Nietzsche and the Evil Eye: A Bequeathal of Sorts


Stumbling across Alan Dundes “The Evil Eye: A Casebook” early in my undergrad, just when I was starting to read Nietzsche, certainly helped to further my interest in the relationship between folklore and psychology.

As a belief, the evil eye has proven to be incredibly durable and widespread, extending, to the best of my knowledge, from India to Scotland, and across thousands of years, well into Greco-Roman times and beyond. Roughly, it is the belief that a person who possesses the evil eye, or who develops it out of envy and covetousness can cause a great deal of harm to the object of their attention. To combat this, many cultures have developed eye-like jewelry and charms to “catch” the gaze of the eye before it can do any harm.

Nietzsche, as a philologist, must have come across references to it in his readings of classical authors, or even during his travels to Italy. In any event, the number of references made to the evil eye, or an envious eye, in his writings are legion, and few commentators that I am aware of have explored this trend in any detail. I suspect though, that much can be learned about the structure and history of his psychological notion of ressentiment by comparing it to his encounter with this body of folklore.

Yet while I believe this to be the case, I do not think that I will be the one who proves it. I’ve two books on Nietzsche somewhere within me, and hopefully no more, as I’ve seen what happens to scholars who spend their entire careers on one, and only one, historical figure, and I am too wedded to diversity to find that path appealing.

That said, I think that someone should do it.

Below are just a few of the references in Nietzsche to an evil eye that I could cobble together:

“You go above and beyond them: but the higher you climb, the smaller you appear to the eye of envy. And he who flies is hated most of all.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

“And many a one who cannot see the sublime in man calls it virtue that he can see his baseness all-too-closely: thus he calls his evil eye virtue.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not with us, my brothers: here there are states./ A state? What is that? Well! open now your ears to me, for now I will speak to you about the death of peoples. / State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” / It is a lie! It was creators who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. / Destroyers are they who lay snares for the many, and call it state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them. / Where there are still peoples, the state is not understood, and is hated as the evil eye, and as sin against laws and customs. / This sign I give to you: every people speaks its own language of good and evil, which its neighbor does not understand. It has created its own language of laws and customs. / But the state lies in all the tongues of good and evil; and whatever it says it lies; and whatever it has it has stolen. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

The teachers of the purpose of existence.— Whether I contemplate men with benevolence or with an evil eye, I always find them concerned with a single task, all of them and every one of them in particular: to do what is good for the preservation of the human race. Not from any feeling of love for the race, but merely because nothing in them is older, stronger, more inexorable and unconquerable than this instinct—because this instinct constitutes the essence of our species, our herd. It is easy enough to divide our neighbors quickly, with the usual myopia, from a mere five paces away, into useful and harmful, good and evil men; but in any large-scale accounting, when we reflect on the whole a little longer, we become suspicious of this neat division and finally abandon it. Even the most harmful man may really be the most useful when it comes to the preservation of the species; for he nurtures either in himself or in others, through his effects, instincts without which humanity would long have become feeble or rotten. Hatred, the mischievous delight in the misfortune of others, the lust to rob and dominate, and whatever else is called evil belongs to the most amazing economy of the preservation of the species. To be sure, this economy is not afraid of high prices, of squandering, and it is on the whole extremely foolish:—still it is proven that it has preserved our race so far. (The Gay Science)

Another mode of convalescence (in certain situations even more to my liking) is sounding out idols. There are more idols than realities in the world: that is my “evil eye” upon this world; that is also my “evil ear.” Finally to pose questions with a hammer, and sometimes to hear as a reply that famous hollow sound that can only come from bloated entrails — what a delight for one who has ears even behind his ears, for me, an old psychologist and pied piper before whom just that which would remain silent must finally speak out. (Twilight of the Idols)

7 Moral for psychologists. — Not to go in for backstairs psychology. Never to observe in order to observe! That gives a false perspective, leads to squinting and something forced and exaggerated. Experience as the wish to experience does not succeed. One must not eye oneself while having an experience; else the eye becomes “an evil eye.” A born psychologist guards instinctively against seeing in order to see; the same is true of the born painter. He never works “from nature”; he leaves it to his instinct, to his camera obscura, to sift through and express the “case,” “nature,” that which is “experienced.” He is conscious only of what is general, of the conclusion, the result: he does not know arbitrary abstractions from an individual case. What happens when one proceeds differently? For example, if, in the manner of the Parisian novelists, one goes in for backstairs psychology and deals in gossip, wholesale and retail? Then one lies in wait for reality, as it were, and every evening one brings home a handful of curiosities. But note what finally comes of all this: a heap of splotches, a mosaic at best, but in any case something added together, something restless, a mess of screaming colors. The worst in this respect is accomplished by the Goncourts; they do not put three sentences together without really hurting the eye, the psychologist’s eye. Nature, estimated artistically, is no model. It exaggerates, it distorts, it leaves gaps. Nature is chance. To study “from nature” seems to me to be a bad sign: it betrays submission, weakness, fatalism; this lying in the dust before petit faits [little facts] is unworthy of a whole artist. To see what is — that is the mark of another kind of spirit, the anti-artistic, the factual. One must know who one is. (Twilight of the Idols)

24 L’art pour l’art. […] One question remains: art also makes apparent much that is ugly, hard, and questionable in life; does it not thereby spoil life for us? And indeed there have been philosophers who attributed this sense to it: “liberation from the will” was what Schopenhauer taught as the overall end of art; and with admiration he found the great utility of tragedy in its “evoking resignation.” But this, as I have already suggested, is the pessimist’s perspective and “evil eye.” We must appeal to the artists themselves. What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Is it not precisely the state without fear in the face of the fearful and questionable that he is showing? This state itself is a great desideratum, whoever knows it, honors it with the greatest honors. He communicates it — must communicate it, provided he is an artist, a genius of communication. Courage and freedom of feeling before a powerful enemy, before a sublime calamity, before a problem that arouses dread — this triumphant state is what the tragic artist chooses, what he glorifies. Before tragedy, what is warlike in our soul celebrates its Saturnalia; whoever is used to suffering, whoever seeks out suffering, the heroic man praises his own being through tragedy — to him alone the tragedian presents this drink of sweetest cruelty. (Twilight of the Idols)

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For More Information:

The Evil Eye: A Casebook. 1992. Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Wild Through the Ages: Kamala, Amala and the Focus of Folklore

A recent article by the freelance journalist Maia Szalavitz recounts the story of Dani, a young girl who was rescued by social workers from the extreme neglect she had been living in since her birth in Plant City, Florida. Szalavitz describes Dani as a feral child, though she is quick to qualify that:

‘Feral’ isn’t a diagnosis, of course. But the term usually refers to a child raised by animals, like Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome who was said to have been reared by a she-wolf. […] More recently, the term has been expanded to include children whose human care and contact was extremely limited.

