Nightmares come in countless ways in our sleep. We jolt awake sweaty, sometimes crying, and sometimes having a hard time remembering what the nightmare was about.
Other nightmares refuse to let people wake up at all, not until whatever is going on in our sleep is finished. Even when we've realized we're sleeping and need to wake up, we physically can't do it. For many, nightmares feel like a heavy weight sitting on one’s chest, watching the sleeper, perhaps even causing the distress in one’s sleep.
How can anyone really explain nightmares? The answers are never that simple. Perhaps sometimes there isn’t an answer.
Scandinavian folklore calls this heavy weight a mare. In Fiji, it’s kana tevoro, which may be a recently deceased relative with unfinished business. In China, the spirit is embodied in a mouse. The rodent feeds on the sleeper’s breaths and becomes a human for the night. In Sardinia, the ammuttadori sits on the sleepers chest and claws at his or her chest, leaving scars. But if the sleeper manages to remove one of its seven red hats, he or she may find treasure.
Creole culture calls is the cauchemar. According to “Contemporary Cauchemar: Experience, Belief, Prevention” by Katherine Roberts, “It is an experience during which someone who is sleeping is visited by a presence which is called cauchemar (also called the devil, an evil spirit, a ghost, and a witch by my informants). The person awakens and senses, or sometimes actually sees, cauchemar in the room. Often cauchemar is on top of his or her body. The person feels frightened but is unable to move or cry out for protection.”
To prevent this evil creature (who is described as a witch riding one like a horse in his sleep), history says to go to church, to pray before bed, and to create a circle of beans or rocks under the bed. A first-hand experience explains, “Cauchemar's gonna see the stones under my bed, and he's gonna keep counting in a circle, and he's so dumb that he won't know to stop, and then by the time he finished he’ll keep counting it's gonna be daytime.”
However, if the cauchemar finds its way on top of you in your sleep, you may never wake up.
On a quiet night three brothers pedaled down their street with stolen bikes. The tires zipped along the asphalt as crickets and frogs sang their nighttime songs and the moon was the only witness to their crime.
As they rode home, guilt hammered into one of the brothers. He pedaled hard to keep up with his brothers, yet he knew he couldn’t keep the bike. He screeched to a halt in the middle of the road. His brothers asked him what he was doing, called him a cowered, and didn’t consider once to go back with him to return the bikes.
By the time he made it home, bikeless and exhausted, it was the early hours of the morning. The bikes his brothers had stolen were parked in the backyard, gleaming under the moon’s vanishing glow. He went into his room he shared with one of his brothers, guilt still pumping through him in faint bursts. He crawled into bed hoping to drift off into a dreamless sleep before the guilt could turn into shame.
Just as soon as he closed his eyes, he opened them again. A red light was coming from somewhere in the room, glowing on the ceiling like fire. He looked out the window, expecting to see red lights shining from another building, but saw nothing. He glanced at his brother and saw a red light under his bed.
He blinked and then the bed was standing upright, facing him, his brother still asleep under the covers. He blinked again and the bed was flat again, though hovering over the ground. The red light continued to glow. He looked to his brother and saw he was awake. There was something around his brother’s neck. Forcing himself out of bed, he went over to his brother and saw it was his brother’s own hands wrapped around his neck. His eyes bulged from their sockets. His mouth was open to scream but nothing came out.
He jumped back under his covers, knowing what was happening to his brother––knowing that cauchemar was on him now. After what felt like a lifetime yet also only a few minutes, he looked back over to his brother expecting to find him sleeping soundlessly, perhaps even snoring like he usually did. What he found was cauchemar sitting on his brother’s chest, laughing into his face.
Katherine Roberts interviewed this young boy who had witnessed cauchemar sitting on his brother’s chest in 1995. She says the tale of cauchemar is alive and well in Southwest Louisiana. What medical professionals call sleep paralysis, many cultures shake their heads in disagreement. Can the explanation ever be so simple?