It’s dark, your bedroom is cold, and the clock on your nightstand reads 3AM. Silence reigns the night, yet you can’t seem to escape the feeling that someone–or something– is watching you, lurking in the dark recesses of your house. Your heart begins to pound, your palms grow sweaty, and suddenly every article of furniture in your bedroom looks like they could be the boogeyman, hell-bent on terrorizing you.
It’s the, admittedly, cliche formula for a modern-day horror trope, yet despite all the movies we’ve seen, most us can’t help but be a little unnerved when we find ourselves awake in the middle of the night, especially during the witching hour.
Just what is the witching hour (also known as “the devil’s hour”), you may ask? There’s some debate about it, actually. In the vaguest sense, the term refers to any point in the night when unexplained events occur. Some academics even argue that the phrase has evolved so drastically that it can be associated with any streak of consistent bad luck. Others hold fast to the idea that it is always linked to supernatural occurrences, and it is a time we should all be afraid of.
But where does this fear ultimately stem from? And do our fears have any validity?
What Time is the Witching Hour?
Before we can answer those questions, we must first raise another; when does the witching hour actually occur? Well, there happens to be some debate about that, too.
Some people believe the witching hour begins at midnight when the world is on the cusp of a new day. This shift in time, and energy is said to allow for easier passage between the world of the living, and the world of the dead. Many seances, and attempts to communicate with ghosts, took place at midnight during the Spiritualist movement in the late 1800s.
Many theologians, however, suggest the true witching hour takes place between 3 and 4 AM. In traditional Christianity, canonical hours, or regularly intervaled prayers, were held in strict observance, save for that one, now infamous, hour. Over time, this period of the night became associated with unsavory activities and supernatural beings. Anyone caught lurking out of doors around 3 AM was often accused of witchcraft, and devil worship.
Most historians also agree that the witching hour was most likely linked to 3 AM, due to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is believed that Jesus perished around three in the afternoon, rendering 3 AM an inversion of that time. In short, any demonic or supernatural activity that occurs at that time is a mockery of the Christian faith.
Regardless of the actual hour, academics tend to agree that alleged witches did not suddenly pack up their cauldrons the moment the clock struck four in the morning. The witching hour is more of a figurative idea than a literal one.
The Things that go Bump in the Night
But just what happens during this creepy period of the night? That, too, is up for debate. Ghost hunters and paranormal enthusiasts would have you believe that the barrier between our world, and the world of the supernatural, is weaker, more penetrable, during the witching hour. Ghosts, poltergeists, and other apparitions require less energy to make contact with the living, therefore communication happens to be more frequent at this time. Sensitives, or people who are, by their very nature, more attuned to the world of the dead, tend to have more empathic experiences in the dead of night, as well. Perhaps it is merely because places are often quieter at night, and therefore empaths are able to more readily register, and take notice of energies around them.
Or, as many of us dread to think, maybe there really is something supernatural afoot.
Beyond ghosts and apparitions, there are those who claim the witching hour is a time for demonic activity and attempts at black magic. Dark rituals and communications with the devil have a greater chance of success at this time. Again, theologians debate this rise in activity is a direct response to the death of Christ. Some even claim 3 AM to be the chosen hour, as it also mocks the three components of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
When it all Began…
Ghosts, demons, witches…There’s a lot going on in the middle of the night, but when did it all begin? There’s speculation there, as well.
According to Wikipedia, the first mention of a witching hour was recorded in 1835, but this is not the case. In the summer of 1816, a small collection of writers, artists, and visionaries gathered together to form an impromptu group, where they could exchange views, opinions, philosophies–and even story ideas. Mary Shelley was a member of this group and was inspired to write Frankenstein by poet, and fellow member, Lord Byron. While Mary does not include a precise time, she mentions that most elusive hour in the original 1831 introduction to the novel.
“Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest.”
Her casual mention of the term, without further pause or explanation, assumes some level of previous knowledge on the reader’s part. Indeed, around 1601 Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, and the Prince of Denmark himself calls attention to the phrase during the second scene.
“Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood, And do such bitter business, as the day would quake to look on.”
His chilling words indicate that, by 1601, the witching hour had long been associated with the dark arts, and supernatural events. Did the term truly stem from the canonical prayers, as many historians believe? Some argue that, though the term has a paranormal connotation that is undeniable in popular culture, there is actually a scientific explanation as to why we become afraid when the clock strikes three.
Why am I Waking up at 3 AM or 4 AM?
Generally speaking, most of us tend to be safely tucked in bed when the witching hour begins. The human body requires several hours of rest in order to recharge and re-set for the following day. Sleeping, especially REM sleep, is essential in order for us to function.
Each of us experience several REM cycles throughout a single night. The first round typically only lasts ten minutes, but each cycle grows longer as we continue to slumber. Many things happen to our bodies during these cycles, including a drop in body temperature, and a slower heart rate. Even the cardiac, and arterial pressure in our body fluctuate during these cycles. Interestingly enough, studies have shown that, on average, melatonin in our bodies reach peak levels around 3 AM. Is it a coincidence?
Scientists and medical professionals now argue that not only is it normal for humans to feel disoriented if we happen to wake up during one, or any, of our REM stages, but it is to be expected. We cannot possibly have all of these internal changes happening, without certain external symptoms as well. Over time, humans have linked this vague sense of disorientation, and discomfort to certain cultural beliefs, and superstitions. Thus, our innate, yet unfounded, fear when we find ourselves suddenly awake, and alone, in the middle of the night.
Questions without Answers
So, are there truly demons, and ghosts wandering among us, as we all sleep? Or do our fears stem from a combination of chemical changes, and a long history of paranoia? Science would lead you to believe one thing, whereas basically every horror movie under the sun suggests more magical, sinister origins. Some modern-day paranormal experts state that the fact that our bodies go through these changes during this dark time of night proves there really is supernatural activity taking place–and our bodies are trying their best to defend themselves against it.
Perhaps the true answer is a culmination of all these theories. We may never know.
However, we would be wise to not entirely discredit the power of belief. Chances are, an individual who is convinced their house is haunted may wake up to a random noise in the night, register feelings of discombobulation, and assume they are experiencing some level of supernatural phenomena. Skeptics, on the other hand, may coin the sudden noise to the house adjusting to outside temperatures, take note of their lowered heart rate, and chalk it all up to nothing more than interesting timing. We notice that which most readily correlates with our individual belief systems.
So, the next time you decide to watch a horror movie before bed, take heed. Consider the subject matter, the state of your body, perhaps even the history of your house. The witching hour may be a vague, elusive term, but it is one with a respectable, long-standing, perhaps even magical, history. Tread lightly.