23 Mar Old Hag Madness
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"Old Hag Madness"Written by Shane Michaels
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Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
When the leaves began to fall that first week in October so many years ago, I could not have been less prepared for what would ultimately alter the course of my life and any foreseeable future linked to it. Autumn was the time of year that I would spring to life, even as God and society had both declared that a natural state of death, and the ensuing celebrations of it, were far more statutory. Perhaps that was its allure; a seasonal reminder that there was a valid finality to all things, and that succumbing to it would be inexorably linked to my fate.
Capitalism would take my hand and walk me down the aisle of Halloween matrimony, my bride-to-be a shopping cart full of archaic, gothic, and gory accouterments, ready to be displayed proudly in my home and atop my desk at work. The faithful cart and I would exchange our vows at a cash register with the swipe of my debit card, and the ordained cashier would pronounce us the husband and wife of horror, our marriage license a lengthy receipt, our honeymoon destination, an as of yet undecorated household, awaiting us that very evening. We were to jet-set off to disrupt the present state of my abode for the next month, and there would be no turning back.
I should preemptively note that despite the exciting and positive energy surrounding me and my state of mind during this time of the year, I would inevitably fall victim to bouts of sleep paralysis. If you have never experienced this phenomenon, I can only say that I hope that you never do. While science has performed its ceremonious duty and explained the “how” of sleep paralysis, we don’t fully understand the “why” – and this is the first bit of fright that I will inject into my tale. You see, sleep paralysis has been documented for centuries, at one point given the moniker “Old Hag Syndrome”, as the condition’s onset is accompanied by, what has been illustrated most notably by the late 18th-century artist Henry Fuseli, an old hag resting upon the chest of the unconscious. This illustration serves two purposes – first, to convey the feeling of weighted helplessness to the viewer, and second, to portray what is visible to the victim upon waking. Science tells us that sleep paralysis occurs when we wake during the REM phase of sleep, when the body is dutifully paralyzed by two chemical systems in the brain, ionotropic receptors and metabotropic GABAB receptors, presumably to prevent us from acting out during our dream states. The awful truth about sleep paralysis is that, upon waking, neither the paralysis nor the dream state goes away, though a state of consciousness returns. Thus, one remains paralyzed while awake. And yet, this is not the horror of the event in totality; the old hag isn’t simply just felt, but seen. This can occur in several different ways – shadows darting across the walls and the ceiling, a figure lying next to you or sitting atop your motionless body, perhaps even heard with scratching nails or chittering, whispery voices. It is dark by every definition. There, you see – terror in being unable to move, to tell the malevolent figure to get away, to scream for help when you see that figure sitting in a dark corner of your bedroom – a shadow upon shadows. You believe you are going to die, and you cannot fight back.
It is in this spirit that I push play and resume my tale.
The drive home was pleasant that night – a series of twists and turns westward through the hill country of central Texas, where one wouldn’t expect that beautiful turning leaves are visible hanging from near-skeletal branches of oak trees, the backdrop on this particular night illuminated by snaking tendrils of the Colorado River and a wondrously naked, pale moon ornamenting a cloudless night sky. While cruising the hills, I enjoyed keeping the windows rolled down, so that ten-degree changes in temperature variation rushed against my skin as the hills dipped and swayed and rose higher and higher, taking me away from city light pollution and toward rural solitude.
I parked my car in the severely inclined driveway, securing its position with the emergency brake, then grabbed my bags of Halloween décor and strolled up to my front door. My keys jangled against the stillness of the night, complementing the soft, crinkling sound of overstuffed plastic bags hanging from my fingers and forearms as I unlocked the front door to my residence, stepped across the threshold, and spotted the perfect resting place for my loot.
My home sat within a semi-isolated area on a two-acre plot, elevated slightly upon one of those aforementioned hills, and while there were neighbors scattered about in every direction, in homes similar to mine dotting the usually green landscape, I remained otherwise unbothered. The location made for a fantastic party spot, and my annual Halloween bash that year was sure to edge out the previous one.
I turned back and glanced outside. A streetlight was visible about a half-mile away, casting its orange glow upon nature’s shroud, and various fauna could be heard traveling and conversing through the still night air. I closed the front door, bolted both locks, and made my way into the kitchen for a very late dinner. The microwave clock showed 1:52 PM, but that wasn’t right – I had never set the time after all my electronics were victimized by a power surge at the hands of a furious central Texas storm a few days prior. I pulled my phone from my right pocket – 10:13 PM. Dinner, then bed. I needed to get some sleep.
