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NOLA Lore: The Witch That Rides

Each week, J.A. Lloyd will take readers through the secret and unexamined legends, myths, and folklore of New Orleans past. This week, learn about the cauchemar.


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Imagine waking in the dead of night, startled yet unable to put a finger on what caused you to wake so suddenly. As you stare at the ceiling, you take in your surroundings. It is all as familiar as it should be but you cannot shake the feeling that something is just…off.


In an attempt to force yourself back to sleep, you try to turn over. You try again. And again. Then the realization hits you — you can’t move. It does not matter how hard you strain, not even a finger will lift from the bed. Panic sets in with an immediate reaction to call for help. You try to speak out and no sound rises from your throat; your words are gone akin to your ability to move. And then another staggering awareness grips you; it’s difficult to breathe. In fact, there’s a crushing weight unlike anything you’ve ever experienced sitting upon your chest and you wonder if this is what it feels like to be buried alive.


Your perception abruptly shifts once more realizing that there’s a presence in the room. There is no relief in the knowledge of company; rather, a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Your mind repeats the words, “You are not alone.” The others in the room are making strange animal-like noises. The sounds are barely audible, but there’s no mistaking the unearthly pitch that rings in your ears.


One stands at the foot of the bed and though it has no eyes, you can feel its gaze upon you. The other is the cause of the weight upon your chest. It sits there, growling, scratching and strangling the air from your lungs. Though this has happened before, the raw fear is just as unbearable as the first time. Your heart might burst. The doctor suggested a change in sleep patterns. Perhaps some medication if the problem doesn’t remedy itself. He said there was no cause for concern because, sometimes, it just happens. Yet in the back of your mind you can’t help but recall your grandmother’s warning to beware cauchemar.


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When the body is unable to transition from one stage of sleep to another, many individuals experience what the medical field refers to as sleep paralysis. The paralysis occurs during the phase in which the body attempts to shift from sleep to wakefulness and can take place at two different points in time. The most common time is during the period of falling asleep. In this phase the body begins to relax and, though the conscience is aware, surrends ability to react via speech or movement. The second most common time that this occurs is when an individual is waking from sleep. During sleep, the body goes through approximately five cycles that alternate back and forth between NREM and REM. When an individual is unable to smoothly transition from NREM to REM before the competition of a cycle it sets the stage for sleep paralysis.


While symptoms of sleep paralysis vary from person to person, the glitch in restfulness does exude some horrifically common traits found in nearly every person who has experienced the occurrence. The symptoms include feelings of dread and overwhelming fear, the inability to move, difficulty breathing, pressure upon the chest, the sense of another presence in the room, sometimes including demonic hallucinations. Unfortunately, for those who experience the ordeal, doctors say there is no cure and the best practice to stave off episodes is to somehow figure out how to sleep better. While medical professionals point to the body skipping a beat during sleep as the cause for sleep paralysis, there are those, particularly here in Louisiana, who believe otherwise. This belief has nothing to do with the body’s rest transitions and everything to do with something more sinister. It is the belief in cauchemar.


Cauchemar, literally translated, means nightmare in French. In Louisiana, the word is all but nonexistent outside of those with Creole, African American, or French descent. The cauchemar, sometimes referred to as witch riding, is a creature that appears during the night and steals the breath from its victims by sitting on their chest. These creatures are demonic in nature and it is rumored that if one spends too much time with an individual that it is riding, the result is death.


Stories of the cauchemar can be traced as far back as the 13th century, where tales of the creature began to emerge in Scandinavia. In Slavic folklore the creature is an evil spirit known as a mare. Just like the cauchemar, it is said to ride the chest of its victims during sleep and bring about nightmares and/or death.


Though like many phenomena in NOLA Lore, belief in cauchemar has dwindled over the past few decades, the folklore of the creature still remains strong across the state. In Lafayette, there are reports of students leaving the dorms of UL based on the belief that a cauchemar also resides in its halls. 


According to the modern belief in the cauchemar, no one is immune to witch riding. Steps, however, can be taken to protect oneself against the possibility of assault. One of the most common forms of protection in Cajun lore is that of prayer. It is generally believed that people who do not say their prayers are more susceptible to attack. Similarly, Germans also believed in prayers to protect against their version of cauchemar, the mare. An additional means of protection against witch riding, and arguably the most suggested guard, is to never fall sleep lying on the back. The advice against the sleeping position shares an interesting correlation to those who suffer from sleep paralysis as studies conclude that individuals who fall asleep on their backs are far more likely to experience an episode of the crippling experience.


Legends such as these nightmare creatures, the mares, or Louisiana's local cauchemar are the bases for any nightmare. These stories lay the foundations for the terrors that keep people up at night. It is within in reason, however, to suppose that the cauchemar exists as an explanation for something that, until recently, could not be explained by scientific logic. It wasn’t so long ago that humanity lacked the ability to study the brain and share some true understandings about sleep patterns.


Demons, witches, and all things that go bump in the night were the logical answers in our earlier history, and remain as the villains in the shadows for a good number of people.


It does not matter if you believe in the tales of creatures bringing about bad dreams, terrors, and death, or if you subscribe to the modern diagnosis of sleep paralysis, which suggests that all of these evil demons are sheer creations from your own mind. Each end of the spectrum holds a frightening answer.  

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Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde


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Michael Weber, B.A.


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Linzi Falk

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Alexis Manrodt

B. E. Mintz

Stephen Babcock

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