The article is typical of contemporary accounts of feral children in its association between the legends of wild children with supposedly “real” cases and cases of extreme neglect, though it differs somewhat in its emphasis on the empathic, rather than linguistic dimensions of the experience. Nevertheless, it is a recent and telling example of the cultural and historical forces that underpin the present day understanding of feral children, and hints at the folkloric associations that lay behind it.

The genealogy of feral children from legends to their present use in describing the state of extreme neglected has been noted and commented upon by others. However, it is still fruitful to consider the channels through which this transition took place, for it is evident that as a subject feral children exist at an interdisciplinary crossroads, uniting writers and folklorists with anthropologists, psychologists and linguists to create a communal space for discussion and dissent. This space, however, is not a democratic one, and despite the considerable prestige of science at the beginning of the twentieth century, the role played by folklore is remarkable. The example of Kamala and Amala, the wolf-girls of Midnapore, is particularly revealing in this regard. In looking at the literature surround these children, two important things are made evident. Firstly, it becomes fully apparent how in the study of feral children the arguments from folklore have been omnipresent. They are used to both support and detract from the credibility of the accounts. For those in favour of viewing the stories as credible, the persistent and widespread existence of a body of folklore surrounding feral children provides evidence of some deep underlying truth to the legends. For those critical of the stories, the folklore serves as an obscuring agent, contaminating observations and leading people to wrongly interpret lost children with congenital defects as authentic cases. However, in the discussions surrounding the authenticity of Amala and Kamala, most commentators referenced European myths when arguing for the use of folkloric evidence, while detractors focused on the fallibility of non-European superstitions. This divide leads to the second consideration of this paper. The epistemological value of evidence in these cases is consistently in favour of European accounts, suggesting that they, unlike native accounts, are less subject to the contaminating influences of folklore. There is a definitive undertone of colonialism in the anthropological discussion of feral children, for in many cases their presence was a negative indicator of the degree of civilization in the nations in which they were discovered. While their potential existence was thought to provide a wealth of information to western social science, the deprived conditions that gave rise to them was seen to indicate a need for further developmental work on the part of more civilized nations.

This study will begin with a look at the foundational legend of Romulus and Remus. From here, it will then be informative to consider the stories of Mowgli and Tarzan that appeared shortly before the “discovery” of the wolf-girls Amala and Kamala by the Reverend J.A.L. Singh in 1920. With this background it will then be possible to look at the folkloric, popular, psychological and anthropological literature surrounding accounts of feral children in light of the publication of Wolf-Children and Feral Man by Singh and the anthropologist Dr. Robert M. Zingg from the University of Denver in 1942, with a particular emphasis on the ways in which folklore shaped the content and direction of the discussions.

The value of legends and literature to the study of feral children cannot be overstated. It is a common reference point and beginning for numerous articles on the subject, and can help explain the rapid process of mythologization that takes place when social scientists and other researches are confronted with “authentic” cases. As the folklorists Michael P. Carroll supports in his essay “The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories”: “The fact that modern observers have so often characterized a newly discovered ‘wolf-boy’ as a ‘real life Romulus’ or a ‘real life Remus’ is by itself evidence that the association of these contemporary accounts with the Classical tradition is well-established”. Though usually mentioned only in passing, as in Szalaitz’s article, these myths and legends are so often connected with their real world counterparts that they serve to set the stage of the discussion before any scientific study can even begin.

Considering its importance to the subsequent literature, the story of Romulus and Remus is surprisingly mild when compared to the amount of time that other feral children have reportedly spent in the wild. According to the Roman historian Livy, writing in the first century BCE:

In those days the country thereabouts was all wild and uncultivated, and the story goes that when the basket in which the infants had been exposed was left high and dry by the receding water, a she-wolf, coming down from the neighbouring hills to quench her thrust, heard the children crying and made her way where they were. She offered them her teats to suck and treated them with such gentleness that Faustulus, the king’s herdsman, found her licking them with her tongue.

That is all. There is no indication of how long they were left in the care of the she-wolf, and, aside from the occasional mention of their “urge to found a new settlement” where they had been found as infants, the actual role that the she-wolf played in their upbringing is marginal. If an undercurrent of the brother’s origin does exist, it takes the form of their subsequent mastery over nature, for shortly following this passage we find them hunting, shepherding, farming and robbing from thieves to share with their friends. The depiction is much the same in the first and second centuries ACE, as recorded by Plutarch, both in its brevity and in the subsequent power the brother’s gain over their surroundings. The wild upbringing of those destined to found civilizations has been noted by others, and is a consistent motif in a number of legendary accounts. It seems evident that the brothers serve here as representatives of a human community that gains mastery over its surroundings from a state of helplessness in its primeval origins. The situation is much the same in the popular literature that was written near the beginning of the twentieth century.

Some years before the discovery of the wolf-girls of Midnapore was announced, legends surrounding feral children would receive new interest with the advent of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan. As the historian Adriana S. Bezaquén observes:

by the end of the nineteenth century the ‘exotic’ animal-raised child entered literature and popular culture with striking and lasting power, first in Britain, in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), and almost two decades later in the United States, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes” (1912). The stories of wolf-child Mowgli and ape-boy Tarzan, though prompted by the spate of ‘real’ cases and incorporating elements form them, reinscribed the ancient myths. Far from the pitiful, brutish examples of inhumanity depicted in the ‘real’ accounts, Mowgli and Tarzan stood out and excelled among both animals and humans and thus became appealing heroes for readers stirred by imperialist dreams and hungry for vicarious adventure.

