USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘nightmare’
Folk Beliefs

The Sitting Ghost

Informant was teaching and boarding at a high school in the mountains, a three-hour bus ride away from the city. The dorm was a foreign environment that frightened her. When she finally fell asleep, she was awoken by a strange presence that she sensed at the foot of her bed. She was unable to move, feeling as though something were pressing down on her, though nothing was above her. When her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noticed a man standing at the foot of her bed, fully clad in an ancient Chinese military costume. Since he was watching her peacefully, she assumed that it was an acquaintance from a past life or simply a passing spirit and fell back to sleep in peace, believing that he was there to protect her.

In Western cultures this phenomenon is known as sleep paralysis, and psychologists have come up with scientific explanations. In Taiwan, however, the cause is attributed to ghosts. The phenomenon is known as “鬼壓床” (gǔi yā chuáng), which literally means “ghost pressing the bed,” and the symptoms are strikingly similar. Author Maxine Hong Kingston describes this phenomenon as the “sitting ghost” in her memoir The Woman Warrior.

Due to the prevalence of Taoism and Buddhism in Taiwan, the vast majority of the population—regardless of religion—believes in ghosts. Ghosts are not necessarily evil, as anyone could potentially become a ghost after they die. 

general
Magic
Myths

Sleep Paralysis and Devils

Sleep Paralysis

The Informant:

My friend, was born in Diamond Bar, CA. He is the son of a pastor whose church is in Diamond Bar. He lives with his parents and three younger siblings, a sister and two brothers. His father is Chinese and his mother is Korean.

The Story:

The first time that this happened to me was when I was either a sophomore or a junior in high school. I was lying on my bed, obviously in the middle of my sleep, when all of a sudden I realized I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move my body, I couldn’t scream, there was no air in my lungs. I tried to scream but couldn’t and I started to freak out. All of a sudden… I felt super cold, from top, my head, down, to my feet. I don’t remember if I was outside the blankets or inside but regardless I felt the wind. Suddenly I felt a heavy weight on my chest, as if something was sitting on it, and a shadow on top of me. I don’t really remember what happened after that. All of these instances blur together after a while. This was the first time it happened. After that it happened on a weekly basis for at least a year. There are times when I know it’s coming. You just feel like you’re getting really tired, or sometimes you can just sense something is off, as if there’s something in your room with you. I’ve never seen anything in my room though, and it always happens at night. There’s nothing I could do except wait for it to pass… and I’m always alone when this happens.

The Analysis:

This is a different occurrence of the scissor lock that my other friend experienced. We talked about this in his room, and a couple other friends were present. As he continued to tell his story, our other friends slowly became quiet, and then silent. The way Trevor spoke was genuine and even though such an occurrence would be questionable, there was no doubt in his voice that this was true. In Trevor’s instance, this happens on a semi-regular basis, with the last one occurring a couple months ago. Before that, it happened once a week or once every other week. There is no basis for why he goes through the scissor lock so often, but his actions showed that he doesn’t get used to it, even though it’s happened numerous times. It is creepy that this has happened so many times that they all seem to blur into one for him. One aspect that was interesting is that he is a pastor’s kid. This was one difference I noticed between him and my other informant on this same topic – it is probable that his stronger faith or adherence to Christianity has an affect on these continual occurrences. Whether it is due to faith or not, I wondered if it was the devil’s doing, and led me to question the existence of the devil and it’s many forms.

 

Researchers have attempted to examine the causes of the scissor lock, dubbing it generally as sleep paralysis: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FB%3ADREM.0000005896.68083.ae

A different version of sleep paralysis from someone not religious can be found at: http://kerryonian.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/the-experience/

general
Magic
Myths

Scissor Lock

Scissor lock

The Informant:

My friend, was born in Los Angeles, CA. He is an only child and stayed in Southern California his whole life. He came over to my room one day and I randomly asked him if he had any good stories. I asked him specifically if he ever heard about the scissor lock and he told me:

The Story:

You’re asleep. You wake up in the middle of the night and you’re in your room. You see a figure in a corner – a grandma. She’s a Korean grandma wearing traditional clothing, not the nice kind of the type that commoners and poor people wear, with gray hair. She’s sitting on a chair, moaning and weeping. You want to get up and talk to her but you can’t. All you can do is move your eyes. You look to the right and it’s a blank wall. You look back at the grandma and she’s gone. Suddenly you feel a presence at the base of your head. You want to look up but you can’t – you’re petrified. You want to do something but you can’t because you’re stuck. You can’t move. Then I started saying prayers and singing praise songs and everything went away.  You wake up with your arms crossed and hands on your shoulders, like a scissor.

