[This edited version contains some corrections in my use of the terms “sleep paralysis,” “night terrors,” and “incubus/succubus” experiences, thanks to definitions in Hufford, pp. 121-124.]
In Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and The Crisis of Belief (2002), Walter Stephens examined 15th and 16th century witchcraft treatises to discover why Christian theologians were so obsessed (really, really obsessed!) with demonic sex. I have just started reading the book at the same time as I’ve begun David J. Hufford’s book, below. They make for an interesting combination.
David J. Hufford’s The Terror That Comes in the Night (1982) was an early documentation of the phenomena known as “the Old Hag” in Newfoundland, which is similar to what was perceived as attacks by incubus and succubus demons elsewhere (starting centuries ago), and later (more scientifically), as sleep paralysis. However, Hufford does seem to distinguish special characteristics of the Old Hag experience.
While I am eager to understand more of Stephens’ research (as I proceed through the book) and his hypothesis that “proof of the physical evidence of demons–for instance, through evidence of their intercourse with mortal witches–would provide strong evidence for the reality of the supernatural, the truth of the Bible, and the existence of God” (quote from book cover, inner front flap), I feel certain that there was another strong motivation for this obession. David Hufford’s book provides the key.
I believe that some Christian theologians and clerics (and perhaps many of them) were obsessed because they were hell-bent on processing their own freaked-out shame over the incubus and succubus attacks that they themselves experienced. They may have been aroused as well as frightened (and thus, in their belief system, guilty of great sin), and terrified too that while sending witches of all genders to their death for “sex with demons,” they could also stand accused if their own (entirely involuntary) episodes came to light. It wouldn’t have been the first or the last time a hypocrite with something to hide meted out severe punishments to others accused of the exact same thing. (Think of the male politicians who advocate for strict laws against homosexuality and later get caught with male sexworkers.)
My hypothesis is reasonable. My current literature search shows that members of religious orders (however pious) were not immune from incidents of sleep paralysis. During those times–and even now–the terrifying combination of paralysis, chest pressure, a sense of malevolent presence, and sometimes experiences of nonconsensual sexual activity, etc. can be interpreted as an attack by a demonic incubus (male) or succubus (female). In 2020, a modern YouTuber, Summer Fox, posted a video about her experience titled “I Had Sex with a Sleep Paralysis Demon” and names “Incubus” as her demon attacker. Her interpretation of the events which disturbed her have much in common with 13th to 16th century views. The screenshot below is from an English translation of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s 13th century The Dialogue on Miracles. As you can see below, two “lay-brothers” in a monastery are described as sitting up together as they have both experienced “night terrors” (which may have also referred to incubus/succubus attacks).
Evidence of attacks on religious communities can also be found in Poetics of the Medieval Dream. Christopher Collins writes:
“As the dominant literate class in medieval Europe, the clergy were most responsible for informing the laity as to the appearance and behavior of night terrors, (Stewart, 2002; Cheyne & Girard, 2004; MacLehose, 2013). Being committed to their vows of chastity, celibate monks and nuns knew all too well that Satan would send such demons to seduce them in their most vulnerable states” (p. 6, no date but post-2016).
Collins also makes the point that monks and nuns in religious orders were kept in a state of deliberate sleep deprivation (p. 7). This is interesting as modern researchers have discovered several factors associated with sleep paralysis, including sleep disruptions and deprivation, anxiety, stress, PTSD, panic disorder, and “anomalous beliefs” (abstract) (Denis, French & Gregory, 2017). If we consider what it was like to live in a 15th century convent or monastery, in an era of witch persecutions–with all the horror, trauma, and worries for personal safety that would entail–we can see these conditions could bring on all of the above factors, perhaps increasing the number of instances of night terrors and sleep paralysis for both clerical and lay people.
This sleep disorder (so often named as “sex with demons” or a demonic attack) was not limited to Europe. In my literature search I am finding references to from ancient Greece, China, and Persia. And that’s just a couple of weeks into my research! I expect to find much more as I go on.
In many parts of the world, sleep paralysis and night terrors are no longer seen as strictly paranormal experiences, or as evidence of paranormal contact, though some people may still interpret these experiences in that way. It is important to remember that sleep paralysis is involuntary–a person cannot “summon” a sleep paralysis “demon” though they can be susceptible to the experience due to the factors named by Denis, French and Gregory (2017). But it is certain that during the witch persecutions, thousands of people suffered and died as accused witches due to this unfortunate quirk of human physiology, which may have frightened a person under torture into admitting that they’d had such a thing happen to them. And this admittance would have both comforted and terrified attending inquisitors. After all the existence of demons must imply the existence of a god who would deliver believers from such horrors. This would seem to affirm Walter Stephen’s hypothesis of the demon lover as an agent of the Christian “crisis of belief.”
However, I am not a theologian or historian (or a sleep researcher) and it is easier for me to try to understand this topic from a sexological point of view. I note that while the “contact” with demons would seem (to a medieval mind) to be confirmed through the experiences of sleep paralysis, inquisitors pressed accused witches for demonic sex accounts that happened during waking (e.g. during a Sabbat ritual, for example). Inquisitors wanted confirmation of waking consent to sex with demons or the devil, and they wanted the surety of what would seem to be a corporeal, carnal account. (Stephens discussed religious debates about demon embodiment in chapter three of his book.) These accounts of embodied paranormal sex would distinguish clerics or inquisitors with a sleep paralysis history as innocent victims of demonic attacks, and differentiate their experiences from the willful sins of accused, persumably demon-copulating witches. And in this way, the clerics and inquisitors might be safe…
It’s a hideous thought that the sadistic torture and murder of thousands of accused witches may be due (in part) to the nightmares (and possible sexual obsessions) of religious men and women, and their inept coping mechanisms, enabled by a brutal, unforgiving theology.
Night terrors and sleep paralysis are only one type of reported erotic contact with paranormal or supranormal beings (though not all sleep paralysis incidents contain erotic elements). There are many other ways in which human beings engage in erotic, romantic, and emotionally charged devotional relationships with spirit beings. In my preliminary survey of pagans who reported some form of spirit sex or emotional intimacy (2019), only one of pagan respondents reported what seemed to be a sleep paralysis incident. The rest of the respondents reported contacts and practices that took place in waking or trance states, and were mostly (not always) desired or sought, or at least accepted after initial contacts.
There’s a lot more to be said on this topic, so expect a sequel blog.
Caesarius of Heisterbach. The Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. von E Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland. Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1929.
Collins, Christopher. Poetics of the Medieval Dream. Work in progress. Retrieved Dec. 9, 2021 https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:23871/
Denis, Dan, Christopher C. French, and Alice M. Gregory. “A systematic review of variables associated with sleep paralysis.” Sleep Medicine Reviews 38 (2018): 141-157.
Fox, Summer. I Had Sex With a Sleep Paralysis Demon. YouTube. June 18, 2020. Retrieved https://youtu.be/ihVaND3QyHQ
Hufford, David J. The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1982.
Stephens, Walter. Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief. University of Chicago Press, 2013.