‘A terrifying entity is haunting the people of South Carolina. The Gullah people of this region have long said “Don’t let de hag ride ya!” before they settle into bed for the night. This is the dreaded Boo Hag, a regional variant of the Old Hag, which is a vampirelike creature that sits on the chests of sleeping people. It then steals the victim’s lifeforce by causing terrifying nightmares.
The Boo Hag (also known as the Slip-Skin Hag) is an entity that is very similar to the Vampire of Central and Eastern European folklore (although whether she is a witch, a ghost, a demon, or a revenant of some kind is unclear). It is said that, like her counterpart (the Old Hag), she sits on the chests of her victims and “rides” them. During the attack, the Hag steals their breath (the Spiritus Vitae, known as the “Breath of Life” or, put simply, the lifeforce). She is known to inhabit abandoned houses, which generally lie deep within the swamps of South Carolina that she calls home.
The Boo Hag herself is difficult to miss (or to forget, for that matter) once she reveals her true form (assuming that she isn’t invisible). The Boo Hag has no skin to call her own and, because of this, her muscles, tendons, and bulging arteries are horrifically exposed (the muscle itself is said to be blood-red). If a brave man were to attempt to grapple with the Hag, he would feel the unmistakable sensation of grabbing a hunk of raw meat. However, wrestling with the Boo Hag is hardly an advisable course of action, as the creature possesses supernatural strength and can easily overpower a full-grown man.
With that being said, the Boo Hag’s skin is not her own. She steals the skin from those victims that struggle during her attack and that she actually kills (usually young women, although she has been known to take the form of a man as well), and wears it as her own. Therefore, it is advisable not to fight her or otherwise struggle during an encounter with the Hag. During the day, she appears to be an ordinary woman. Most commonly, the Boo Hag appears as a young and beautiful lady, but she may also take the form of a harmless old woman. But by night, the Hag removes her skin and takes to the skies (some say as a ball of light), flying about in search of those whom she may harass and torture whilst they sleep. Victims of the Hag are said to experience sleep paralysis (during which one is aware of his surroundings, but is unable to move), may wake up with strange scratches, insomnia due to recurring nightmares, and will succumb to exhaustion and illness as a result. All together, these symptoms will lead to mental illness and inevitable death. But how does the Hag do this? Very simply, she “rides” her victims. She sits on the victim’s chest and, by doing so, she restricts or even completely stops the person’s breathing, which could lead to suffocation if the Boo Hag doesn’t stop before death occurs. If the victim is a man, she may even rape him (which gives the phrase “hag-ridden” a whole new meaning). But even if one figures out that he is being attacked by this creature, stopping her is extremely difficult. The Boo Hag may become invisible at will, and she can pass through the tiniest cracks, holes, or spaces in order to gain entry to a potential victim’s bedroom (keyholes seem to be a favorite entry point for her). Legends say that she is able to shapeshift into an insect as well. How can one hope to stop such evil?
For all of the Boo Hag’s power, there are a number of ways to keep her at bay and even to rid oneself of the Hag’s presence forever. The Boo Hag, like her European cousin the Vampire, suffers from a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder known as arithmomania. She feels compelled to count her actions or small objects in her surroundings, which is why one may hang a kitchen sieve over the bed (as she will feel compelled to count the holes). Scattering sesame seeds around the bed will accomplish this as well. Be aware, however, that some of these creatures are fast counters. Therefore, it may be necessary to have more than one sieve around or to use more than a handful of seeds. This counting will keep her occupied, as she cannot attack her victim until she is finished counting. With any luck, it will keep the Hag busy until sunrise. If she cannot make it back to her skin in time, the sun’s rays will destroy her.
If the Boo Hag should gain entry to one’s home, she may be kept out of the bedroom by placing a straw broom against the door. No Boo Hag may pass such a broom until she has counted every single bristle. By the time she’s finished, it will be nearly sunrise, and she will have to quickly retreat to her skin, or she will perish. But if that should fail, it is said that the Boo Hag, like other evil spirits (or haints, as the Gullah people know them), are repelled by the color indigo blue. Colors have a special significance in Gullah culture, in that each color represents a different aspect of their lives. In Gullah culture, the color blue is associated with the supernatural. It speaks of black magic and witchcraft to some, but to others it is protection against ghosts and creatures that dwell in the darkness. Painting the window frames, the front porch, or even the exterior doors of one’s house is guaranteed to prevent the Boo Hag from entering. In fact, the belief in this color’s powers of protection is so strong that it has been called “haint blue.” Tradition says that a smudge of this paint on the body will prevent a Boo Hag from attacking (the forehead is a good place for this). A tattoo in this color may ward off the creature, but it may only be effective if the tattoo is worn in plain sight. But not only would it keep evil spirits and creatures at bay, the Gullahs say that if the Hag even touches something covered with this paint, it will cause her searing pain.
