Contemporary Cauchemar: Experience, Belief, Prevention
By Katherine Roberts
Perhaps you've experienced the sensation-while awakening or falling asleep-of not being able to move. You discover that your body is paralyzed. Although you may try to call out, the sound remains locked in your throat. Meanwhile, your mind is clamoring to know what's going on.
"Sleep Paralysis" American Medical Association Guide to Better Sleep, l984.
As part of a Louisiana Folklore Fieldwork class in 1995, I began collecting first and second-hand personal experience narratives about a supernatural assault tradition commonly called cauchemar or witch-riding in southwest Louisiana. In modern French, the word cauchemar has come to mean nightmare. Le Petit Robert Dictionnaire de la Langue Française gives a brief etymology of the word, tracing its roots back to 1564 when it was written quauquemaire. The verb cauquer comes from the Picard dialect in northeastern France, meaning "to press." And the noun mare comes from the Dutch for "phantom." This image of a pressing phantom closely mirrors the active folk definition of cauchemar among people of African descent with French language traditions in Southwest Louisiana.
In brief—although it is difficult to be brief about cauchemar experiences because they are so multi-faceted—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.
I first became interested in this supernatural assault tradition while I was taking a folklore seminar at The University of Southwestern Louisiana on sacred narrative and supernatural belief. We read Patricia Rickels' article "Some Accounts of Witch Riding" which was published in l961 in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. In this article, Rickels records the cauchemar experience narratives of some of her students who were from Southwest Louisiana. When she asked her class if Cotton Mather's account of Bridget Bishop-accused of entering a man's room at night, mounting him, and riding him while he lay paralyzed in his bed-sounded familiar to any of them, one student raised his hand and said, "Why, that sounds like cauchemar" (1961:6). After reading the local accounts of witch riding, or cauchemar, that Rickels recorded, and later those recorded by Darrell Bourque in his l968 Miscellany article "Cauchemar and Feu Follet," I was interested in knowing if the tradition was still active in South Louisiana, particularly in the region immediately around Lafayette. I found the closing comments of Rickels' article a particular challenge:
The witch-riding tradition, though still a very lively one in our Negro-French-Catholic cultural community, is losing its moral force. The older generation believes cauchemar has a real significance: to punish or warn against wrongdoing. The younger generation believes the experience is just something that happens without any real reason or meaning. Probably the next step will be for witches to stop riding altogether. [1961:15]
I set out to see if the witch or cauchemar was still riding.
I took what David Hufford terms the "experience-centered" approach to collecting these supernatural experience narratives (1982:xix). The experience-centered approach proposes the idea that experiences recounted in people's narratives be taken as empirical evidence of a supernatural tradition. I was not in the business of trying to identify a physical explanation for the phenomenon nor was I interested in whether or not the events are "real" or "believable." I wanted to learn what constitutes a cauchemar experience to people from within this tradition, what preventive traditions exist in conjunction with the experience, and how a cauchemar experience relates to similar supernatural experiences that people have who are outside the Southwest Louisiana tradition of cauchemar.
I began my search for narratives by announcing to freshman and developmental English classes at USL that I was looking for people to talk to about cauchemar. I chose to poll these classes because the instructors were friends of mine and because they contain relatively large, concentrated populations of people from Southwest Louisiana. All of the informants I recruited this way were people who identified themselves either as African American, (Black) Creole or French Indian. In fact, I only received one extensive supernatural assault narrative from a White informant and that was after the term cauchemar had been explained to him. Some Black students in the classes I talked to clearly knew what I was talking about when I mentioned the word cauchemar; however, they declined the invitation to talk to me about it. I was later told by an informant that some people believe that talking about cauchemar actually encourages a visit from it in the night.
Although, each narrative belongs to its informant through selective personal detail and setting, the cauchemar narratives I collected reflect a common knowledge base which employs a basic cultural lexicon for the discussion of this supernatural experience. This lexicon encompasses not only terminology that is used to qualify a supernatural experience as a cauchemar experience (the word cauchemar and variations on it-macouche, couchemache, couchemal-as well as phrases used to describe the physical sensation-"can't move," "riding," "trying to scream but can't," "sitting on my chest") but also elements and methodologies used in the prevention of such an experience (salt under the pillow, beans under the bed, broom in the corner, screens in the windows, prayers before bedtime, blessed religious elements in the room and near or on the bed). I learned that it is the awareness of and participation in this lexicon which locates a person within the cauchemar tradition. The narratives I collected reverberate with this common cultural language.
