In modern French, the word cauchemar means nightmare.

In Cajun folklore cauchemar (often pronounced 'koosh ma') refers to an experience where a sleeping person is visited by a spiritual presence. The spirit has been described as a witch, a devil, a devil and numerous other types of spirits depending on the person and their experience.

Although the description of the spirit may vary, the experience is almost identical in every case.

In a typical cauchemar experience, the person wakes up when they sense the cauchemar in their room. In some cases, they can actually see the cauchemar, who is usually on top of the person's body. In this realistic experience, the person is afraid but cannot move or cry out for help.

Also referred to as "witch-riding" this "supernatural assault tradition" traces back centuries, but many of us remember our grandparents warning us that if we slept on our back or didn't say our prayers that the cauchemar would get us.

The cultural explanation is something that isn't uncommon to hear in our region, but the scientific explanation is something that is a little harder to come by. Recently, a review broke down the biological explanation of this type of sleep paralysis as

two aspects of REM sleep — dreaming and paralysis — are occurring while a person is awake. Sleep paralysis occurs more often than most people think, and it is more likely to occur when a person is waking up than during other parts of sleep

Being that sleep paralysis occurs while a person is conscious, their dreams are actually hallucinations and can be "multisensorial"—meaning the person may not only see things, but they can hear and feel them too.

Does this mean the cauchemar is that much more realistic, or does it mean that it's merely a scare tactic used by your grandparents to get you to say your prayers?

Whether you lean more toward the cultural explanation or the biological explanation, it is fascinating that the description of the "spirit" is so similar in all the varying cauchemar experiences.

Have you ever personally experienced the cauchemar? If so, tell me about it and read up on more about this Cajun folklore here.

[via Live Science]