Nightmares strike us when we're most vulnerable—lax in sleep in the darkness of night. Knowing that they're fabrications of our own imagination are of little comfort when we're in the thick of it. The terror is made all the worse if you're part of the unlucky demographic that suffers from sleep paralysis. Trapped between wakefulness and sleep, while suffering from sleep paralysis one is unable to move as their dreams bleed over into their real environment.
The hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis can be strange sounds like a buzzing or growling, flashes of light, animals, people, or strange figures. When it comes to typical nightmares, recurring themes are fairly common—teeth falling out, being chased, falling from a great height. But among those struggling with sleep paralysis, there is one hallucination that is common all across the globe: the shadowy presence known as The Hat Man.
Witnesses describe the Hat Man as donning either a top hat or a fedora and wearing a jacket often observed to be a trench coat. He stands at an estimated six to ten feet tall. Some claim he has glowing red eyes, while others attest that he is made only of shadow with no distinguishable facial features. Several accounts reference a gold pocket watch on a chain, which he glances at from time to time.
But why are vastly different individuals from an array of cultures and geographies all experiencing the same night terror? Some experts hypothesize that The Hat Man is an unconscious reworking of figures out of pop culture. One significant name that comes to mind here is Freddy Krueger, a horror icon that has persisted at the forefront of horror media for the past four decades. It's an easy connection to make, given that the gruesome character attacks when you're most vulnerable.
However, other experts have a more neurological explanation for the hallucination. One paper from 2017 postulates that REM sleep generates highly emotionally charged dreams, thus causing our body to enter a state of paralysis to ensure we don't cause harm to ourselves. When people's minds awaken before their body, the area of the brain in charge of processing the body map and self is disturbed, which causes the dreamer to project a humanoid figure.
In a vastly different direction, some who suffer from this particular vision hold the belief that it's not a hallucination at all, but rather a visit from a very real supernatural force. These allegations state that, just because The Hat Man is mostly stationary, that doesn't mean that he's harmless. On most occasions, those who see him recall a deep and intense terror at the fairly simple sight. Some believe that he feeds on terror. Multiple reports say that rather than vanishing as other hallucinations do, The Hat Man walks away as if he were a real person.
Contradicting the theory that The Hat Man is a hallucination derived from Freddy Krueger, evidence of similar shadowy figures has been found dating back to the beginning of written record. Several religions and legends refer to "shades," which are spiritual entities. No agreement has been reached about whether these shadow beings are good, bad, or otherwise neutral.
Ufologists have their own take on The Hat Man. They believe that the sightings of this figure could be a visit from an alien species who are observing the human way of life. As most accounts of The Hat Man sightings report he merely watches them from a doorway, closet, or corner, it lends some amount of credibility to the theory.
Alternatively, the accounts by dreamers that The Hat Man has approached them or hovered above them seem to support the scientific sleep paralysis theory. Some people say they've seen The Hat Man during the day, and some go further to say they've bumped against the shadowy substance, giving cause for an in-depth paranormal investigation. Reports that people have seen The Hat Man following a traumatic experience suggest there may be a significant spiritual or emotional factor involved in his sightings.
Other theories claim he is a creature from another dimension. A ghost with more physical control than most. An astral-projection. Some say he is the Devil himself.
In my personal experience with sleep paralysis, I have seen all manner of things. A bunny hopping across the floor (Adorable). An old school colleague crouched like a gargoyle at the foot of my bed (Unsettling). On one memorable occasion, the witch from The Conjuring (Oddly unaffecting). All of these appeared to me in strikingly vivid detail.
It Was a Dark and Creepy Night
But The Hat Man was like nothing else. The sheer cold-sweating terror of the sight of him pales in comparison to everything else. Even just talking about him now gives me a creeping sense of unease. I'm neither a scientist nor a paranormal expert, so I can hardly say for certain what I saw that night. Was it a deep-seated fear of the unknown playing tricks on my brain? A brush with something terrible and hungry?
All I know is that I'm far from the only person who's been frozen beneath the watchful gaze of this haunting figure.
Images courtesy of "The Hat Man: Documented Cases of Pure Evil"