Nightmares, Sex and Abductions

Manfred Cassirer
Magonia 31, November 1989

Demonologists of the Renaissance – generally much less enlightened or humane than one would have expected – subtly distinguish the male incubus from his female counterpart (succubus). The former derives etymologically from incubate (‘to lie down’), while the latter is a derivation of succubare (‘to lie under’).

The advantage of using the term ‘nightmare is that it is so familiar. It is however misleading in this context since it implies sleep, when in fact the experiences under discussion are always stated to involve full consciousness of one’s surroundings, e.g. of a light shining through a door in one of my cases. In Hufford’s words: “The victims are awake and … hear and see and feel odd-sounding things” [2]

Confusion has been created by Freudian interpretations arbitrarily forced on the data. Hufford, evidently ill at ease in this Procrustean bed, has cleared the air by explaining there are “at least three types of nocturnal experiences: a variety of dreams [of the REM-type], sexual encounters with ‘supernaturals’ … and attacks of the Old Hag type without any obvious sexuality.” [2] It is the latter which are akin to and ‘readily assimilated to witchcraft beliefs’.
As Old Hag attacks have attracted less attention than, say, nightmares, I shall start by summarising a typical example. It is of additional interest in incorporating elements suggestive of UFOs and the paranormal in general.
It commenced with the sighting of “a light across the Bay” in Canada. ‘John’, the experient, regards this episode with ill-deserved contempt and practically dismisses it as of no importance. His account meanwhile contains “all four of the primary Old Hag features”, including awareness of being awake, immobility with some possible sensation of pressure, and normal perception of the surroundings. Paranormal footsteps (standard features of haunted houses) are incorporated; a self-luminous figure glows in the dark.

Historically by 1100, Christian dogma concerning the gross double-act of demonic molestation and assault was “solidly established as an article of learned faith throughout Western Europe”‘. Oddly enough, recent study has established a similar syndrome on a more solidly investigated foundation as still flourishing in Newfoundland and elsewhere. Alleged violations of the human body by obscure and sinister entities is said to be all the rage, even if unconnected with black magic rituals. However:

“The precise distinctions which were made … between voluptuous sleep-related experiences and attacks of the Old Hag type are difficult to determine.”

As recorded by Cotton Mather [7], paralysis and fear were are induced through spectral visitation to one Richard Coman, the occult agency working through a New England sorceress being blamed. the attack was nocturnal, the subject – as in some poltergeist cases – was thrown out of bed, or almost so. It is an above average example of ‘spectral evidence’ brought before the courts.According to Persona (1328-1421) an unusual incubus-like creature flourished in Germany in the house of a certain “renowned knight”, attracted by his beautiful sister. Numerous as the creature’s accomplishments were, they did not include visibility, but the hands “slender and soft” were much in evidence, and it is a fact that ‘spirit hands’, detached from the body and often of a pleasant appearance, are amply attested in the mediumistic literature.

If we can believe Guazzo, females enslaved by the power of darkness were rewarded with an incubus in the form of a “rank goat” – an animal then most unjustly despised. Caietano, who wrote on witchcraft [4] knew of “a woman in love whom the devil anointed naked, promising that he would take her to her lover”. In an unconscious state she imagined that she was with him, but it was only a delusion.

According to Johann Meyfarth (1635) not only hundreds of women, but (he regretfully admits) even men, confessed to having had sex with demons. This however was dismissed as an illusion by no less a scholar than Thummius on account of the anatomical shortcomings of the spirits. Basically a fallen angel, Satan is incorporeal, but can shape a body for himself from a corpse. Having done so he is free to copulate, but first he must collect the semen. Brooding in the solitude of their cells, the undefiled godly brethren gave vent to their limited imagination, in which one is none too pleasantly reminded of abduction scenarios and rape by semi-human monsters described by Hopkins and Strieber, whether of heaven or earth [10].

At one time dismissed by Mother Church as salacious dreams, this sort of thing came to be taken deadly seriously, but by the time of Louis XV it was considered a huge joke. Incubi and the like were now considered as at best figments of the imagination, leading the way to the ultimate misinterpretation of the phenomenon as such. Still it could serve a useful purpose as a convenient alibi:

“To conceal sin, a woman, a girl, a nun in name only, a debauchee, who affects the appearance of virtue, will palm off her lover for an incubus spirit which haunts her.” [7]

As a cloak for concupiscence it served Bishop Sylvanus, whose physical form was assumed by a certain Sister’s incubus, undeterred apparently by the still distant prospects of the jibes of the Elizabethan Regina Scot and, no doubt, of other unsung more contemporary puritanical sceptics.

