In 1999, actress Lucy Liu had sex with a heavenly figure. Or so she claimed in an interview with US Weekly. She’s not shy about what happened, either. She was laying 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.”
It sounds sensational, but Lucy Liu’s account is actually very much in line with the experience of millions of contemporary dreamers.
Lucy Liu’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.
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 anyways.
Science of the Incubus
Usually, the dreamer feels awake and aware, and may even have their eyes open when the encounter begins.
Known formally as REM intrusion into stage 1 sleep, the realistic vision is often called hypnagogic imagery or a hallucination.
Many people who feel these encounters also get the more unpleasant side of this mish-mash of consciousness: sleep paralysis, in which the paralyzing effect of REM intrusion into wakefulness results in terrifying waking nightmares.
The realistic encounter with non-human –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.
Although fearful, these encounters were sometimes interpreted as demonic possession. But not always.
For example, the Greek dream interpreter Artemidorus wrote that sexual Pan encounters “foretells a great profit,” especially if he “does not weigh a person down,” referring to the more common paralysis sensations.1
The Eros of REM sleep
In modern populations, a significant minority have erotically charged hypnagogic experiences despite the lack of cultural prompting.
Those who are 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.
REM engorgement is also the source of morning wood.
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 loading” is not the only, or possibly the stronger, influence. In my mind, the cross-cultural nature of sexual incubi points towards a neurobiological constant, an ancestral legacy.
It’s simply a natural part of being human.
Medical folklorist and anthropologist David Hufford suggests that not only are these 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).2
Here is Lucy Liu’s full quotation from US Magazine:
“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.”
I find it fascinating that the line in bold above is edited out of most mentions of Lucy Liu’s account.
Her comparison to the experience of the Mary draws me back to the many women 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 has also been captured with a decidedly sensual overtone by Peter Paul Rubens and other artists in the 17th century.
Long Term Effects of Visionary Experience
After 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. When REM sleep blends with heightened frontal lobe activity, the imaginal richness of the dreamworld is enhanced with self-awareness and powerful drives for emotional significance.
NDES, ancestral visitations and sleep paralysis can all result in positive emotional growth in the long run.
In my mind, 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.
More importantly, David Hufford reminds us that NDEs, ancestral visitations and 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. Psychiatrist David Lukoff argues that these cases are not disordered mental breakdowns, but rather collapses that result in improved wellbeing and life-change.3
As William James stated over a hundred years ago in his Varieties of religious experiences, “Know them by their fruits, not their roots.” In other words, no matter the material correlates, these visionary experiences can result in long lasting life-change, renewed trust in the world, and a happier life in general.
So have you ever had a pleasurable incubus or succubus encounter?
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1 Adler, S. (2011). Sleep paralysis: night-mares, nocebos, and the mind-body connection. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. (p. 43)
2 Hufford, D. (2010). Visionary spiritual experiences in an enchanted world, Anthropology and Humanism, 35(2): p. 155 (142-158)
3 Lukoff, D. (2007). Visionary spiritual experiences. Southern Medical Journal, 100(6), 635-641.