An eighteen-year-old Creole man from Lafayette gave me this second-hand account of a cauchemar experience:
[An elderly gentleman by my house] said he was sleeping one night and cauchemar-well once cauchemar pulled on his toes. And another time cauchemar held him down, jumped on him and held him down. And he was trying to scream for somebody to come help but cauchemar did something and nobody could hear him scream. And he was just holding him down. And . . . until somebody walked in the room because they heard a bunch of noise going on . . . and they came and touched him. And he said when someone else touches you the spirit leaves. And if the spirit is with you too long, you can die. [Personal interview, June 21, 1995]
This man was not the only person who mentioned death as the ultimate risk of a visit from cauchemar. After hearing "Kushmal," a song by the contemporary Creole musical group Zydeco Force, playing on the public radio station during the local zydeco music show "Zydeco est pas sale," I stopped by the station to chat with the DJs. One of them, a middle-aged Creole DJ, told me that "if you don't wake up from a cauchemar experience you could die." When I asked if he knew anyone this had happened to, he asked, "Well, how would anyone know?" (Personal interview, June 24, 1995).
I asked the young Lafayette man if the elderly gentleman had told him how to prevent a visit from cauchemar.
Well, he said go to church. At night when you go to sleep, sleep on your stomach, uh . . . say your prayers at night and have like crosses and holy water and stuff like that somewhere in your house. [Personal interview, June 21, 1995]
A first-hand account from a nineteen-year-old African American woman from St. Martinville echoes these three common elements:
So one day me and my mamma was fussing, and I went to bed mad. So, all of a sudden at night, you just can't move, you try to holler, and you just can't holler. Nobody . . . you hollering with all your might but nobody can hear you. And, uh, I woke up and I went to my mama's room and I said, "Mamma, you didn't hear me hollering?" She's like, no. And I was full of sweat, and, you know. And he, he gets you on several occasions. But I, what my mamma said for me to do is put some stones or some beans under my bed, under my mattress, and put them in a circle 'cause he can't count and, 'cause he doesn't come in the daytime. He only comes at night. And, uh, she said 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 keep counting it's gonna be daytime. Or he counts the . . . put a fan in your window and he counts the little holes in the screen and by the time he finished counting it'll be daytime. [Personal interview, June 23, 1995]
This informant told me that cauchemar visits her frequently. She said the first time it happened to her she was fifteen. She told her grandmother about the experience, feeling like something was riding her back and not being able to turn.
I was telling my grandmother that and she goes like, "That's cauchemar. Cauchemar got you." And I wanted to know how you get rid of cauchemar, 'cause you know, I want it to stop, cause it happens a lot . . . [Personal interview, June 23, 1995]
This is a common way for people to learn about the tradition-having the supernatural experience themselves, mentioning it to family members and then having it explained to them by an older person inside the tradition. Although some informants remember hearing cauchemar talked about before having had the experience themselves, it seems the tradition is revealed to them in full and becomes part of their psychic reality at the time of their own personal experience. The young woman from St. Martinville describes her first encounters with the cauchemar lexicon:
Well, people like my grandmother used to always say if you don't say your prayers, cauchemar gonna get you like everybody else says. But I'd never really believed it. I was like, oh yeah, right, you know, that's superstition. [Personal interview, June 23, 1995]
A forty-seven year-old woman from St. Martinville who described herself as French African was telling me about the morning after signs that cauchemar has paid you a visit when she revealed how she had learned about cauchemar:
Another thing is having the spit lines . . . Yeah, that's the bridle she used to ride you. That's what those lines are. You would know it when you woke up in the morning because you'd have the lines to show where the bridle was. . . . Feeling tired, legs hurting. Legs hurting in the morning or a Charlie horse. Waking up with a Charlie Horse in the morning . . . that's another sign . . . what's happened is that she's ridden you all night . . . and you're cramped . . . The first time I heard about cauchemar, I woke up one morning and I had the bridle marks and Mama said, "Uh-oh, cauchemar rode you last night!" And then I wanted to know who is cauchemar and what is cauchemar doing riding me at night. So Mama told me the story. And then it was like, for like two weeks afterwards every night, I was ridden. [Personal interview, June 22, 1995]
Another informant, a thirty year-old man from Sunset who described himself as French Indian, described a similar learning experience after having had a nocturnal supernatural visitation:
I talked to [my mother] about it to see, to ask what that means. And then she told me to talk to my great aunt. And my great aunt had told me about cauchemar. And she said cauchemar was like a devil. And she said this thing what I seen, it wasn't a devil . . . it was like a guardian angel. [Personal interview, July 10, 1995]
His experience had had similar elements to a cauchemar experience-paralysis, wakefulness, a presence in the room. When he discussed it with someone from within the cauchemar tradition (his mother), she directed him to a cultural expert (his great aunt) who would be able to discern if what he had had was indeed a cauchemar experience. It turned out not to be one.