Unlike their real world counterparts, these modern legends took up the old banners of humanity’s mastery over nature and revitalized their cultural influence in the public imagination. To see this mastery one need only look at Kipling’s story “Mowgli’s Brothers” in which the feral child Mowgli comes to the wolves as a hunted, helpless infant, but who leaves their company in defiance after frightening away the tiger Shere Khan and exclaiming: “What ye will do, and what ye will not do, is not yours to say. That matter is with me; and that we may see the matter more plainly, I, the man, have brought here a little of the Red Flower [fire] which ye, dogs, fear”. In this respect the role of Tarzan is somewhat more complicated, however, for while Burroughs admitted being influenced by the legend of Romulus and Remus, as well as by the stories in Kipling’s Jungle Book, his wild man is more ambivalent towards the allure of civilization. Nevertheless, both stories served to glorify the strength of human nature in a strange environment, and it is this element, as we shall see, that was often drawn upon by subsequent commentators.

According to his own accounts, the Reverend Singh discovered the wolf-girls of Midnapore on October 17th 1920, their existence was accidentally made known to the world on September 7th 1921, Amala died on September 21st of the same year, followed nine years later by Kamala on November 14th 1929. The “diary” of their story, alongside Zingg’s “Feral Man and Cases of Extreme Isolation of Individuals”, was only published in 1942. The protracted nature of the announcement helped to insure a continued interest in the subject, while figures such as Zingg tried to authenticate the account and coax a supposedly unwilling Singh to publish. The point in the Reverend’s description of the children that caused the most consternation was the claim that their eyes gave of a peculiar “blue glare” at night. This seemingly superhuman capacity to see in the dark, their sharp teeth, heightened sense of smell and hearing, and physical build which spoke of “strength and agility” all play into the myths that already surrounded the idea of feral children since the end of the nineteenth century. Yet only the question of the glowing eyes was noted by the experts who provided a commentary to the case. The description that Singh provides of their natural strength and agility is never compared with his numerous other accounts of their enfeebled states due to sickness and neglect that they experienced after their reintroduction to human society. These fantastic particulars aside, however, it was the potentially folkloric origin of the girls’ upbringing by wolves that saw the greatest attention by subsequent investigators.

Social scientists of every stripe often commented on the relationship between supposedly real feral children and their fantastical counterparts during the early years of the twentieth century. As Bezaquén observes, this trend has been a common one. The extreme rarity of the events that may produce feral children, the taboo on performing any controlled experiments, and the often remote location of the stories mean that: “In most cases, the human sciences have no choice but to feed on non-scientific accounts, reports, and testimonies, while regularly distrusting the actual value or authenticity of the evidence”. It is to these early commentaries that we now turn our attention.

On the side of folklore, it is clear that the interest in feral children was not one of a purely literary or mythic bent, but that several writers, most notably J.H. Hutton, understood it as their responsibility to help cast judgment on the credibility of the real life evidence. Hutton gave a presidential address entitled “Wolf-Children” in the March 1940 edition of the journal Folklore. He began the discussion with comments on the interest in wolf-children in a recent edition of The Times, and followed this by stating that:

it is clear that apart from any particular interest the subject of wolf-children may have in itself, the point at issue, which is whether such stories are to be treated as credible or to be wholly discredited, is of no little importance to a Society which is primarily concerned with folklore. For the wide prevalence of stories of this kind indicates a rooted belief in their possibility.

For Zingg, Hutton would serve as an important source of census information on life in India and provide folkloric comments in regards to the stories of feral children. While in this text he was “indebted to the kindness of Dr. Robert M. Zingg” for several of his references, he would ultimately decline the opportunity to write a forward in Zingg’s and Singh’s account of the children’s development. He declined because he felt that in the end their work was an “improved version” of what actually occurred. Despite Hutton’s reservations about the complete reliability of their account and his own feelings of inconclusiveness about the evidence at hand, he did not discredit the possibility that Amala and Kamala were reared by wolves in part because of the widespread presence of these very myths. This attempt to account for the legends of feral children by appealing to the possibility of their reality was also characteristic of the popular articles on the subject.

In the articles of the 1940s a monolithic depiction of science is presented as attempting to come to grips with the stories of feral children. Lois Mattox Miller typifies this approach in his article “The Wolf-Girls and the Baboon Boy”, which dramatically begins with the following homage to both myth and science alike:

From Romulus and Remus, mythical founders of Rome, through Kiplind’s Mowgli to Tarzan, stories of human babies adopted by wolves, bears, or apes, and reared to super-manhood far from human society have fascinated people of all ages in all climes. Scientists, always skeptical of the unauthenticated, have nevertheless searched for evidence of weird reality behind so persistent a myth pattern. […] [N]ow, for the first time, science has evidence of two cases of humans who may have been reared by wild animals; he tragic Wolf-children of Midnapore; and Lucas, he Baboon Boy of South Africa.

While Miller’s article points out that: “To the casual reader, these are just fascinating wonder-tales; but the scientists look to them to throw light on the relative importance of heredity and environment in shaping behaviour patters”, his discussion concludes on a triumphant note transcending the arena of nature and nurture to the glorification of humanity: we can ape better than the apes and live among wolves, and this likely demonstrates a greater, rather than a lesser intelligence in the cases of these children. We shall see that this sense of triumph, characteristic of the legends, was mirrored in several of the social scientists own accounts.

The role of folklore as potential evidence for the existence of feral children and the idea of human triumph that accompanies this are both present in the introductory sections of Wolf-Children and Feral Man. To begin with, the foreword presented by Dr. Ruggles Gates from the Human Heredity Bureau, even more forcefully reiterates the position of Hutton in his interpretation of the connection between folklore and reality. It also indicates a degree of value judgment, insofar as it assumes that feral children are exclusively the produce of ruder states of civilization, for he comments that:

The evidence is I think, conclusive that in former centuries when civilization was in a much ruder state, wolf-children were occasionally found even in Europe. The story of Romulus and Remus turns out to be mythical, but founded upon earlier myths which presumably had an ultimate substratum of truth. […] It is only reasonable to suppose that such legends were not pure inventions but were founded upon rare occurrences, among peoples in an early stage of culture.

