Spirit Lovers: Incubus and Succubus Attacks

Fantasy Woman with Bloody Rose
redhumv / Getty Images

In paranormal lore, an incubus is a spirit or a demon that attacks a woman, usually while she lies in bed, seeking sexual intercourse. A man can also come under such an attack, and in this case, the spirit is known as a succubus.

Sexual attacks by unseen entities have been reported since at least the Middle Ages. In a related phenomenon, known as "old hag syndrome," the victim feels the presence of some entity lying heavily on top of him or her, making breathing difficult.

 The sensation is sometimes even accompanied by feelings of strangulation but without the sexual component of the incubus.

William Shakespeare describes this phenomenon in "Romeo and Juliet":

"This is the hag when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them, and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage."

Scientific Explanations

According to Al Cheyne, who teaches at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Psychology, medical science attributes this bizarre experience to something known as sleep paralysis:

"Sleep paralysis is a condition in which someone, most often lying in a supine position, about to drop off to sleep, or just upon waking from sleep realizes that s/he is unable to move, or speak, or cry out. This may last a few seconds or several moments, occasionally longer. People frequently report feeling a 'presence' that is often described as malevolent, threatening, or evil. An intense sense of dread and terror is very common."

Cheyne's research shows that as much as 40 percent of the population has had such an experience at least once. The paralysis is caused by the release of hormones during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, a dream state that paralyzes the body and keeps it from acting out the contents of the dream. Usually, the hormones dissipate before the dream ends and the dreamer awakens.

In rare cases, however, the hormones are still suppressing the body's motor functions when the sleeper awakens and finds herself paralyzed. The waking brain tries to find a rational explanation for this paralysis and so invents the evil presence or entity.

In still rarer cases, the phenomenon is accompanied by horrifying hallucinations, such as black forms, demons, snakes, the old hag herself—and even little gray aliens. Some scientists believe the profound feeling of paralysis could be a latent human form of "tonic immobility," the action of feigning death that animals often rely on when stalked, chased, seized, and attacked—a strategy of last resort induced by fear or restraint.

Demonic or Psychological Disturbance?

Sleep paralysis might explain the old hag phenomenon, but what of the sexual attacks? Reports of these experiences are too frequent to dismiss. The 1981 movie "The Entity," starring Barbara Hershey, was based on one such case. It tells the story of a woman in Culver City, California, who was repeatedly raped in her home by an unseen force.

Actress Lucy Liu told Us magazine of her sexual encounter with a mysterious spirit. "I was sleeping on my futon," Liu said, "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. Something came down and touched me, and now it watches over me."

Paranormal online forums also document such attacks. One post confesses: "I too have been dealing with this problem for years. What I have come to realize is: 1) The more I feared it, the more power it has. The attacks increased. 2) As I began to ask God for help, the attacks have decreased, but haven’t stopped as yet. I feel there is a connection with 'it' and the fact that, when I was a child, I was molested by my father."

This admission points to a strong psychological connection between sexual abuse and the incubus phenomenon, and it would be interesting to discover if there is a statistical correlation.

Not surprisingly, many religious organizations—especially fundamentalist ones—consider the phenomenon to be the actual work of demonic forces.

One Christian website, for example, says that "These demons are for real! The demons have sex with both men and women as the person sleeps, and you know it. It's not a dream, and it is not your imagination. If you encountered this situation, deliverance and spiritual warfare can stop it."

Remedies

So what’s the remedy for an incubus or succubus attack? Should victims go to a medical doctor for relief from sleep paralysis? Should they seek counsel from a psychotherapist or psychiatrist if the experiences are the result of childhood trauma? Or, as one reader suggested in a paranormal forum, should they seek an exorcism?

The best advice is to first see a medical doctor and go on from there. Psychiatric help would certainly be recommended for individuals who have experienced trauma. But should an exorcism be performed? In some extreme cases, a psychiatrist might not even object. Since the firm belief in demons could be somewhere at the root of what is surely a very complex problem for the victim, performing a ritual to cast out the demons—absurd as some may find it—might be a viable solution.