Picture, if you will, the scariest time of night. The hour when the sky is at its darkest, and nightmares are never far away. When every shadow seems to hide a monster, and every little sound that breaks the silence of the night may be the devil tapping on your window. I am talking, of course, about the witching hour.
“The witching hour, somebody had once whispered to her, was a special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up was in a deep deep sleep, and all the dark things came out from hiding and had the world to themselves.”Roald Dahl, The BFG
What Time is the Witching Hour?
The exact time of the witching hour may vary slightly depending who you ask, but a good estimate is sometime between 3 and 4 in the morning. At this hour, after midnight but well before sunrise, the world is at its darkest and most foreboding. The walls between the living and the dead, some say, are at their weakest. For centuries – even millennia, perhaps – cultures around the world have spun myths and legends about this time of night.
Why this time specifically? One popular explanation for 3 AM as the witching hour comes from Christianity. Church tradition holds that Christ was killed on the cross at 3 in the afternoon. The Devil, therefore, chooses the opposite time of day to be at his most active, and witches are said to be most active at this hour. The Pope, for a time in the 16th century, even forbade people to pray between 3 and 4 in the morning! Elsewhere in the world, New Mexican folklore tells of a demon called “La Mala Hora” (literally, “the evil hour”) that wanders crossroads after midnight, sometimes taking the shape of a woman with long, unkempt hair and a black dress. Anyone unfortunate enough to encounter La Mala Hora during the witching hour may fall victim to her wrath, and be found dead the next morning.
The Witching Hour and Sleep Cycles
Contemporary scientists have proposed more rational explanations for the witching hour. 3 AM falls in the middle of the average person’s REM cycle, the deepest stage of sleep. When people wake up abruptly before an REM cycle is complete – at 3 in the morning, for example – they can feel disoriented, confused, and frightened. Sometimes this results in a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis, where the mind is awake but the body cannot move. Some who suffer from sleep paralysis report terrifying visions, such as a demon sitting on their chest. It is no wonder that human beings in the past, less knowledgeable about the science of sleep, might have considered this hour to be evil.
The Witching Hour in Pop Culture
Whatever the explanation, demons or sleep cycles, the idea of the witching hour has persisted across popular culture. In the late 60s and 70s, a horror comic by that name was published by DC comics. IMDB returns no fewer than 48 movies, videos, and television episodes bearing the title. Other horror movies have explored the concept as well to chilling effects: in The Conjuring, 3 AM is referred to as “the devil’s hour.” Ronald DeFeo, Jr., the real killer who inspired The Amityville Horror, supposedly killed his entire family at this time. The witching hour even spills over into the real world; in many cities, people up and about between midnight and 3 AM are more likely to fall victim to a violent crime.
Not everyone believes in the witching hour. Those who oppose the Catholic Church’s historic persecution of witchcraft will point out that witches performed rituals in the middle of the night because it was the safest time to do so without being discovered. Another wrinkle to the 3 AM hypothesis is the fact that, before the industrial revolution, many people had a “segmented sleep schedule,” meaning they woke up in the middle of the night and returned to bed after a few hours. For these night owls, 3 AM might not have been such a spooky hour after all.
Well-reasoned as this skepticism may be, cultural fascination with the witching hour is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. For modern, non-segmented sleepers, the middle of the night is an unavoidably spooky hour. It is a time most people prefer to spend asleep, safe and warm in their beds. Otherwise, they may risk an encounter with whatever malevolent forces roam the night.
Joseph Green is a writer, filmmaker, and lifelong horror nut. When he isn’t watching horror movies or listening to heavy metal music, he is writing articles about them.