In his contributing foreword Dr. Arnold Gesell, then director of the Clinic of Child Development at Yale University, presents a decidedly triumphant account of the wolf-girls of Midnapore. Despite the death of Amala at an early age, he stresses the fact that Kamala survived: “To an extraordinary degree she survived psychologically and achieved human estate”. Furthermore, despite his assertion that the dichotomy of nature and nurture is “barren”, he concludes his contribution to the text with the comment that: “The career of Kamala, even though cut short, demonstrates anew the stamina of the human spirit and the operation of developmental reserves which always ameliorate the adversities of abnormal fate”. Among the contributing scholars to the Reverend Singh’s diary, Dr. Gesell stands out as being exceptionally representative of the influence of folklore and popular myth. Bezaquén explicitly points out this effect on Gesell’s thought and how it was manifested in his subsequent publications on the matter. As she describes in regards to his Wolf Child and Human Child: Reconciling the Extraordinary and the Normal: “Despite his protestations to the contrary, he resorted to the emotional and evocative power of fiction to lend cohesion to the whole. His recurring references to Kipling’s Mowgli implicitly afforded another narrative framework, a romantic alternative to his scientific exposition of the normal child’s growth, against which the story of Kamala might be read”. If this is any indication of the intellectual atmosphere among the social scientists that supported the Reverend Singh’s claims, then it is clear that folklore was never far from center stage both implicitly and explicitly. It even formed the basis of dissenting views.

Psychologists, tending to be more sceptical, nevertheless acknowledged the importance of folklore in these matters, albeit often for different reasons. Marian W. Smith in her 1954 article on wild children and the principle of reinforcement, points out that: “Before the […] cases can be analyzed it is necessary to accept them as evidence, even if only temporarily”. She stresses that a tacit acceptance of the truth of the matter rests on shaky ground because it is difficult to state with any certainty which came first, claims about the actual existence of feral children, or the folklore in which they played a largely symbolic role. However, rather than removing the place of folklore in the scientific discussion, it instead gives it a central place, because as Smith observes in these cases: “The interplay between reality and belief is far from simple”.

This outlook is particularly evident in the writings of one of the more public detractors of the credibility of the wolf-girls of Midnapore, the psychologist Wayne Dennis. In his 1941 article “The Significance of Feral Man” he uses the existence of a body folklore surrounding feral children in India as warning sign. He cautions his readers, reasoning that:

Since the idea of wolf-children is current in India […] if a mute, who could give no account of his past, were found in India at the present time, it is easy to guess the direction of speculation concerning his origin. … India possesses a large number of unfortunates to whom such a myth could be fitted.

Unlike the vision of human triumph presented by Gesell, Dennis considers most, if not all of the cases of feral children to be the products of folkloric inspired misunderstandings of children with mental defects who were separated from their parents for short periods of time and then discovered by others. In this way folklore becomes the defining point for him and many other detractors of the authenticity of feral children. As he comments later in The Significance of Feral Man: “In searching for the origin of the belief that a specific child was reared by beasts it would be relevant to examine the folk lore [sic] of the region from which came the original story.“ Yet while describing it as a source of scientific contamination in the search for feral children, Dennis nevertheless ascribes to folklore a great deal of importance, particularly in the context of underdeveloped societies. It is to the idea of the obscuring effects of folklore in a colonial context that we now turn our attention.

It has been said that the science of anthropology developed as an instrument of colonialism. This seems particularly evident in the case of feral children, whose presence in a nation inevitably served as a comment on its state of civilization. Western observers were quick to note that the phenomenon: “Has seldom if ever been witnessed by a European, at any rate since the seventeenth century”. As we have already seen in the comments made by Dr. Gates they could only have appeared “even in Europe” among “peoples in an early stage of culture”. Yet, for him, this early stage of culture is part of what makes India “a paradise for the anthropologist”. Western social scientists’ fascination with feral children was complicated by the prejudicial distrust of “uncivilized” folklore, and the understanding that their presence in a nation served as further proof that it was in an early stage of development.

As we have already seen to a large extent, social scientists that wanted to support the possibility of feral children turned to the validity of western folklore to help support their claims. However, those who sought to discount the idea of feral children often disparaged the epistemological value of the accounts made by “uncivilized” native peoples, who were more likely to fall victim to superstition (in other words, their own folklore). The colonial values underpinning these critiques are evident Dennis’ The Significance of Feral Man, in which he reminds the reader to be skeptical because: “The desire to please and likewise the desire to pull the leg of the white man are not unknown among the darker-skinned races”. However, these views reach their most blatant form in the work of an earlier scholar that Dennis makes references to: the nineteenth century British anthropologist E. Burnet Tylor. In Tylor’s “Wild Men and Beast-Children”, he makes similar critiques of the existence of feral children based on the unreliability of uncivilized accounts. He incredulously states that: “we have no other evidence than that of natives, and it is pretty well known what Oriental evidence is worth as to such matters”, and, comparing the account of feral children to a native belief that people are born with crocodile twins concludes that: “if all the Asiatics living were to declare with one accord that a child and a crocodile had been born twins at one birth, we should not believe it”. In the face of this colonial background it is therefore telling that Zingg himself felt compelled to remind his readers to be more accepting in their judgements, for “there should be some presumption that native Indian testimony of even the lowest classes is not always necessarily false”.

There are few questions thornier than those of the first origins of a thing. All the subsequent promises and pains of its entire history have the tendency of becoming inscribed in its beginnings, and a tangled mess ensues, which after all, is what the present is. If any topic of consideration is more beset with difficulties, it is the question of human nature. The image of the feral child or wild man through history and legend has in many ways exemplified both of these quandaries, and done so with all the poignancy of an infant abandoned in the woods. Kamala and Amala did exist, but the question of whether or not they were the wolf-girls of Midnapore is another matter. At the very least, their story serves to highlight the importance and influence of folklore in the social sciences, and show how literature together with myth can shape the nature and direction of scientific debates. Here, it is important to note that Zingg’s and Gesell’s approach to the value of folklore was not in itself unscientific or misguided, any more than Dennis’ assertions to the contrary, what was interesting was the channels through which the two parties operated, and the shape that their discussion took on in light of the folkloric undercurrents of their subject matter. Likewise, the colonial prejudices of Dennis and Tylor can perhaps be expected, but in this matter they serve to bring light to an area in the history of the social sciences that would benefit form further elucidation. If the presence of feral children is both indicative of an “anthropological paradise” as well as a negative indicator of a nations state of civilization, then what does this indicate about the role and responsibility of this kind of science? Furthermore, the marked preference of European folklore on the side of Singh’s supporters and the attention drawn to the folklore of India by his detractors is some indicator of the lack of self-reflexivity present in early anthropology. As the grotesque cases of Dani and other neglected children testify, to this day there is the desire to recast cases of abandonment in the present day to those of human triumph in its legendary past. In this way it is indicative of a basic human need, a need that demands some role for folklore when faced with the damning evidence against the virtue of civilization that is and always has been the feral child.

