Real Succubus Tales: Sleep Paralysis and the Genesis of Erotic Horror
I was struck by Richard Gavin’s recent commentary in which he observed that most horror fiction is rarely horrifying, but rather tends to focus on peripheral unpleasantness, such as nausea, gore, or bloodlust. As I read this, spontaneous images immediately welled up in my mind from some of the most horrifying moments of my life that were not only chilling but also erotically charged: sleep paralysis night-mares. This tangential response from the body/mind — unbidden but undeniably seductive — is the focus of this essay.
During sleep paralysis, terror and the erotic often come together in a dizzying array of ambiguity. It is precisely this ambiguity — am I safe? Is it okay to feel this way? — that can escalate a merely creepy scenario into one of apocalyptic dread and sexy terror.
While all fiction doesn’t necessarily have its genesis in real life, there is undoubtedly a close connection between sleep paralysis and literary horror. Some of the most famous examples of direct influence would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  (Teeming Brain founder Matt Cardin has also written about the creative horror connection here and speaks eloquently about it here).
This makes me wonder about the direct influence of erotic sleep paralysis nightmares on culture and literature. I’m not a literary expert, especially concerning erotic horror, but I do know quite a bit about sexy devilish imps because, well, they have stolen into my own bedroom at night. By outlining the experiential roots of the real life succubus, as well as some of the science behind it, I hope to start a discussion about this potential correlation as well as the significance of this neuro-mythological pattern in the human psyche.
To break the ice and showcase the symptoms of this bizarre dream state, here’s an example that happened to me a few years ago:
I woke up in the morning and realized I couldn’t move. I knew I was in sleep paralysis, but rational thought didn’t stop my fear from spiking when I heard the bedroom door open, followed by the sound of footsteps and the swooshing of fabric. The sound was exactly that of my wife walking into the room in her slacks and overcoat, but I knew that my wife was actually at work. I decided to roll with it — with the thought, in other words, that this could be a spirit-walker sent by my wife, a part of her soul. (It made sense at the time.) My eyes were seemingly closed, so I next felt her sit down on the bed next to me. The mattress sank and I could feel her presence palpably. Then I felt her lips on my own, soft and warm. I relaxed further and my desire swelled intensely, all at once. She embraced me passionately. At this point, my vision somewhat returned and I could make out the face of the woman kissing me. That’s when I noticed that her cheeks were covered with fur and she had the snout of deer. My stomach roiled and passion turned to grappling terror. I woke up immediately, absolutely freaked out.
Symptoms of real succubi attacks
Perhaps you have had the experience before yourself. Have you ever woken up from sleep and realized you couldn’t move? It happens like this: the more you struggle, the more it feels like you are being held down. You may even detect a presence in the room, hovering near the bed, or perhaps in the corner of the room.
Then come the visions. About 14 to 18 percent of the time, sleep paralysis victims come to face to face with an otherworldly entity.  I wish I could say “human-like entity,” but actually many encounters are with hairy monsters, animal-hybrids, giant insects, and/or aliens.
A smaller subset of visitations, however, include ghosts or human-like entities who sit on the victim’s chest and proceed to sexually molest them, including sensations of penetration. This is the incubus or succubus encounter (male and female spirits, respectively), recently popularized through the Canadian paranormal show Lost Girl.
Some of these experiences are downright dreadful, and are aptly named “ghost rape.” Others are actually pleasurable, resulting in orgasm. Yet sometimes the encounter rides a thin line between horror and eros, in which the victim is both turned on and horrified simultaneously. This phenomenon has been little explored due to all of the nested taboos (demon sex? really?) but it’s more common than we’d like to believe.
Unholy night visitors are wholly natural
Perhaps the strangest insight into these uncanny visitations is that they are part of a forgotten vision complex that still manages to squeeze into modern life despite our rational culture’s desperate wish that the demons will go away. Neurologically, sleep paralysis visitations occur when the brain is in REM sleep, also known as dreaming sleep. However, sleep paralysis visions are no ordinary dream, as they occur when REM sleep intrudes into wakefulness. The mind is awake, but the body is asleep, resulting in bizarre bodily feelings and sensations as we notice our own perfectly normal muscle paralysis that comes along with REM.
