The Terror that Comes in the Night

David J. Hufford: The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. 278 pp..  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. $22.50.

David Hufford’s The Terror that Comes in the Night represents the culmination of over ten years of research (from 1971 to 1982), and is arguably one of the single most important studies of the old hag to date. An interdisciplinary study, this work addresses its subject matter primarily from the perspective of folklore (the author’s background), with additional material on medicine, physiology, psychology, history and literature. It should appeal to a broad audience both within and outside of academia.

Hufford begins the account with a clear summary of his folkloric sampling methods, their limitations, and the possibilities of what he calls the “experience-centered approach” over the more prevalent cultural source hypothesis. What distinguishes this method is that it focuses first on a careful phenomenological study of witness testimony in matters of folklore, while resisting the urge to equate all experiences in terms of the overarching culture in which the witness lives. This approach, as Hufford indicates, was why he was able to isolate the old hag phenomena as a stable, cross-cultural experience. Following this, he presents case studies, comments and statistical data surrounding the prevalence and phenomenology of the old hag in Newfoundland. In doing so, he defines its primary and secondary characteristics, such as paralysis, pressure, lucidity and the feeling of a presence, that characterize the attacks.

Hufford then tests what one would expect to find under the cultural source hypothesis by examining individuals who have had experiences typical of the old hag without any previous cultural contact with the tradition. The results demonstrate the widespread nature of the experience, regardless of cultural context. This leads him to consider the scientific literature, which is the basis of much of the middle of the text. In this section the basic physiology of sleep and sleep cycles are discussed, with a particular attention to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and the history of sleep studies. From this he concludes that while the old hag shares similar features with sleep paralysis, hypnagogic hallucinations, night terrors and REM dreaming, it cannot be reduced to any of these, or any simple combination available in the medical literature. Another source of scientific misclassification can be found in the psychoanalytic treatment of nightmares. Beginning with Ernest Jones’ Freudian interpretation in his 1931 work On the Nightmare, Hufford goes on to demonstrate how subsequent studies have consistently confused such phenomena as bad dreams, night terrors, nightmares, and incubus/succubus visitations, while offering largely superficial explanations of the purported subject matter.

Near the end of the text he considers possible associations with the old hag and out-of-body experiences, witches, hauntings, UFOs, as well as its specific cultural manifestations among Mormons, Filipinos and Eskimos. The text concludes with some potential directions for further research, and presents other folkloric phenomena, such as near death experiences, that may benefit from his experience-centered approach.

While some commentators may balk at a number of Hufford’s observations (he is not always kind to the prejudices of academics), this work is nevertheless an excellent example of focused scholarship balanced with an interdisciplinary breadth. Furthermore, his case study approach provides a degree of openness and accountability not seen in other comparable works on nightmares. Hufford’s treatment of the “superstitious” witness testimony that forms the core of his work demonstrates both his open mindedness and humanity. It is evident that he does not view their accounts as stupid, naïve or insane, but instead seriously considers the possibility that their observations (aside from the conclusions that they themselves draw from them) may well be ahead of scientific knowledge. However, as the author himself testifies, what is perhaps the most important contribution that this work makes to the study of the old hag and related phenomena is that it opens up a new beginning in which yet further work is now possible. For this, if nothing else, Hufford deserves praise.

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One thought on “The Terror that Comes in the Night

  1. […] Hittade en bok när jag googlade igår, ska se om man kunde få tag på den nånstans, ”The terror that comes in the night” av en som forskat om […]

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