In October 2012, the pop star Kesha claimed she once had sex with a spirit. Her report was conveniently announced along with the promotion of her new song, Supernatural, which happened to coincide with the weeks before Halloween and was quickly dismissed as a headline-attracting media trick. But there may be something to her claim, as her account is very much in line with the experience of millions of contemporary dreamers. Kesha’s amorous ghost is probably a subset of the incubus encounter, a nocturnal meeting with an otherworldly creature that sits on your chest or otherwise gets all up in your business while you lay in bed. The entity can take the shape of known mythological figures, ghosts, demons, or weird human-animal hybrids. Often, the encounter is fearful, and is described as supernatural assault. Part of the assault has to do with the fact that sometimes feelings of paralysis (and victimhood) are felt when sleep paralysis mingles with the vision. But for others it’s pleasurable, resulting in orgasm and bliss. We live in a time that tries to ignore the visionary moments of life, yet the experiences keep happening anyway.
The realistic encounter with nonhuman—or supernatural—entities has been recorded as early as Babylonian times. Some sexual imp traditions include the Sumerian sex demon Lilith and the ancient Greek god Pan. More often than not, these encounters were interpreted as demonic possession. But not always. For example, the Greek dream interpreter Artemidorus wrote that a sexual Pan encounter “foretells a great profit,” especially if he “does not weigh a person down,” referring to the more common paralysis sensations.1
In modern populations, a significant minority has erotically-charged hypnagogic experiences despite the lack of cultural prompting. Those who feel safe enough to “go with the flow” and not fight the ecstasy are sometimes rewarded with bliss. Physiologically, this shouldn’t be too surprising, as REM sleep is a sexually-active brain state. It’s quite common for both men and women to have multiple periods of genital engorgement during the night—usually these are not remembered, but clearly visible when men wake up tenting the sheet.
By way of example, one young woman wrote to me, “When I was younger I used to get paralyzed in my sleep and I use to think that the devil was coming in me. It made me scared. Now I’m 28 and started feeling like I was having the best sex. . . . I had no clue this happened to other people.” She went on to describe how she has had visitations since she was a child, and they were not always welcome. “Now that I am older and it’s been happening for so long…I always climax…I really want him there with me.2
Other nocturnal encounters mix pleasure and horror in a bizarre way. A reader of my blog Dream Studies Portal who goes by Nox Influx sent me the following narrative that mixes hypnogogia with sleep paralysis:
I was [sleeping and] lying on my stomach, on top of this beautiful woman, having sex, she was saying things, and the sex got more intense, at the point near orgasm I awoke to sleep paralysis, and I hallucinated me on top of a white skinned, blue-lipped dead body. It stayed a few seconds while I couldn’t move and then vanished when movement returned. It sounds negative, but I found it to be exciting in an odd way.3
So how does the positive incubus encounter take place, even when the dreamer does not have a previous understanding that these things are even possible? Taboo is a big part of visionary consciousness, but cultural influence is not the only influence. In my opinion, the cross-cultural nature of sexual incubi points toward a neurobiological constant, an ancestral legacy.4 David Hufford suggests that not only are extraordinary events normal, but “better knowledge of each [event] strengthens that belief rather than weakening it (e.g., learning that others have had virtually the same experience; information regarding possible physiological triggers is irrelevant to the assessment of the reality of the experience).”5 It’s simply a natural part of being human, but of course like all visionary experiences they can reflect our health and dis-ease as well as our relationship to the unknowable.
Case Study: Lucy Liu’s Visitation
Kesha is not the first celebrity to announce supernatural hanky-panky. In 1999, actress Lucy Liu admitted in an interview with US Weekly that she had had sex with a heavenly figure. She was lying down on the couch for a nap, and felt an unknown presence on top of her. What followed was a pleasurable spell of lovemaking. “It was sheer bliss. I felt everything. I climaxed. And then he floated away.”6
Interestingly, her account also had a religious significance that most quoted sources edited out, presumedly due to its tabooed nature.
Here is Lucy Liu’s full quotation from TV Guide Online:
I was sleeping on my futon on the floor, and some sort of spirit came down from God knows where and made love to me. It was sheer bliss. I felt everything. I climaxed. And then he floated away. It was almost like what might have happened to Mary. That’s how it felt. Something came down and touched me, and now it watches over me.7
I find it fascinating that the italicized sentence about Mary is edited out of most online mentions of Lucy Liu’s account. Her comparison to the experience of Mary draws me back to the many female Christian mystics from centuries past, such as St. Teresa of Avila. Liu may be citing the virgin birth of Christ—wow, there’s some taboo for you—or possibly the ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, which was also captured with a decidedly sensual overtone by Peter Paul Rubens and other artists in the seventeenth century. Since her encounter, Lucy Liu reports that she feels she is being watched over. The encounter brings her a sense of trust in the unseen that she did not previously have.
This sort of long-lasting effect places positive incubus encounters in the same grouping as otherworldly visions such as near-death experiences and angel visitations. Interestingly enough, all three of these vision states may be correlated with REM intrusion states, or REM imagery that is projected into and mixed up with visual perception of the dreamer’s immediate surroundings. When REM sleep blends with heightened frontal lobe activity, the imaginal richness of the dream world is enhanced with self-awareness and powerful drives toward emotional significance. This neurobiological explanation does not in any way disprove or “debunk” the power of these visions for the individual. I’m a pragmatist and I feel there’s room enough for both science and spirit in this bed.
NDEs, ancestral visitations, and even some types of sleep paralysis can all result in positive emotional growth in the long run. In clinical circles, disturbing events that result in long-term positive change are known as visionary spiritual experiences. These cases are not disordered mental breakdowns, but rather collapses that can result in improved wellbeing and life changes.8 As philosopher and founder of American psychology William James stated over a hundred years ago, “By their fruits ye shall know them, not their roots.”9 In other words, no matter what, these visionary experiences can result in long-lasting life changes, renewed trust in the world, and a more meaningful life in general.