For More Information:

Dennis, Wayne. “The Significance of Feral Man”. In The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul., 1941). p. 425-32.

Gates, R. Ruggles. “Foreword”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xiii-xvi

Gesell, Arnold. “Foreword”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xvii-xviii.

Hutton, J.H. “Wolf-Children”. In Folklore, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1940), 9-31.

—. “Wolf-Children and Feral Man”. In Man, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Dec., 1967), 631.

Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. 2009. Wikisource. 13 April 2009. <>

Livy. The Early History of Rome: Books 1-4 of The History of Rome From its Foundations. Trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960.

Miller, Lois Mattox. “The Wolf-Girls and the Baboon-Boy”. In The Science News-Letter, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jul. 13, 1940). p. 26-9.

Plutarch, Romulus. Trans. John Dryden. The Internet Classics Archive. 2009. Web Atomics. 13 April 2009 <>

Singh. J.A.L. “The Diary of the Wolf-Children of Midnapore (India)”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. 3-126.

Smith, Marian W. “Wild Children and the Principle of Reinforcement”. In Child Development, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Jun., 1954). p. 115-23.

The Society for Science & the Public. “Wolf-Child Stories Are Doubted by Psychologist”. In The Science News-Letter, Vol. 39, No. 17 (Apr. 26, 1941), p. 261.

Tylor, E. Burnet. “Wild Men and Beast-Children”. In Anthropological Review, Vol 1. No. 1. (May, 1863). p. 21-32.

Zingg, Robert M. “Introduction: Continued”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xxxv-xli.

—. “Feral Man and Cases of Extreme Isolation of Individuals”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. 131-365.

Bezaquén, Adriana S. Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

Carroll, Michael P. “The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories”. In Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Apr., 1984), 63-85.

Lewis, Diane. “Anthropology and Colonialism” In Current Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 5 (Dec.,1973), 581-602.

Newton, Michael. Savage Girls and Wild Boys. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Szalaitz, Maia. “A Feral Child’s Journey to Recovery: How One Expert Helps Children Heal After Severe Abuse and Neglect”. 2009. MSN Health & Fitness. 12 April 2009. <>

The Nightmares that Unite Us

In the December 7th and December 9th 2006 issues of the Chronicle Herald of Halifax, columnist Peter Duffy wrote an article in which he claimed to have been the victim of what he described as a case of supernatural sexual assault. The experience was so vivid and traumatic that the otherwise conservative author consulted a psychic astrologer, a priest, and a professor of religious studies in an effort to understand what had happened to him. As he described the experience:

I became aware of a strange presence in the bedroom, something emitting waves of malevolence. […] I don’t know how, [but] I knew it was a demon of some kind. I recoiled in horror, trying to make myself small, unable to tear my eyes away. […] And then it was on top of me, soundless and unstoppable, smothering me, assaulting me. There’s no delicate way to put this; I was vividly aware of this creature violating me. I yelled, but nothing came from my lips.

Observers in subsequent issues of the Herald indicated that what Duffy had experienced was a case of sleep paralysis with hypnagogic hallucinations (SPHH), and that the editors of the paper should have known better than to print his confused account of demon assault in one of Nova Scotia’s major newspapers. The highly public nature of this event and the backlash that accompanied its publication are quite uncommon, and they are an intriguing indicator of the still obscure nature of a physiological experience that occurs at least once in the lifetime of between 5 and 62 percent of the population. Yet importantly, subsequent readers of the Herald knew of the experience and were willing and able to set the record straight in their letters to the editor. The situation would have been much different had the same article been published thirty years ago.

Here I hope to explore the role that folklorists had in drawing attention to the existence and normalcy of SPHH, what they often refer to as “the Old Hag”. More specifically: how did they succeed in doing this and through what channels did their influence take effect? By examining these issues it is hoped that the interdisciplinary shift that this change of focus entailed in both the folkloric and medical communities will also be made manifest. This development owes a great deal to the work of the folklorist David J. Hufford from the Department of Humanities at Penn State University and Robert C. Ness from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Centre. Both Hufford’s 1982 book The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions and Ness’ 1978 article “The Old Hag Phenomenon as Sleep Paralysis: A Biocultural Interpretation” attempted to articulate the Old Hag as a unique phenomenon whose widespread cultural occurrence should be understood alongside a particular set of physiological conditions consistent with what psychologists and doctors were designating SPHH. Thus in this paper Ness’ and Hufford’s roles will be particularly important to the investigation.

By exploring the folkloric, anthropological and medical literature surrounding the changing approach to the Old Hag in the past 30 years, I hope to demonstrate how, in contrast to its earlier obscurity and misclassification, the folkloric turn instigated by figures such as Hufford and Ness near the beginning of the 1980s allowed for the isolation of the Old Hag as a stable, medically relevant phenomenon. While not immediately accepted, this suggested approach helped to changed the medical community’s focus on SPHH away from the usual associations with narcolepsy, epilepsy and schizophrenia, towards stress, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This movement was then predicated on a shift in the medical community’s understanding of the Old Hag’s pathological associations, and was mediated by medical anthropologists’ understanding of culture-bound syndromes, as well as the contributions made by researchers with cultural and ethnic backgrounds other than that of most modern western medical practitioners. The consequence of this “folkloric turn” has been that doctors and psychologists confronted with the Old Hag have increasingly come to see the value of folklore in treating patients experiencing the condition, particularly in cases of PTSD, and several folklorists have begun understanding their rolls as those of healers and medical researchers.

Doctors, Folklorists and the Phenomenon, 1979-1982:

The phenomenology of the Old Hag is typified by a number of striking characteristics: The impression of wakefulness and the capacity to hear things that are actually happening around the subject, total paralysis which sets in either upon waking or falling asleep, a felt presence of some (usually malevolent) entity nearby, auditory and visual hallucinations clearly set in the room in which the victim went to sleep, and pressure on the chest or other part of the body that interferes with respiration. While other experiences have been reported in association with the Old Hag, these are the basic traits most often attributed to the experience.