This kind of cultural lexicon facilitates the discussion and acceptance of the supernatural experience. People from within the cauchemar tradition have varied reactions to the mention of the phenomenon. Some laugh and shake their heads in recognition; some call it a form of the Boogie Man used to scare little children into saying their prayers and being good; others, particularly those who have experienced cauchemar first hand, call it "real". But whatever the reaction, the fact that there is common knowledge of this supernatural phenomenon provides people with the tools to discuss and therefore pass on their experiences and beliefs.
At a summer day camp in Sunset, I asked a group of nine to ten year-olds (African American and Black Creole) if any of them had ever heard of cauchemar. I received a resounding "I Do! I know cauchemar!" This reaction as well as the narrative I heard from one nine-year-old African American boy reveals a persisting cultural knowledge base.
Okay. Uh, my friend, he said, uh, his brother, him and his brothers, they stole some bikes, but he returned the bike and his brother and them didn't. His brother and them was bad that day. At night, uh, his brother woke up. He saw like kinda red light and he thought it was off a building. He look by his brother's bed and then they had a red light under the bed. The bed was standing up. And then=it wasn't standing up. It was up in the air. And the, uh, he went look by his brother, all he saw was his brother doing like that (demonstrates hands to the neck in a choking manner). And, uh, then he knew couchemache (sic) was on him. Then, uh, then his brother went back to bed. Then he look again. Couchemache was sitting on top of him laughing at him. [Personal interview, July 22, 1995]
The essential physical elements, the reference to cauchemar (a.k.a. "couchemache," as he seemed to pronounce it), and the suggestion that the visit is a ramification for bad deeds are there, reflecting an immersion of the teller in the cauchemar tradition and its cultural knowledge base.
In contrast to these narratives from within a supernatural belief tradition is a portion of a supernatural experience narrative from someone outside this cauchemar tradition. This informant is a thirty-two year old White man of Scotch-Irish descent (not French speaking) from Baton Rouge. He had heard me talking about cauchemar and describing the experiences I had heard about, so he told me that he had had a similar experience:
I was sleeping on the couch in the living room. And I woke up to the sound of the screen door. And I could hear the sound of the screen door being opened. At that point I was afraid, and I was fairly certain that somebody was coming into the house. But I was so afraid and so fearful, I was paralyzed. I tried to get up but I couldn't. Tried to say something but I couldn't. And then I could hear the footsteps. It was a wood floor and I could hear somebody in the room on the other side of me and it sounded like=I could follow the footsteps, and it sounded like they'd gone into the kitchen and had come through into the bedroom. And the door there was open. And, uh, I never saw the person, or whatever it was, but I just had this sense that they were standing there at the door looking at me. And, uh, again, extremely afraid, uh, I just had the feeling that whatever was there, it wasn't good and that it was there to hurt me. [Personal interview, July 15, 1995]
The similarities to a cauchemar experience are evident (the paralysis, the fear, the inability to speak, the sense of another presence in the room). What was striking to me about this person's narrative was the absence of a cultural lexicon for discussing what had happened to him. Unlike the informants who had shared their cauchemar narratives, this person did not recognize his experience as part of a supernatural tradition. He had never heard anybody else talk about such experiences and had never heard a name attached to such an experience. He did not go to his mother or grandmother or any other cultural expert for an explanation because he did not believe there to be one. In fact, he did not talk about his experience with anyone until a long time after it happened. He also was not able to identify what the presence in the room with him was which is in stark contrast to all the people who gave me cauchemar narratives. When asked who or what cauchemar is/was, they answered without hesitation: the devil, an evil spirit, a witch.
I discovered that cauchemar is still visiting people throughout Southwest Louisiana. The cauchemar tradition is firmly planted in the present. Whether its persistence is because of the fact that it produces an awareness and cultural understanding of the frightening but inevitable human encounter with the supernatural and the vocabulary with which to discuss the experience or because it serves as a marker of ethnic and linguistic identity=or both, or neither=is difficult to ascertain. All that is certain is that the cauchemar supernatural belief tradition, like all living traditions, remains vital to its practitioners.
Bourque, Darrell. 1968. "Cauchemar and Feu Follet." Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 2 (4): 69-84.
Hufford, David J. 1982. The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experienced-centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Rickels, Patricia K. 1961. "Some Accounts of Witch Riding." Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 2 (1): 53-63.
Robert, Paul, Alain Rey, and Josette Rey-Debove. 1982. Le Petit Robert Dictionnaire Alphabetique et Analogique de la Langue Française. Paris: Societe du Nouveau Littre.