In a similar vein is Sinistrari’s moral tale about the religious who locked herself in after dinner. An inquisitive Sister bored a hole through the wall of her cell, when all was revealed: an all-too-earthly lover was masquerading as a spirit from the deep. On the other hand was it a genuine specimen notorious, it is said, for singing “the most dirty songs” (no examples being given) in which his modest virgin victim refused to join?

For once there is a happy ending, for the girl’s prayers and tears drove away the Evil One, and thus Margaret of Cortona was left in peace. When it comes to the question of the sex act, there is a marked lack of consensus of learned opinion among prelates, who had not as yet learned to confine their attention to matters political. Some had felt confident to assert that it gratified the demons themselves, but this is not the considered opinion of Thomas Aquinas, a man of superior authority in all matters relating to witchcraft and demonology.

“Heretofore… Incubus was fain to ravish women against their will”. However, after what seems a rather arbitrary watershed in 1400 there was an unexplained change so that now: “Witches consent willingly to their desire”


“Wearied with the rehearsal of so many lecheries most horrible and very filthy and fabulous actions and passions - together with spirit Incubus, I will end”
A similar unresolved dilemma relates to the victims of lewd demonic attention: at times it would be presented as almost rapturous, but at others the very reverse, and Scot quotes Nider to the effect that: “Heretofore… Incubus was fain to ravish women against their will”. However, after what seems a rather arbitrary watershed in 1400 there was an unexplained change so that now: “Witches consent willingly to their desire” [8]

If Nider was right – and his authority is perhaps too great to be successfully challenged – and morals were no longer what they were before that critical date, it may seem strange that there are nowadays once more so many reported cases of forced intercourse with the demons. Meanwhile, Nider gains support from stories such as that of the seventeenth century girl who, pursued by a fiendish spirit “seemed almost afraid of being delivered from the devil.” [7] Worse is to come – a nubile German witch was so depraved that she actually summoned her incubus!

What then of the offered pleasures of the Striatum or Witches’ Sabbath, those secret nocturnal gatherings promising prospects of every indulgence of the flesh? Retrospectively they seem very inviting from almost every point of view. Exceptionally, Petrus Valderma in 1617 depicts the participants sitting at “tables served… with the most delicious dishes and exquisite wines”, for those who were not too particular since the very waiters were demons – an experience to which some of us have occasionally been subjected. As if to soften the blow of the sinister catering service,

the refreshments were followed by alluring “sound of the most charming music” (no suggestive ditties here) and, the lights having been put out, the ample gratification of one’s every desire. [3]. But Valderma tactfully omits to mention that this “marvellous food” (as it is described elsewhere) could really consist of sickening bits of grass and worms as in the case of the fairy banquets laid on for abductees. [9] The Devil being allergic to the cleansing properties of salt, the goodies were habitually serve unseasoned.The long catalogue of crimes attributed to witches includes ligatures to cause impotence at weddings and other occasions. Christian Stridtbeckh, in his Van den Hexen (1723) describes five different ways of achieving this for the over-curious, some apparently too indelicate to narrate. [3], so that for once I can spare your blushes. However, lest you should think that theology is a dry-as-dust affair, I shall quote the eminent divine Adam Tenner who in 1617 published his illuminating Tractatus Theologicus dealing with, amongst other matter, the deadly perversions of witchcraft and similar associated enormities.

Tanner “calls attention to the assemblies held of both sexes, sometimes by day and sometime by night, in which every kind of sexual excess occurs. These may be called true schools of the Devil and seminaries of witches of both sexes, all the more injurious that no-one disapproves of or attaches blame to them. Recently, when a Jesuit happened upon one of these gatherings and reproved it, he scarcely escaped without bodily injury and when another sought to abolish them he Was told that they were the ancient customs of the land” [4]

The phenomenology of the paranormal has an uncanny way of adapting to new developments in culture and philosophy, and of fooling us in the process. Those who study the data of folklore, psychical research and ufology in isolation deprive themselves effectively of all hope of obtaining any profound measure of understanding of the underlying causes of these strange anomalies. None is more obscure and inscrutable than the Incubus/Succubus syndrome, and – in the update of the day – the Old Hag survival, taken with the more unpalatable aspects of the so-called UFO abductions, which retain all the vitality, as well as the mystery, of ancient occult lore.