 This never happened to me, thankfully, but I know people who have experienced it.

The Analysis:

The scissor lock is an occurrence that I first came across two years ago. When I asked my friend to tell me this story, it was late at night around 11pm. The room was very bright and the story did not seem scary at the time. The scissor lock appears to be a common occurrence among Koreans, Korean Christians especially. This version included specifically seeing a grandma clothed in old, dirty clothes. It is not known whether this is a general case of a specific case for just my friend. The name scissor lock appears to come from the position in which one wakes up in, with your arms crossed diagonally across the body.

Folk Beliefs
Myths

Nightmare

Informant Bio

My informant is an office manager living in Hollywood, California. He grew up in the midwestern United States and moved to Los Angeles to attend USC’s graduate program in film production. He now does media work in an office at USC, and in his spare time stays active with creative endeavors like creating web videos and writing a web comic that updates twice weekly. He completes the daily crossword puzzle at lunch every day, and is the type of person who probably always wins Trivial Pursuit.

The Cauchemar

I was chatting with my informant (my boss) at our office – near the water cooler, yes,  it actually happens – and he told me a strange story about his roommate who had recently attempted astral projection (magical transportation of her consciousness to another place) by putting herself into a meditative state. Though her attempt was not successful, she did descend deep enough into her meditation that she had a dreamlike vision of a small, humanoid creature sitting in darkness. She asked it, “what are you doing?” It replied, “waiting.” Frightened by the image, she quickly snapped herself out of her meditative state.

My boss thought the creature sounded like a cauchemar. The cauchemar, he explained, is a demon-like creature whose name means “nightmare” in French. He had first learned of it from a friend who lived in Louisiana, though he suspected stories about the creature had been brought to Louisiana by the French because the myth “seems European.”

According to my informant, the cauchemar is an evil creature, that chooses its victims at random. It sits on your chest while you sleep and either: rides your sleeping body where ever it likes, or sucks the breath out of you, killing you slowly while you sleep. My informant thought that the cauchemar sounded like an explanation someone might have given for conditions that cause sleepers to wake in the middle of the night feeling pressure on their bodies, like sleep apnea.

Because the cauchemar does not discriminate when it chooses a victim, it seems to me to be a simple personification of nightmares. Its impossible to control whether or not one will have a nightmare, and that lack of control, especially while vulnerable (unconscious), is frightening. Giving them a face makes nightmares easier or us to understand, and even if depicted as a hideous, malicious creature, this is comforting.

Authored Forms

This painting of the creature from the 1700s  by Swiss painter Johann Heinrich Fussili supports my informant’s suspicion that the mythological creature may have been brought to the United States from Europe. It depicts an impish creature with large ears and fur covering its body, sitting on the chest of a woman in white. In spite of its comical appearance, the distressed pose of the sleeping woman, and the alarmed face of her horse suggest that this is indeed a creature to be feared.

Cited

Image found at: “Cauchemar.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 4 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cauchemar>.

Folk Beliefs
general
Protection

Superstition – El Salvador

Placing a bowl of water near the pillow will help prevent nightmares.

Jorge sleeps with a large bowl of water next to the head of his bed. He told me that it is something that he learned from his mother. Supposedly, the water will absorb any bad spirits or bad dreams, letting him sleep in peace. “It does help,” he told me. I asked him if this is a common custom in El Salvador, and he told me he is not sure. “You don’t really go around asking other people, you know,” he said.

This custom reveals the belief that bad dreams come from an external source, and can be captured physically. I find this belief to be an extremely common one—Native American dream-catchers purport to trap bad dream, the European succubus was definitely a physical creature—indeed the word nightmare echoes the widespread belief in the mara, the female creature who caused people to have nightmares by sitting upon their chests. Fortunately for Jorge, the source of his nightmares is soluble in water.

I think that this simple, convenient solution might also have inherited a belief in water as a powerful agent. Water is almost universally believed to have powers of purification—such as we see in so many religions. It seems like this folk remedy is an attempt to purify the air around the sleeper, cleansing it of whatever they are evil things that cause people to stir in their sleep.

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