Even the bravest among us can hopefully agree that the middle of the night — or the very, very early morning, if you want to get technical — makes everything feel a little off, if not flat-out eerie. Shadows loom larger and mundane noises suddenly sound strange. You can't figure out why, but the dead of night feels like another world. It's no wonder that this time of night, approximately between midnight and 3 a.m., is commonly referred to as "the witching hour."
The exact origins of this phrase are a little murky, but the most commonly held theory suggests that its roots lie in Christianity, specifically the canonical hours, which designated specific times through the day for prayer. Traditionally, the canonical hours fell between sunrise and nightfall, and skipped over the dead of night, leading some to believe that this time wasn't fit for moral, God-fearing people. Plus, darkness and the nighttime are employed as symbols for sin and the devil throughout the Bible. And the Church helped spread the idea that witches exclusively practiced their craft in secret and usually at night.
But it's in literature, and not religion, that we find the roots of the exact phrase "witching hour." Author Michael Quinion points out on his blog, World Wide Words, that William Shakespeare mentioned the "witching time of night" in Hamlet and "the time of night that the graves, all gaping wide, every one lets forth his sprite" in A Midsummer Night's Dream, attaching the nighttime to both death and the supernatural. About 200 years later, John Keats made a similar reference to the "witching time of night" in a poem. It wouldn't be long after that, in 1835, that the exact term "the witching hour" was first recorded.
Nowadays, we're probably less concerned with witches (who, by the way, can work their magic whenever they darn well please), but we still can't help but get creeped out when we stay up into in the wee hours (or, even worse, wake up at 2:30 a.m. from a freaky dream). Like we said before, that fear can be difficult to describe, but what little research that's been done on the subject suggests that you aren't alone if you get the heebie jeebies after midnight.
A 2001 study found that apparition sightings and paranormal experiences were most common between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. And, more generally, a study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that people responded more intensely to scary images when they viewed them at night, as opposed to during the day. These findings are hardly comforting, but hopefully they explain some of these bone-chilling anecdotes about people's real-life witching hour run-ins.