I don’t actually recall falling asleep that night, but this is where my personal nightmare began.
It was this series of sounds that woke me from my slumber, and forced me to ask myself in the moment: “Am I really awake?” I intended to sit up, but immediately found that this was not possible. My arms would not move, and when I attempted to turn my head to glance down at them to investigate why, I found that this too was not possible. I was flat on my back, staring up at the ceiling. My fan was gently spinning, circulating air as one would expect, and producing the soft, rhythmic hum of a motor turning and blades slicing through space.
Fingernails, whispers, and chittering.
Panic began to set in. A sinking feeling, as I attempted to roll over, but again, found that I could not. The fingernails lightly scratched my pillow just behind and to the right of my head, but I couldn’t budge. A voice, a whisper laced with venom, spoke in sentences, in that certain way that incantations are crafted, but in a language that could not be discerned. Out of the corner of my eye, a shadow emerged – a slow and malicious figure that darted quite suddenly across the ceiling, and settled in the far corner of my bedroom. I could only watch and listen.
It was here that my body snapped back into action. Perhaps it was the perceived applied force of intended motion that caused my left arm to swing about as I sat up quickly, drenched in a cold sweat and heaving breath from my lungs faster than I could take it back in. I looked to the corner and saw nothing – emptiness. And yet, I was not alone. A sudden break in light from my bedroom window caused me to cast my gaze in its direction, and a face stared back. My breath caught in my lungs, and I swung my legs over the opposite side of the bed.
The face stared back, unyielding and unwavering in its silent visage with its abyssal eyes.
Just as suddenly, it was gone.
I won’t bore you with the details of the rest of that night. It was sleepless. Sleep paralysis was not unknown to me by that point in my life, but experiences had never been as profound. Upon abandoning its state of paralysis, my body had always been very quick to react, allowing my mind to fully cast aside any remnants of its haunting, demonic, nighttime jaunt through dream Hell. For the first time, the episode seemed to blend seamlessly into an extended reality, overdosing my senses and making me question: was the face outside of my window real? Were those eyes – those dark, emotionless eyes – were they actually watching me in my state of anxiety, fear and helplessness? There were no definitive answers to these questions, but logic dictated that this episode had simply been worse than previous ones, and so the answer absolutely had to be no. I did my best to convince myself of this into the next morning.
A new day granted me a fresh perspective, and let’s be honest – I was eager to begin applying décor, mixing old favorites with new acquisitions, and casting the false equivalencies of the previous night’s events out of my mind. I began pulling dusty boxes out of my office and bedroom closets, and arranging them by the rooms they were labeled with in black marker: living room, kitchen, dining area, and bathroom. Yes, bathroom – because scaring the literal shit out of someone during a Halloween party is one of the most incredible acts to perform, particularly when alcohol is involved.
This process went on for hours. A box was opened, its contents spread before me for further categorization and distribution. The empty box was then folded accordingly, and tucked back into a closet. Iron sconces nailed to my living room wall above my red leather sectional were adorned with polyester spiderwebs, with rubber spiders dangling airily by a single thread attached to a foot. A newly-acquired six-foot coffin now stood inside the front entryway, ready to be occupied on the night of my Halloween party. I stretched the spiderwebs further to create a web tunnel between the sconces and the entryway, careful to make sure that the webs were attached in places low enough to avoid any potential fire hazards from lit candles that would be positioned in the sconces, as well as along the kitchen bar and nearby shelving units. As the day progressed and the sun began to make a hasty retreat across the pastel sky, I began tinkering with my new Philips Hue lighting system. My studio lights could be redirected, and so this was done with the intent to ensure that any colored lighting schemes were most effective in highlighting each decoration in the best possible way. Vibrant reds, blues, and purples were absorbed by the spiderwebs, and cascaded down walls that were filled in with framed canvas artwork and horror flick posters. Each hue blended perfectly into the next from room, to hallway, to room, and brought to life my new patio door curtains that displayed a stunning nebula sporting the same color palette. The first day of Halloween decorating was coming to a close, and I had very nearly forgotten about the previous night’s black magic. Little did I know, that was just the beginning. New horrors awaited.
Texas was known for many things. Its ego in all things “bigger’n,” its live music and entertainment capitals, its military bases and its professional sports teams, and for menial attractions like the Marfa Lights. For over a hundred years, the Marfa Lights had been documented by locals and tourists alike, but a logical explanation or deduction of their existence was ever validated. A UFO presence seemed like the most fun and entertaining validation, which is precisely what put Marfa on the tourist map and brought in folks from all over the world to try to bear witness to that wondrous phenomenon. That I should have a personal, tangible encounter never seemed to be of any consideration, until night two. Oh, that second night, when reality took a turn down a path I had never been.