“Perhaps the strangest insight into these uncanny visitations is that they are part of a forgotten vision complex that still manages to squeeze into modern life despite our rational culture’s desperate wish that the demons will go away.”
Why so sexy, though? As it turns out, REM can be a physiologically aroused state of mind. Dream orgasms and pleasure during sleep paralysis are possible — and for some people common — due to this basic biological fact.
Sleep paralysis is a common symptom of sleep conditions like narcolepsy and sleep apnea, but it can also come unbidden to millions of others due to stressors such sleep restriction, anxiety, and over-medication. In these cases, sleep paralysis can be managed by attending to lifestyle habits.
The natural occurrence of the erotic night-mare, along with its cross-cultural expression and deep historic presence, suggests to me that terror and sexuality are neurologically linked, and that each can serve as the gateway to the other. Both erotic and horrific images, for example, lower the heart rate and increase the galvanic skin response compared to other images.  As many a young couple at the movies have discovered for themselves — not to mention all the vanilla soccer moms currently reading 50 Shades of Gray – the body has similar reactions to both kinds of arousal.
Here’s another example of how the succubus confuses and stirs us. Walton, a reader of my blog DreamStudies.org, sent me the following narrative:
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. (personal communication, 2009)
Courage in the face of ambiguity
Novelist and dream worker Robert Moss has also walked this line. In his case, the sexual and horrifying nature of the visionary encounter leads to a transformation of the entity as well as an invitation to delve further into the dreaming imagination. Moss recalls how, as a teenager, a disgusting hag with multiple arms and withered breasts entered his bedroom and accosted him. He was completely paralyzed as the hag crawled up the bed, stomped on his chest, and then lowered herself onto him. Moss explains how,
Despite my disgust, I am aroused and now she is riding me. Her teeth are like daggers. My chest is spattered by blood and foulness from the rotting heads. There is nothing for me to do but stay with this. I tell myself I will survive. At last, the act is done. Satisfied, the nightmare hag transforms into a beautiful young woman. She smells like jasmine, like sandalwood. She takes me by the hand to a forest shrine. I forget about the body I have left frozen in the bed. 
In literature, “sticking with” the ambiguity of horror and eros could be seen as the mark of excellent fiction. The rising levels of confusion open us up to new levels of vulnerability that neither passion can achieve alone. Given that we live in a world where it’s apparently common to be harassed by amorous ghosts, Moss’s account offers a refreshing perspective by showing that the ambiguity of eros and horror can be honored not just as titillation, but, if our egos survive the ordeal, as a portal into the deep imagination.
What would have happened, I wonder, if I had possessed the courage to stick with the “Deer Woman” who came to my bed in the guise of my dear wife? This realm may be an example of neurognosis at work: the idea that unconscious patterns of wisdom are hidden inside the psyche, waiting for us to have the courage, patience, or training to unlock them.
This exploration of erotic horror could easily be misrepresented and quoted out of context, so by way of clarification, I’m not suggesting that nocturnal assault “should” be tolerated, and I’m definitely not advocating for the willful incubation or calling of sexual demons to the bedside for personal pleasure. We have enough troubles! Nor am I suggesting that social views towards consensual sexuality and the politics of rape should be doubted due to this curious phenomenon.
Rather, my curiosity today extends only into the reaches of imagination, creativity, and entertainment, which appear to have some curious bedfellows nonetheless.
I’m very curious to hear what those of you more versed in erotic horror than I, as well as succubus experiencers, may have to say about this topic.
 See Adler, Shelly R, Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection, Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2010, especially pp. 54-58, for a discussion of the relationship between sleep paralysis and literary/artistic creativity.
 Hufford, David J, “Sleep Paralysis as Spiritual Experience,” Transcultural Psychiatry 42, No. 1 (March 2005): p. 37.
 Carvalho, Sandra, Jorge Leite, Santiago Galdo-Álvarez, and Óscar F. Gonçalves, “Psychophysiological Correlates of Sexually and Non-Sexually Motivated Attention to Film Clips in a Workload Task,” PLoS One 6, No. 12 (Decembe4 2011): e29530.
 Moss, Robert, “Liminal Complaints: Demons, Night Nags and Sleep Paralysis,” Dream Gates, BeliefNet, January 2011.