It is generally accepted that the modern medical study of dream phenomenon begins with the work of Sigmund Freud. However, Freud was often uncomfortable with bad dreams, for they challenged one of the central dogmas of his interpretive method: They could not easily be described as repressed wishes. The early work of attempting to understand them would be left to a disciple of Freud’s, the welsh psychologist Ernest Jones. His On The Nightmare concluded by claiming that many nightmare phenomena, including several that have since become associated with the Old Hag, were representative of sexual angst, in which a state of guilt is turned back upon the dreamer resulting in their frightening dreams. While this study was ultimately superseded, it nevertheless represents the earliest modern medical attempt to account for a variety of bad dream experiences and set the framework for later discussions.

Up until at least 1984 doctors and psychologists tended to view consistent bad dreams or experiences consistent with the Old Hag as indicative of some underlying pathology. For instance, the psychologist Ernest Hartmann, while seemingly unaware of the Old Hag as such, observed in his 1984 work on nightmares that extreme cases were often indicative of schizophrenic, or pre-schizophrenic personality types. The common co-occurrence of SPHH consistent with the Old Hag in narcoleptics was also the focus of many of these early studies. While the association in this case is entirely justified, people with narcolepsy do experience the Old Hag on average much more frequently than those without it, this connection had the further result of leading some researchers to suspect that the presence of Old Hag symptoms might necessarily be a sign of narcolepsy. While not as prevalent in the medical literature, clinical accounts also indicate that people coming to their physician during this time were often diagnosed as potential epileptics. Together these three tentative diagnoses, schizophrenia, narcolepsy and epilepsy, constituted doctors’ and psychologists’ primary response to patients describing Old Hag symptoms in the period prior to the folkloric turn.

In 1978 Robert C. Ness published a paper in Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry entitled “The Old Hag Phenomenon as Sleep Paralysis: A Biocultural Interpretation”. The main thesis of his paper was that the phenomenon of the Old Hag experienced by many Newfoundlanders was best explained by identifying it with SPHH, and that its widespread nature largely ruled out the exclusively pathological view advanced by many of his colleagues. As he argued at the time: “My opportunity to live and work for 13 months with people who had experienced attacks of the Old Hag convinced me that they were not suffering from any distinctive form of chronic or episodic emotional disturbance”. Furthermore, what was unusual at the time was that while Ness was acting in his role as a psychologist, his methodologies were decidedly folkloric.

Four years after the publication of Ness’ article, in 1982, the folklorist David Hufford published The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. This broad ranging study of the Old Hag likewise concluded that the cultural experience must be understood alongside the medical designation of SPHH, and that it was not necessarily associated with the pathologies usually attributed to it. More than this, Hufford stressed the widespread nature of the experience, the problems that modern western medicine has faced in attempting to properly isolate it, and how these difficulties had definite clinical consequences. For Hufford, understanding the Old Hag in folkloric terms had “potential medical and psychological significance”. This significance was owed partially to his view that “folk knowledge is sometimes well in advance of scientific knowledge”, as well as his conviction that it provides “an arena for genuinely interdisciplinary research”. In many ways his book was a self-conscious call to arms to the folkloric and medical communities to unite for the better understanding of the Old Hag.

The Meeting of Minds:

One of the earliest points of contact between folkloric and medical studies of the Old Hag in the years after the publication of Hufford’s and Ness’ work can be seen in the anthropological and psychological writings of the time period centered around the concept of the “culture-bound syndrome”. Even while being considered a “blurred” distinction at the time in which it was proposed, Ronald C. Simons, from the Department of Psychiatry at Michigan State University, described this class of syndrome as follows in his introduction to The Culture-Bound Syndromes: Folk Illnesses of Psychiatric and Anthropological Interest:

Unlike the categories of standard Western psychiatric nosology culture-bound syndromes are restricted to specifiable peoples and locales, hence the term ‘culture-bound’. Thus their full explications require description not only of the behaviors and experiences which are considered deviant, but also of the ways those behaviors and experiences are embedded in specific social systems and cultural context.

In the collection Ness’ essay on the Old Hag serves as a main feature for the discussion of the “sleep paralysis taxon”, and Simons makes a point of quoting at length The Terror that Comes in the Night, “a remarkable volume by David Hufford”. Furthermore, the follow-up to the section on sleep paralysis comments on the “striking” similarities in symptomology of the Old Hag in Ness’ article and the experience of uqamairineq and uqumanigianiq in an article on Eskimo SPHH presented in the same volume by Joseph D. Bloom, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oregon, and Richard D. Gelardin, from the Anchorage Community College. While the concept of the culture-bound syndrome often stood on a shaky footing, it clearly opened up a space in which medical researchers, anthropologists and folklorists such as Hufford could have their work mentioned in the same volume, and exposed to a wider professional audience than their isolated disciplines.

Outside of the concept of culture-bound syndromes it is informative to look at the work of Carl C. Bell, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Illinois School of Medicine. In 1986 Bell published an article in the Journal of the National Medical Association entitled “Further Studies on the Prevalence of Isolated Sleep Paralysis in Black Subjects”. In reviewing the existing literature on sleep paralysis Bell explicitly mentions the contributions made by Hufford. More than this, his discussion of the folklorist occupies most of the space dedicated to the previous literature, and emphasizes Hufford’s “significant contribution” to the study and understanding of SPHH. The widely cited paper was a follow up to a number of studies Bell had already published on the prevalence of isolated sleep paralysis in African American communities. In particular, a look at his 1984 article “Prevalence of Isolated Sleep Paralysis in Black Subjects” does much to shed light on his early reception of the folkloric contribution.

Two things in particular are interesting about Bell’s earlier work. Unlike most of the studies of his subject matter in the medical community, he does not emphasize the typical pathologies of the Old Hag, but instead draws his reader’s attention to its association with stress, depression and PTSD. As he observes:

being black in this society is associated with stress due to racism with its attendant lack of parity in housing, health care, employment, nutrition, education, and opportunities […]. It may well be that the high amounts of sleep paralysis seen in this population are the results of ‘survival fatigue’

Furthermore, it is apparent that Bell was not unaware of the cultural dimension of the Old Hag that exists in African American communities. As he comments near the end of his paper:

One finds cultural evidence for the high incidence of sleep paralysis in blacks in American black folklore, with references to the experience ‘the witch is riding you.’ This may refer to the common report of sleep paralysis victims that they feel as if someone is sitting on their chest or standing over their bed. Certainly, a genetic predisposition toward sleep paralysis among blacks would help to explain the finding that black cultural cosmology in black Africa is in part based on the existence of genies and spirits.