A little after 11:00 PM, I crept into my bedroom, ready to pass out from a combination of the previous night’s events and the day’s decorating mixed in with typical household chores like laundry and dishes. It had been a fantastic Saturday all things considered, and Sunday looked to be a great wrap to the first October weekend. I had never been one for making my bed, so sheets and blankets were unkempt, just as I liked them, and I crawled into bed with only comfort, and not neatness, in mind. I asked Alexa to set an alarm for 8:00 AM the following morning, and requested that she play thunderstorm sounds on a volume two setting to help shut off my mind with ambient, natural noise.
Burning, my eyes couldn’t escape the light. It was everywhere.
I woke to the above, and while I found that I could move freely this time, the brightness of the light washing over my bedroom prevented me from identifying its source. The hairs on the back of my neck and on my arms began to tingle, as I felt each rise up and brush up against one another as if exposed to heavy amounts of static electricity. A gentle hum resounded through the whitewashed room, adding to this unnatural sensory audit and constructing another layer of confusion in my mind. My torso felt light, and as I sat up and jumped to my feet, I discovered that my legs were also light and airy, no longer constrained by gravitational conventions.
I rushed toward the blazing portal to the outside world, and tried to glance upward through squinted eyes and cupped hands, to no avail. Despite my efforts, no source of the debilitating radiance could be identified. My anxiety and my rate of breathing both increased in a correlating fashion, almost combating the physical weightlessness I felt by dropping an emotional giant atop my shoulders. With only a slight hesitation, I emerged from my trance and doubled back to my bed, shaking from the insanity that I had found myself a part of, terror in my bones and madness crawling across my skin. I felt like a child as I curled up under my sheets and blankets, burying my head in an attempt to shield myself from the intensity beyond.
The humming stopped.
I felt heavier.
My hair follicles no longer tingled, and my hair settled back into place.
No. No, this couldn’t be. From one horror to the next, my mind was nearly at a breaking point. Back to back nights, I had suffered at the hands of unexplainable circumstances, one set shrouded in darkness, the other masked behind blinding radiance. Yet, the fingernails began clawing, and the chittering voices in that indiscernible tongue began chanting, and I my grip on reality began to peel away as if being dismantled by those terrible fingernails themselves. This time, there was no accompanying paralysis. There were no wakeful dreams, and no previous state of unconsciousness to fall back on as the causation of dreamscape projections into reality. Hours passed, the sounds never ceasing. I could not bring myself to stay under those blankets for the duration of the night, waiting for the sounds to end and the shadows to succumb to the first rays of the new day’s light. I was rigid on my bed, frozen in that horizontal position with my head propped upon my pillow, chasing that awful shadow around my room, until it settled in the very same corner and waited.
The darkness of the night began to fade.
From pitch black to dark gray, light gray to early morning blue, the Sunday morning sky outside washed away the lingering nightmare seemingly imprisoned in my bedroom; but my own personal prison remained.
To prevent my mind from shattering, I felt like I had to get up and proceed with the day’s agenda. The idea of breakfast was just that – an idea. I could not bring myself to eat, as I truly felt as though consuming anything at all, as consumed as I was, would result in vomiting it all right back up. A cold glass of water was the best that I could muster, and from there, a morning pour of Glenfiddich 18 Year Scotch, neat, with two milliliters of water added by precision from an eyedropper to release the oak notes. I entered into this arrangement hoping that hydration and a bit of alcohol might calm my mind and relax the nerves, but my manic act of decorating my home for that damn Halloween party decidedly dissuaded any relief from other means.
I positioned candy bowls atop the kitchen bar, and began toying with my sound system. Wireless speakers were new additions this year, so finding the perfect placement to maximize sound performance was a top priority. After scouting out locations and rearranging a few smaller pieces of furniture ever so slightly, the speakers were positioned, and the first sound test produced haunting organ music that thickened the atmosphere with solemn excitement. Bass and treble were nearly enough to vibrate the previous night’s events out of my thoughts, but not quite.
The day progressed, and still I could not find a desire to introduce calories to my body. Sustenance was not a priority, as my Halloween party was all that I could think about that even remotely offered relief from the madness of the last two nights.
