Tales of things that go bump in the night are often met with scepticism but one nightmarish figure keeps cropping up in reports from all around the world.
Numerous people claim to have woken in the dark to find a shadowy figure, dubbed the Hat Man, looming over them.
So who or what is the Hat Man?
It is not a new phenomenon. For about as long as written records have existed, “people have described a frightening night-time vision that paralyses them with fear and seems to suck the breath right out of them, often by pressing directly upon their chest”, reports Quartz.
“The entity has stalked human beings throughout history, not merely within a particular society or during a specific time,” says Shelley Adler in her book Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection.
Adler became interested in the way nightmares differ across cultures after reading about the unusual nocturnal deaths of several ethnic Hmong refugees who had emigrated to the US from Laos.
In a four year period from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, 18 otherwise healthy young Hmong men who had moved to the US died suddenly in their sleep. Over the next decade nearly 100 more deaths followed, all with a similar profile.
However further research conducted in the decades since has concluded that Sunds deaths may have a different root cause, known as Brugada syndrome, a genetic condition which is affects people of Southeast Asian descent typified by irregular heartbeats and – as with the spate of cases which interested Adler – an increase in the risk of sudden death.
Moving her attention to the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, and other places where such deaths were more common, Adler found that the syndrome had a different name, which roughly translates to “nightmare” or “nightmare death syndrome.”
Hoping to better understand the visions associated with the syndrome, Adler interviewed Hmong refugees living in Stockton, California.
The group all testified to experiencing common nightmares, which featured a figure they called dab tsog, a malevolent force that came during the night, pressing on a victim’s chest and attempting to suffocate them. Almost all of those Alder interviewed were familiar with dab tsog and 58% of them said they had experienced a visitation themselves.
But the Hmong were not the first group to have such a record of such visitations.
Among the Canadian Inuit, the word uqumangirniq described this awake-but-paralysed feeling, while the Japanese call it kanashibari.
In the field of sleep research, “this experience is termed sleep paralysis: an individual, in the process of falling asleep or awakening, finds himself or herself completely awake, but unable to move or speak… frequently, he or she sees a shadowy or indistinct shape approaching and becomes increasingly terrified”, Adler writes.
What is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a common occurrence that, according to a 2011 US study, affects almost 8% of people regularly.
Dr Alon Avidan, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at University of California, Los Angeles, told Quartz that visions of spiders and insects are also common among sufferers.
“What they’re seeing is very real to them, and they’re reacting to the image in a way that seems to be very similar across individuals, across cultures, and across geographies,” Avidan said.
Some experts say the idea of the Hat Man may be subconscious reworkings of figures from popular culture, including popular horror films in recent times.
“When I sat and thought about [the Hat Man], the thing that came to my mind was Freddy Krueger [from the film A Nightmare on Elm Street],” said Christopher French, a psychology professor at Goldsmiths, University of London. “This notion that you can be attacked when you’re asleep, that’s when you’re vulnerable. And of course, Krueger wears a hat.”
But a 2017 paper by leading neuroscientists Baland Jalal and V.S. Ramachandran proposed neurological theories for why some people hallucinate shadowy figures during sleep paralysis.
Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep often creates the most emotionally charged dreams, so our brain paralyses our body to ensure we don’t hurt ourselves. Sometimes we wake up mentally while still under the “spell” of REM paralysis and the “vivid – sometimes terrifying – dreams of REM sleep can spill over into emerging wakefulness”, the two scientists conclude.
They theorise that the part of the brain responsible for processing the body map and self is disturbed, often resulting in the dreamer projecting a human-like figure.