Like all supernatural evil, the Boo Hag fears and hates salt. It can be sprinkled on a floor to keep her at bay, but the most effective use of this substance by far is to thoroughly salt her empty skin while she is “out for the night” (although most legends say that one must use pepper as well). The Boo Hag, it is said, does not like the smell of asafoetida (Ferula assafoetida), and so it may be wise to place a bag of this pungent herb on one’s nightstand or bedside table. The Hag also detests sulfur and, as a result, she hates gunpowder as well. While it is not uncommon for people to place a loaded gun at their bedside, the Boo Hag is terrified by the smell of gunpowder. Thus, it serves a double purpose in South Carolina: to protect one’s family, and to ward off the attentions of the Hag. Placing a matchstick (common sense dictates that the match should be unlit) in one’s hair before bed will keep her at bay as well (since the match head contains sulfur as well). Additionally, a person should never disturb any kinds of mushrooms (known as “hag stools”). Apparently (and rather humorously), the Boo Hag likes to sit down on these mushrooms and relax while she “reads the newspapers”.
In addition to those mentioned above, there are other ways of protecting oneself from the Boo Hag as well. Reciting Psalm 121 is said to be great protection against the Hag for someone who is walking outside after nightfall. But almost any favorite piece of Scripture may be written down and carried in a pocket for protection. Likewise, sincere and fervent prayers to God will accomplish the same thing. It is said by some that if an individual knows the Boo Hag’s true identity, he should write her name with the word “Hag” above his front door. This will prevent her from entering the house. One may also place forks under his pillow, in order to prevent the Hag from “riding” them in the first place.
It should be known that the Boo Hag is a clever and malicious creature. In some folktales, the Hag will drop down from a tree onto a person and hitch a ride. Thus she gains entrance into a home, where she may torture the occupants at her leisure. In a similar manner, she will hide in clean clothes that have been left outside to dry on a clothesline all night. The next day, she will be carried in with the clothes. As she can become invisible at will, her innocent victims never know that she is coming. Therefore, all laundry should be put indoors before dark (and it is common sense to do so, too). But not only does the Boo Hag attack people, she also torments animals as well. Stories are told of the Hag stealing horses and riding them at night. If a horse is sweaty, the hairs of it’s tail and mane are knotted, or if the poor animal is acting especially tired or nervous, then it is likely that the Boo Hag has been riding the horse. If this continues, the animal will eventually drop dead.
Fortunately, there are some warning signs that a Boo Hag is close by. Some dogs are able to sense her presence, regardless of whether she is invisible or has taken human form. When a Hag is near, dogs will start howling and barking (and just generally start making a racket). Crows will also recognize a disguised Hag for what she truly is, and will cry out if she should pass by. If a Boo Hag is close, the very air will become hot and damp like a summer day. Then, the smell of rot and decay will follow and fill the air. If both of these portents should become obvious, one should immediately leave the area. But to rid oneself of the Boo Hag’s presence forever, a direct confrontation may become necessary. In other words, one must publicly accuse the suspected person of being a Boo Hag. Supposedly, doing so will rob her of the ability to do people any harm. If for some reason this doesn’t work, however, or the wrong person is accused, beware of the Boo Hag’s revenge!
As for actually destroying the Boo Hag, it is a very difficult (although not impossible) task to accomplish. As mentioned earlier, it is possible to take advantage of the Hag’s compulsive nature and force her to count seeds, the holes in a kitchen sieve or colander, or to count the bristles on a straw broom until dawn. At this time, she is extremely vulnerable and will be forced to seek out her skin. If she is too late, the rays of the morning sun will destroy her. In many folktales, she literally explodes. Another method of getting rid of the Boo Hag is to destroy her skin while she is seeking a victim during the night. To do this, one must first find the skin. The Hag is a crafty monster, and so she will hide it in a place that is hard to reach or otherwise difficult to get to. Once found, the skin should be thoroughly salted and peppered (red pepper is said to be very effective as well). Once the Boo Hag comes back and places the skin over her body, she will be seized by an agonizing pain that will cause her to wildly fly about into the open air, where the sun will destroy her. Finally, there is the use of magic to dispose of the Boo Hag. Men and women who dabble in Hoodoo (also known as root doctors, conjurers, or root workers) know of rituals, spells, and incantations that can be used to trap, repulse, and even to kill the Hag. One of the most common ways of doing this is to trap the Boo Hag in a bottle while she has taken the form of an insect. The insect is then killed, destroying the Boo Hag once and for all.
If anything or anyone fears the Boo Hag more than the rest, it is the Gullah people. The Gullah themselves are an offshoot of the West African slave trade, during which Africans with various cultural backgrounds were imprisoned in fairly large numbers together. Over time, these people have formed a diverse, cohesive culture that is all their own: the Gullah culture. Today, almost half a million Gullahs live along the eastern coast of the United States, ranging from North Carolina to Florida. They have persevered and endured centuries of war, natural disasters, and slavery, and will continue to do so. They are a fascinating people. When the Africans originally came together, they brought their own religious and spiritual beliefs with them. These superstitions and beliefs gradually blended together over time, with the addition of Christianity completing the mix. The dreadful Boo Hag is but one of the end results. The Gullah still believe in her to this very day, and they remain terrified of the Hag’s power over them. Perhaps there is indeed something to these beliefs, with a horrifying reality lurking behind the stories and legends. Maybe it is wisest to be on one’s guard. Humankind may never truly know what lurks outside in the darkest nights. And, as the Gullahs say, don’t let de hag ride ya!’
Curran, Dr. Bob. American Vampires: Their True Bloody History From New York to California. Pompton Plains, New Jersey: The Career Press, Inc. Copyright ©2013 Dr. Bob Curran.
Zepke, Terrance. Ghosts and Legends of the Carolina Coasts. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, Inc. Copyright ©2005, 2008 by Terrance Zepke