A recent, and less extreme, example is what happened to Elsa, a young Englishwoman. Some years back she was living in a London hostel. One night in 1973 she awoke to find a girl “pacing up and down”. A light was shining through the door of the hall, but Elsa was very scared, especially when the figure lifted the cover of her bed to get in. In her written report Elsa says:

“I then saw the body bearing down on me and at the same time my head crashed back on the pillow very quickly as if it had been pushed. I heard a loud cracking sound as my head hit the pillow and I was unconscious.”Similar cases are numerous, and Scott Rogo cites a recent one of psychological orientation stressing the ‘sexual influence’ exerted on a middle-aged man by a nocturnal apparition in which Rogo detects overtones of feelings of guilt and

MacKenzie has just published something that happened to the late Dr Dewsbury, under the general heading ‘Something Under the Bed’ [5]: at three o’clock in the morning this psychiatrist and SPR council member had also encountered a ‘bedroom invader’ when he was “violently roused by the mattress being pushed from underneath as if by someone under the bed”.You may say that paranormal interference with beds is old hat; if so I shall be the last to argue with you. As usual, there was nothing to account for the disturbance, any more than for the rocking motion complained of to Hubbard, or in what Professor Kittredge has christened the ‘bedclothes trick’, in which the covers are pulled off the unwary sleeper, whether by goblins or by marginally more respectable poltergeists.

Andrew MacKenzie, once more, discusses the phenomenon of ‘a stranger in the bed’, so graphically described by my friend Elsa. This time the location is the French capital. Mrs Bourget and her husband were staying in a Paris hotel in 1962. Suddenly she woke to the “impression of being between two persons”. She became oppressed by a sensation of evil, which she stoutly refused to dismiss as a nightmare. Mrs Hellstroem of the Swedish Society for Psychical Research fared no better when two successive nocturnal phantoms invaded the privacy of a large double-bed.It may well be argued that prejudice too hastily dismisses ancient records as the worthless superstitions of credulous folk engulfed in an age of unreason in which man’s critical faculties were as yet insufficiently evolved; the more so when in one form or an other the beliefs reflected by them have survived in basic substance the shock of intellectual revision of cultural change, and modern obsession with technological advances.

An exceptionally knowledgeable writer has recently suggested that acceptance of UFO reports may be as baseless as those of witchcraft. Before this conclusion becomes part of accepted fact, one must consolidate the validity of statements on the lines that the whole black magic syndrome can be adequately explained away as “a plausible fantasy created by the Church … and accepted by the common people”, it being in actual fact nothing more than “a combination of social and psychological forces” [9, p 376].
Fashions change, and not only in clothes, though the emperor’s are perennial. At one time it was assumed with confidence that the Reformation had done away with ghosts and apparitions. Few people nowadays think of disarranged beds as pointing towards the mischievous activities of goblins, since goblins are rightly unpopular at the moment. At the same time, it is not considered absurd in certain quarters to envisage the existence of entities hailing from ever-expanding distances of outer space that fly about in preposterous machines for the purpose of impregnating us for reasons best known to themselves. They are no longer the Biblical ‘giants’ of old, but equally implausible specimens of an assumed advanced state of more fashionable science.

Meanwhile, let us admit that we are indeed faced with mysteries in many ways beyond our powers of comprehension, but on which psychology, and its more recent parameter’ parapsychology, can throw much light. It is in the direction of their arcane castramentation that we must look for enlightenment, For the present though, being (like Squire Scot) “wearied with the rehearsal of so many lecheries most horrible and very filthy and fabulous actions and passions… together with spirit Incubus, I will end”.

  1. HOPKINS, Budd, Missing Time, Marek, N, Y,, 1981.
  2. KITTREDGE, G. L, Witchcraft in Old and New England Harvard, 1928.
  3. LEA, H, L, Materials Toward a History of (3 Vols) Witchcraft, Yoseloff, N, Y,, 1951.
  4. STRIEBER, W. Communion: A True Story, Arrow, 1988.