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


  1. baseball55 on September 26, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    Probably once a month I sort of wake up feeling like I am unable to breathe and I try to scream and call for help or to move and sit up but am unable to. I am aware enough to know that it is simply sleep paralysis and I will not suffocate and it will pass after a minute or two. But it’s still a terrifying feeling. I mentioned how awful sleep paralysis is to a friend, thinking everyone must experience it, but she had no idea what I was talking about.

    • Neil Petersen on September 29, 2016 at 4:45 pm

      The estimate I’ve seen is about 5 – 10 percent of people. So there’s a good number of people out there — which doesn’t necessarily make it any more fun, of course!

  2. Joe eldred on September 27, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    I’ve had lots of sleep paralysis episodes over the years, usually at times of stress or lack of sleep ( I work nights & have 3 kids) I’ve also had 2 visits from “the old hag”. Now I don’t believe in ghosts, God, aliens, paranormal activity or anything like that but I still can’t get my head around the old hag. What bugs me & what I can’t get a reasonable or scientific answer for is how other people from all around the world have accounts of the old hag & describe in eery detail EXACTLY what happened to me?……..weird……!

    • Neil Petersen on September 29, 2016 at 4:48 pm

      It is interesting how much similarity there is in people’s experiences. I don’t think there’s any scientific consensus on this…yet!

    • Truth on September 3, 2019 at 8:05 am

      If you don’t believe in God! Don’t believe in your existence as well. Even animals believe in God

  3. grace on November 25, 2017 at 3:48 am

    sleep paralysis isn’t happening to me. it’s something more evil more dark. i dream and dream and wake up not being able to move. im in a dark room with no one but me and I hear this woman laughing and crying. she usually comes to me and chokes me. last night she didn’t. she did something i couldnt control. she kept saying this name. and scratched me with her fingernail on my thigh and I woke up screaming with the scratch on my thigh. sometimes I can’t even tell what’s real when I’m awake. does anyone knows what’s happening to me?! please I need help…. before she actually kills me.