Sleep paralysis

Text (memorate): 

“My grandmother used to say when I had sleep paralysis that meant that ‘the witches are riding you.’”


A is from Texas and comes from a spiritual, religious background. Her grandmother is very superstitious and she recalls this supernatual explaination her grandmother had on sleep paralysis.

My Informants grandmother would say that this means the “witches are riding you” (they are on top of you trying to steal your energy) and you need to start praying to get it so stop. When in the trance like states she describes it as really quiet as if everything in the room had gone silent. Her grandmother, born and raised in Louisiana was very spiritual and believed in both good and bad spirits.

A: “In High school, I would have numerous occasions where they would get into a deep sleep and couldn’t wake up. Sometimes they couldn’t open their eyes, and sometimes they could but they weren’t able to move or speak. After a period of time they would eventually jump up out of the bed. After I’d wake myself up my grandmother would say that this means the “witches are riding you.”

Q: “What does this mean exactly?”

A: “My grandmother said this meant that they are on top of you trying to steal your energy and you need to start praying to get it so stop. When I’m in these trance like states it is really quiet like everything in the room had gone silent.”


This text exemplifies a blend of a memorate and superstition as a seemingly natural phenomenon such as sleep paralysis is reasoned through the belief in supernatural existence such as witches. As described when “the witches are riding you” this really means the spirits are on top of you trying to drain your energy. This is a form of contagious magic where things that were once in contact can continue to act on one another as described by Frazer. The spirits of witches believed to be on top of my informant during her sleep paralysis were in contact with her and thus saying a prayer would be a valid form of contagious magic to protect oneself against the negative spiritual hold. My informants grandmother had a strong faith in spiritual belief and practices as they are from Louisiana where spiritual practices such as voodoo were common thus this is a common motif with Louisianan and African cultural influences. This is a practice is likely to have originated as a way to explain phenomena such as these before the emergence of modern medicine. This also can be classified as a superstition given it is a belief not based on scientific reasoning but rather myth and cultural tradition. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that just because something is not based on scientific evidence, that doesn’t undermine its truth value as scientific belief is not equivalent to truth.