The Woman Who Tramples on You in Your Sleep: Sleep Paralysis in Folklore
Sleep paralysis is about as much fun as it sounds like. It refers to a state people can experience while falling asleep or waking up where they are conscious but can’t move or talk.
During sleep paralysis, it’s also common for people to hallucinate, feel intense pressure on their chest, and be filled with fear.
Plenty of people experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lives, but some people are more prone to it than others. At the same time, many haven’t heard of sleep paralysis, so you can see how it could be sort of terrifying to wake up hallucinating and unable to move without knowing what’s going on.
In modern times, it’s thought that sleep paralysis is to blame for many “alien visitations.” But cultures around the world have had their own supernatural interpretations of sleep paralysis for millennia.
For example, researchers from Brazil recently when through a variety of sources to collect information on how sleep paralysis is represented in traditional Brazilian folklore.
They found that sleep paralysis is attributed to a bony woman with long fingernails called Pisadeira. By day, Pisadeira spends her time hanging out on rooftops. By night, though, she descends into people’s homes and tramples on the chests of those sleeping with their stomach up.
The Pisadeira legend incorporates several aspects of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis does strike more often when people are sleeping on their backs, and people do tend to feel a crushing sensation on their chest. A common theme in hallucinations during sleep paralysis is being suffocated by some sort of person or demonic creature.
The researchers pointed out that many other cultures have similar myths to explain sleep paralysis.
Japanese folklore links sleep paralysis to a malevolent spirit seeking revenge, and Nigerian folklore attributes sleep paralysis to a woman who attacks people in their sleep, like in Brazilian folklore. Canadian Eskimos, meanwhile, have traditionally associated sleep paralysis with spells by shamans.
These days, scientists still don’t know the exact causes of sleep paralysis, but they suspect there’s a good explanation that doesn’t include supernatural entities. One hypothesis is that sleep paralysis is sort of like REM sleep gone awry, since paralysis is a feature of REM.
Even with a scientific explanation, though, no one wants to be visited by the Pisadeira. Looking objectively at how the brain works may shed light on why sleep paralysis occurs, but traditional folklore is pretty good at capturing how disconcerting it is waking up and being unable to move.
Have you experienced sleep paralysis? Please share!
Image: Flickr/Gerard Van der Leun