Hufford would argue that it was the presence of a cultural tradition that allowed African American’s to elaborate their experience, creating only the appearance of a greater incidence rate than in other populations. However, Bell’s attempt to link the cultural expression of the Old Hag with the prevalence of sleep paralysis represents a dramatic shift in the professional medical community’s approach to the condition. That his work represents a kind of milestone is further emphasized by his statement at the beginning of his paper that: “This study represents the first survey to measure the incidence of this disorder in a black population of healthy subjects and psychiatric patients”. By placing “healthy subjects” alongside those with some recognized pathology Bell was able to get a clearer picture of the prevalence of Old Hag experiences in the African American community that he studied. Two factors in particular, Bell’s desire to shift the focus away from the traditional pathologies of the Old Hag, as well as his attention to the cultural elaborations of sleep paralysis among African Americans, made him predisposed to the kind of accounts that the folklorists were making to describe the Old Hag. Also, the fact that Bell himself is an African American may not have been entirely unimportant in shaping his novel approach to the study of the experience.

In general there were two main responses to the initial presentation of the folkloric turn in studies of the Old Hag: it was either absent in the writings of psychologists and doctors when addressing symptoms of SPHH, or the roll of folklore in isolating it as a condition was addressed. When it is addressed, it is done so by medical practitioners who, while working within the rubric of modern western medicine, are often from alternative cultural or ethnic backgrounds. This is particularly so in the case of Japanese researchers, in whose culture the concept of the Old Hag already exists under the name of kanashibari. However, notably, in cases in which the researchers are embedded in the tradition of modern western medicine, their subjects of study are often refugee immigrant groups or other minorities in whose culture the Old Hag has some form of definite expression.

Getting a Handle on the Hag:

In March 2005 the journal Transcultural Psychology published an issue entirely dedicated to sleep paralysis (SPHH) consistent with Hufford’s articulation of the Old Hag. Hufford made a contribution to the collection with his article “Sleep Paralysis as Spiritual Experience”, and many of the entries featured a distinctly folkloric approach in the psychological treatment of a wide variety of ethnic groups. With the general acceptance of the Old Hag as a stable, wide spread and cross-cultural phenomenon, attention has turned away from the pathologies of schizophrenia, narcolepsy and epilepsy, and is now focused on the more purely psychological conditions of stress, depression and PTSD. This new direction is in keeping with both Hufford’s and Bell’s treatment of the experience, and resulted in the production of novel methods of diagnosis and treatment.

Devon E. Hinton’s paper “‘The Ghost Pushes You Down’: Sleep Paralysis-Type Panic Attacks in a Khmer Refugee Population”, in which a population of Cambodian refugees from the Khmer Rouge period were examined for cases of SPHH, is demonstrative of this trend. One of the keys to his observations is that “SP [sleep paralysis] is a core aspect of the Cambodian refugees response to trauma; when assessing Cambodian refugees, and traumatized refugees in general, clinicians should assess for its presence“. This emphasis on the experience of the Old Hag in a culture in which there is a definite equivalent led the researchers to emphasize the importance of detecting the presence of the condition in sufferers of PTSD. This roll is particularly importance, since, as the study concludes:

Increased daytime anxiety and panic initiated by SP will subsequently lead to yet more conditioning of fear to arousal symptoms; increased arousal; and more night-time awakening. In turn, these three processes lead to more SP. Hence, a self-perpetuating cycle is initiated.

This sentiment in mirrored in a 2008 study of the link between PTSD resulting from childhood abuse and SPHH. In it the clinical psychologist Murray P. Abrams et al from the University of Regina likewise conclude that: “It is therefore reasonable to suggest that SP may itself be a substantially traumatizing experience, irrespective of whether or not it is specifically related to a prior trauma”. What is particularly notable in these works is that they do not suggest that individuals who experience the Old Hag and associated phenomenon are at any greater risk of schizophrenia or epilepsy. Indeed, the opposite is now the case. The presence of Old Hag symptoms is seen as a factor that should dissuade doctors and psychiatrists from making hasty diagnoses of schizophrenia, particularly in the case of immigrants. For example, Joop de Jong, a psychiatrist and professor of mental health and culture at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in his 2005 study of cultural variations in the presentation of isolated sleep paralysis emphasizes that this greater understanding can prevent the misdiagnosis of otherwise normal patients. As he says:

It is quite obvious that mental health professionals should be aware of the existence of this diagnosis, because the hallucinatory experiences may easily result in false-positive diagnoses of psychoses, especially among immigrant groups who more likely receive a diagnosis of (paranoid) schizophrenia.

This statement is far removed from Hartmann’s 1984 work and its accompanying support for a largely schizophrenic or pre-schizophrenic treatment of a wide array of Old Hag and nightmare phenomenon.

As seems evident from these considerations, the folkloric turn also brought with it novel methods of treatment, particularly in the area of PTSD, in which it was realized that the Old Hag could produce a feedback loop in which sufferers of PTSD are further traumatized. Attempting to disrupt this loop is seen as a new goal of treatment and is often accomplished merely by informing the patient of the normalcy and non-life threatening nature of the experience. As a testament to the interdisciplinary nature of this insight, the methods of addressing the “cycle of trauma” recognized in Abrams’ paper directly references Hufford’s work: “Education alone may provide relief, […] such information may also help ameliorate the initial shock and fear commonly associated with a SP episode (Hufford, 2005)”. These sentiments have also been mirrored elsewhere in the recent literature.

The consequences go further than this in Hinton’s paper however, for an attention to the folk beliefs of people suffering from the Old Hag comes to play a direct roll in the diagnosis and treatment of the various stresses contributing to the condition:

One should determine when the SP events began. If the episodes commenced during the Khmer Rouge period, trauma events at that time are implicated; if the onset of SP was at a later point, issues of interpersonal conflict, such as acting-out of children or gang involvement or spousal abuse, may be especially important. One should ask about self-treatment. One should elicit patient’s thoughts about the origin of SP. Also, one should carefully document the phenomenology of the sleep paralysis and post-sleep paralysis state.