Night three quickly approached. Time passed in a flurry and slowed to a standstill, minute by minute and hour by hour, until darkness swept across the hill country, trailing a swath of amber light still granting a stage to those beautifully haggard autumn oaks. I sat in the living room, planted firmly in my trusty, comfortable armchair, admiring my day’s work and glancing occasionally at the television. The sound was low, demanding that attention be given if any sense of the programming was to be made. It took me several moments to realize that a laugh track was playing, iconic of sit-coms from the 90’s – appropriate. I had not laughed in forty-eight hours, and the sound of laughter emanating from the television, as soft as it was, reached my ears and softened my mind a touch. “Friends.” Mine would be here in just a few weeks.
A sudden burst of movement snapped my attention away from the television and to the hardwood floor, as a scuttling sound followed. Clickity-clack, little legs making impact on the solid surface, as a cockroach made its presence known. I had grown accustomed to not killing the things, opting instead to cast them outside with hefty tosses for other inhabitants of the natural world to do with as they would. This roach was no exception; I stood, collected an empty mason jar, and scooped the doomed pest inside. As I approached my front door, I could hear those little legs scratching up against the glass, and I nearly dropped the jar.
I opened the front door and heaved the little demon into a pile of collected leaves in the front of my yard. A meal for another scavenger, perhaps.
I turned back into the entryway and closed the front door, perhaps with a bit more of a slam than I normally would have. Hastily, I locked both bolts, turned on the front porch light, and made my way back into the living room. I had left my phone resting on the right arm of my chair; I picked it up, and checked the time – 11:06 PM. Time for bed. Bed.
The scuttling noise distracted me once more, with its accompanying clickity-clack. Little legs made their way across the hardwood floor once more. I turned, glancing in the direction of the regrettable sound, but did not see another roach. Instead, nothing. No sound, except for the soft laugh track – in my haste, I had failed to turn off my television. I returned to the dark red armchair, picked up the television remote, and ended that soft laughter for the night. Forever, it would turn out.
Holding on to those cheery sounds, I made my way past hanging pictures in the hallway leading to my bedroom. The door to the room was cracked, and there a sliver of light edged its way inside, stretching across the floor and jutting up at a ninety-degree angle along the wall. The door creaked slightly as I opened it, almost as if issuing a warning, screaming at the top of its rusty lungs to turn away, for fear of becoming as unhinged as I was. Ignoring the warning, I made my way into the master bathroom, brushed my teeth, rinsed and gargled with mouthwash, and appreciated the burn of minty fresh alcohol as I undressed and climbed into bed.
Nothing had ever felt as provocative as sleep felt in the moment that my body hit memory foam. There was impact, and then there was silence, and there was no greater relief. Sleep beckoned with its promises of peace and quiet and hopefully an adventure or two in a faraway place.
My eyes closed.
They opened, looked to the window, and there, those abyssal eyes embedded in that menacing face, watching me, and watching the shadows of my bedroom.
My eyes closed.
I awoke once more, and it is here that my tale approaches its end. You see, I was no longer in my bedroom, and my mattress was no longer underneath me, cradling me in comfort. I was strapped to a cold table, in a cold and black room, darkened nearly to the point of pitch, paralyzed and unable to speak.
Fingernails, whispers, and chittering.
Sets of abyssal eyes stared at me from observation windows, while a shadowy figure darted around the room, and something scuttled with its clickity-clack across a solid floor. While I could not move, I felt weightless, suspended, and realized that the table I rested upon was not grounded, but elevated to the spatial center of the room. In the middle of the night, I had been transported – to where, I didn’t know, and perhaps I never would. How long I had been in this place, I did not know, but as I regained consciousness, I slowly recalled waking up over and over and over again, dozens of times. Hundreds of times. Thousands of times. Each time, the shadows, and the rasps, and the scratches from those fingernails, and the chittering, and the scuttling, and the clickity-clack permeated my field of vision and my hearing, so that no other memories of those wakeful experiences could be retained.
The shadowy figure with its rasps and its chittering settled in the darkest upper corner of the observation room, while the clickity-clack halted. The chittering continued, growing louder this time, louder and louder, until it broke into a wailing shriek. I closed my eyes.
I do not know where I am, when I am, or if this madness will ever end. What I do know, is that I have encountered extraterrestrial life. I have encountered demons. They have encountered each other. But I have not encountered God. I am not alone, but it is not He who is with me.
Perhaps Nietzsche was right.
God is dead.
But we… we are not alone.
I hope I get to have my Halloween party.
Credit: Shane Michaels
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