination can't be mistaken with the reality because from the witness's point of view, all feelings are so real and he's so sincere about this experience that it's easy for him to tell you that the reason the video lacks of any suspicious presence is the fact that the video can't see those " ghosts" or whatever ( which of course is stupid when you're calm and relaxed...) ...Question is always the same : how can we trust our brain if it fools us ?

dexter, Lyon
September 25, 2011 1:36am

I still 'suffer' with SP on occasions, it used to scare the crap out of me until I learnt what it really was.

I used to believe in a lot of the paranormal bunk and 'woo'; folks were always telling me my various experiences were spirits, demons and aliens lol

Once I started to research and use my brain I worked out what it was, denied the 'woo' and lost some friends lol

Usually when it happens I 'awake' and am aware of it and just say to myself "Here we go again" and go back to sleep. However SOMETIMES I can still be caught out by it, I guess it depends on your mind state - or dream content - prior to the experience.

That said, I did have an interesting 'waking' event a while ago that I find it hard to explain even now. It was like SP but I was fully awake, laying on my front, and genuinely believed that someone was upon my back - I even called out to my missus thinking it was her. Eventually I turned around and saw no one on my back and the experience ended. Probably yet another mind phuck lol

As dexter above says: "how can we trust our brain if it fools us ?"

Dapper Dave, London, England
August 18, 2012 1:52pm

So I have sleep paralysis along with the hallucinations, often. It seems to be brought on by stress in my case and perhaps all cases.

My experience is always within a horrid nightmare, and I am in this nightmare, it is real and I feel or see a presense or know that one or many are there.

My entire body is paralyzed and there is this huge tingling sensation as well as a buzzing sound and feeling thru out my whole body and I am severely afraid at the time, and go into the sleep paralysis deeper as I can not bring myself out unless my mind is willing me out and I have to sit up straight away or I go back into another one.

Also during the episode, I am barely breathing and almost can open my eye's and can not talk or mumble even. At times, I can have the episode a couple of days at which I dread to sleep by then.

No medications help me, and sleeping on my back truly induces the effect, but also if I sleep on my side.

One strange time, I was fully having a sleep paralysis episode, fully from head to toe, pinned down as usual and on my side, nothing out of the unusual but the difference was, a Male Incubus was making love to me, on my side! I have never looked at sleep paralysis the same since!

I sorta debunk the thought of an alien abduction. I believe that most of the people that feel this is the buzzing sensation that most get while during the episode. And link that sensation to Alien abduction along with the paralysis.
The Incubus, is things that go hum!

Frani, Virginia
November 26, 2012 7:31pm

Frani, nobody here can give you advice on how to overcome these things but I assume there is some sort of medico that is familiar with your condition.

I am not going to draw the logical fallacy that your condition is the same as celebrity skeptics who have written essays on what appears the same condition.

I can say, when I had a similar short 5 year period in my life, the succubi were still there at 8 am begging relief..

I understated the geriatric adonis thing and I am sure, mythology has overstated night visitors.

The fact they never paid board irked me greatly

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
January 10, 2013 1:52am

My girlfriend in college (apparently) had a brief period of SP. Occasionally while drifting off to sleep, she would experience the same partial paralysis, inability to speak etc... The first time it happened it scared the heck out of me (I called 911) but with familiarity I realized it was something similar to (in my non-medical opinion) a mild form of epilepsy.

Her mind functioned but her physical control was as if wrapped in cotton and her speech centers blocked. If I gave her a pen and paper she could (laboriously) let me know if she was in distress or needed anything. The event would last up to an hour but caused no damage or pain.

Robert Struble, San Diego
May 10, 2013 11:23am

I am not gonna claim every nocturnal episode is alien abduction.

That would be as rediculous as saying every one was not.

But I will give this idea as food for thought.

Lets start out with the idea aliens may look at us in intelligence as we look at animals on our planet.

How do we treat animals when we want to study them?

We catch them when they are sleeping (like the bear hybernating) or when most vunerable.

When necessary we drug them to make it safe for us.

Then we conduct all sorts of experiments on them to include taking samples of all types, implanting objects (ex tracking devices), and experiments.

Then we release them back to the wild. with whatever drug wearing off.
Now we do not know how much the animal is aware of whats going on.

So what would prevent a tech superior (compared to us) alien from treating us like we treat what we feel is inferior/animal ?

I wont say every case is abduction but given what we do to lesser species why is it a stretch an alien advance race would not do the same?

Eric, Northern IL USA
September 3, 2013 3:32am

Eric, the first question to ask isn't "how do you suppose hypothetical aliens, ghosts, or demons, or succubi, or vampires would treat us." The first question to ask is "is there any reason to think aliens or cyborgs from the future or telepathic mutants are involved at all?"

Morgan Z, Tracy, Ca
September 13, 2013 10:20pm

Morgan, I think you could have emphasised the point;

what aliens? When aliens, where aliens.

The problem with discussion of aliens is they are somewhere (hopefully) somewhere else.

Considering how they get to attend us is in itself profound science fiction.

After all, they have to be as smart as bacteria, on average...

Some people have a profound alien fixation that leaks out from time to time.

Rub it in though, if it wasn't for science, the science fiction of aliens wouldnt exist in popular culture..

I miss E. E. "Doc" Smith. His take on aliens and space travel was refreshing and more relevant today even with his bare bones science fiction.

I'll have to hunt up the collection.

Microwave Dizzy, Gerringong The IL. USO
September 14, 2013 1:28am

my one and only sp experience was in a friends house that was meant to be haunted I was sleeping on their living room floor saw a gray mist floating on the celling could see right through it it did not feel good at all trying to scream and not being able to move never again thanks

andy, glasgow
April 28, 2014 6:28pm

I can say, when I had a similar short 5 year period in my life, the succubi were still there at 8 am begging relief......
- Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,

I sure wish I could be visited by succubi at night once in a while.
But then, at my age I might not know what to do with them....

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
January 23, 2015 12:51pm

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