These folk beliefs can thus provide important clues as to the origins and potential treatment methods of the stresses associated with the Old Hag, and is largely achieved through a more careful attention to what individuals believe about their own health, and by creating a space in which disclosure of experiences outside of the usual rubric of modern western medicine is encouraged.

The new options this approach has provided for the treatment of patients experiencing the Old Hag has been acknowledged by others. As early as 1992, Jude Uzoma Ohaeri from the Department of Psychiatry at the University College Hospital likewise concluded that: “It is hoped that doctors in general medical practice and in psychological medicine in developing countries where belief in supernatural causation of illness is rife will consider these factors in order to provide more effective treatment”. If the growing number of works that recognize this point is any indication of prevailing trends, we may conclude that from the interplay of folklore and medicine a novel phenomenon has been identified and treatments derived, which would not have been possible without the medical insights of the folklorists, or the cultural attention of the doctors involved.

The interdisciplinary victory represented by this new understanding of the Old Hag brought with it changing views in the medical and folkloric communities about the value of each other’s work. Several folklorists and medical anthropologists such as Shelly Adler, from the Division of Medical Anthropology in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California, have begun to see their roll as that of active medical researchers with valuable insights on the origin and identification of culturally defined illnesses. Nowhere is this understanding more forcefully expressed than in Adler’s work:

The ease with which folk tradition isolates the nightmare experience [the Old Hag], however, is in marked contrast to the continuing confusion that characterizes current scientific investigations into the phenomenon. Perhaps the most difficult problem involves distinguishing the specific nightmare incident from other sleep disorders, particularly the night terror, Pavor nocturnus. The terms nightmare and night terror are often used interchangeably and are incorrectly assumed to refer to the same experience. Even among researchers who have considered a possible connection between SUNDS [Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome] and certain “dreams” of the Hmong (e.g., Lemoine and Mougne 1983; Melles and Katz 1988; Tobin and Friedman 1983), progress is impeded by the lack of consistent use of an accurate characterization of the nightmare.

Likewise, clinical psychologists such as those represented in the May 2005 issue of Transcultural Psychiatry have increasingly come to recognize the importance of cultural variations in the presentation of the Old Hag, and its consequences for diagnosis and treatment.

It is also interesting to note the process of social construction that has taken place in dealing with Old Hag symptoms both before and after the folkloric turn. It is probable that western medicine’s outlook on hallucinatory symptoms helped to shape the pathological interpretation of early accounts of the Old Hag. In such a context patients reporting dramatic spiritual or paranormal experiences, particularly those from cultural backgrounds outside of the norm of modern medical practice, were much more likely to be seen as suffering from a major psychological condition. This had the combined effect of making patients less likely to come forward with this set of symptoms, as well as serving to further isolate minority and immigrant cultural groups from mainstream medicine.

However, elements of social construction can likewise be seen after the folkloric turn. In the case of Carl Bell’s research it seems evident that an emphasis on the subjugation of minorities played into the interpretation of the Old Hag as the product of stress, depression and PTSD. Adler’s touching articulation of the plight of Hmong immigrants in America further demonstrates this trend. Yet it must also be noted that as an experience whose cultural elaboration has taken on greater emphasis, the degree to which it is considered “culturally” constructed becomes much more flexible and informative than with the earlier pathological view.

Regardless of the degree to which interpretations of the Old Hag have been culturally constructed, the background of these considerations would benefit from further study. For instance, what changes took place from the 1980s to the present in the ways that the medical community approached the problems of war related trauma in immigrant and refugee populations? Alongside the notable case of Carl Bell, how did the socio-economic and cultural position of African Americans and other minorities change in relation to the medical community to allow for the study of the Old Hag? It may very well be that a large part of this shift is due to an increase in the number or activity of medical practitioners whose cultural backgrounds varied from that of traditional modern medicine. If this is the case it would not be unreasonable to suspect that the assumptions and biases that led early researches to associate hallucinatory experiences with severe mental pathologies might be absent or modified in their work. The role of Japanese researchers in particular is worthy of further study, for Japanese medicine represents a unique fusion of modern western medical practice within a non-western culture that already had a developed notion of the Old Hag in the form of kanashibari.

On the side of the folklorists, it would be fruitful to note how many of them had experienced the Old Hag before becoming interested in its role in their area of study. This is the case with Hufford, who first experienced the condition while a student at university. The typical stresses of university students, with frequent disruptions in sleep, constant deadlines and alienating figures of authority, combined with growing pressure placed upon them by larger class sizes and poor job prospects for the future, may increase the rate of the Old Hag in this population. If so, it would be worthwhile to examine the role that student life has played in shaping the interests of folklorist to see if changing levels of stress and depression made it ever more likely that they would direct their attention towards this experience.

That the folkloric turn of the 1980s did occur and helped to shape the ways in which the symptoms of the Old Hag were treated by psychologists and doctors now seems certain. The shift away from diagnoses of schizophrenia, narcolepsy and epilepsy, towards those of depression, stress and PTSD that was instigated by the folklorists was mediated to the larger medical community by researchers that studied or were part of minority groups who often had some discreet notion of the Old Hag as a stable and non-pathological phenomenon. The psychological concept of the culture-bound syndrome also played a part in widening the medical audience for this particular interpretation of the symptoms of the Old Hag. Once adopted, it cleared the way for novel methods of treatment and clinical practice that saw their most immediate consequences for immigrant refugees whose concerns had been previously marginalized or misdiagnosed as being more pathological than they actually were. By looking into the channels through which this process took place, and at the larger cultural issues that set the context for this change, it will be possible to glean yet further insights into a common human experience that has been silenced for longer than can be explained by traditional accounts of dispassionate medical research. At the very least, it highlights the importance and value of heterodoxy to modern western medicine, and forces a reevaluation of the role of folk beliefs in the mental health of individuals. It is hoped that we may now be able to come to terms with the experience of the Old Hag and gain some further insights into its future role at the crossroads of folklore and medicine.

For More Information:

The Devil’s Trill:

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—. “Introduction: The Sleep Paralysis Taxon” in The Culture-Bound Syndromes: Folk Illnesses of Psychiatric and Anthropological Interest. Ed. Ronald C. Simons and Charles C. Hughes. D. Reidel Publishing Company: Dordrecht, 1985.

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“Voice of the People”. The Chronicle Herald [Halifax] December 14th 2006, Metro and Provincial, The Mail Star: A12.