A note about The Cuddlywumps Chronicles

This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. She receives creative input from the Real Cats and clerical assistance from She of Little Talent (old SoLT, a.k.a. Roby Sweet). Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to old SoLt (Ms. Sweet). Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Nightmare Cat Phenomenon

Many animals supposedly tormented
sleeping humans in earlier centuries,
though cats got most of the blame.
1790–1791 version.
 Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Have you ever had the sort of nightmare in which you feel something pressing you down, making it hard to breathe and impossible to move? Yes? Then either you have experienced sleep paralysis (as the logical, skeptical She of Little Talent would say) or you have been haunted by a ghost with an unpleasant disposition. In earlier times, though, you might have thought you’d been attacked by a witch, and you might have thought the witch had sent (or appeared as) a cat to oppress you.

The feeling of being attacked by a cat while you sleep is something I call the Nightmare Cat Phenomenon. (If, however, you are attacked by a real, flesh-and-blood cat while you sleep, this is not a phenomenon. This is an instance in which you should just shut your cat out of the bedroom at night.)

This phenomenon is all wrapped up with several unfortunate myths about cats: that cats carry out wicked deeds for witches, that cats are diabolical, that cats will steal your breath while you sleep. I offer the following short tales, mostly taken from the trials of accused witches, as examples of the Nightmare Cat Phenomenon.

1599, Suffolk, England

One Olive Barthram was accused of witchcraft, and a supposed victim claimed that the accused sent a shape-changing spirit to torment her at night. At least once this spirit appeared as a cat. The alleged cat-spirit came at about 11 p.m. and began making various scraping, knocking, and shuffling noises. Then it hit the victim on the cheeks and kissed her, after which the cat lay on her chest with such a heaviness she could not move. (Davies, p. 185)

1601, Duchy of Lorraine (modern France)

One Jacotte Simon claimed that while she was in bed one morning after her husband had left for work, she felt a weight press down on her so she could not move. In desperation, she used her tongue to make the sign of the cross. She was then able to raise her head and saw the accused witch lurking at the foot of her bed. At that moment her husband entered the room and two large, ugly cats ran out. (Davies, p. 185)

1621, England

One Edward Fairfax gave an account of the bewitchment of his daughters, saying that one of the girls claimed a white cat had lain on her at night and taken her breath, leaving a terrible smell in her mouth. Six women were tried as witches in the case. Two of them were said to have cats as familiars, and a third was said to have a spirit that took the form of a white cat. (Davies, p. 196)

1692, Salem, Massachusetts

One Susan Martin, an accused witch, allegedly told a victim that “some She-Devil would shortly fetch him away.” That very night when he was in bed, a creature in the likeness of a cat stole in through his window, grabbed hold of his throat, and lay on him for long time, nearly killing him. (Davies, p. 185)

1876, Somerset, England

A laborer accused his elderly neighbor of “hag-riding” him at night as a cat. He threatened the woman’s life (for which he was prosecuted) and even killed his cat and a neighbor’s cat, thinking that doing so would cause some harm to the supposed witch. (Davies, p. 195)

1911, the Netherlands

A Dutch farmer reported waking up and feeling something lying upon him so he could barely breathe. The thing crawled up his legs to his throat, oppressing him more intensely the further it went. Able to move his arms, he grabbed the thing and realized it was a cat, but it quickly faded from his grasp. (Davies, pp. 196-197)

Sweet dreams!

Oh, and if you wake up in the night with the feeling that there is a cat on your chest making it difficult for you to breathe, don’t call a witch hunter—just move your cat.

For more on cats and witches, see "Black Cats and Witches."


Davies, Owen. 2003. “The Nightmare Experience, Sleep Paralysis, and Witchcraft Accusations.” Folklore 114(2): 181-203. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0015587032000104211

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