Ever since Joy was a little girl, someone or something has stalked her bedroom late at night. At first, this specter inexplicably terrified her. But when she became an adult, the ghost continued to visit her — and it became something of a familiar friend.
“[I] used to have visits from strange spirits or whatever and actually have sex with them,” Joy, who did not want to reveal her last name, told Mic. “It was very pleasurable. It was almost like I was in a real relationship with a guy.”
Unbeknownst to Joy at the time, she was experiencing what paranormal investigators and parapsychologists have deemed “spectrophilia,” a term that encompasses both the actual act of alleged paranormal intercourse with ghosts, spirits or invisible lovers and the fetish for paranormal intercourse. (It also, curiously, is used to describe sexual arousal derived from reflections in mirrors.)
The phenomenon has come to be something of a punchline in recent years, thanks to a rash of sexual supernatural encounters reported by celebrities like Lucy Liu, Ke$ha and, famously, Anna Nicole Smith, who claimed a ghost would crawl up her leg and have sex with her while she was living in Texas. “I used to think it was my boyfriend, then one day I woke up and found it wasn’t,” she told FHM magazine.
Natasha Blasick, an actress best known for the film parody Paranoid Activity 2, had a similar experience that went viral after she revealed it on a British talk show last year.
“I just could feel this presence coming closer and closer and then I start feeling the actual touch without being able to see much,” she told Mic. “The touch itself like that, it’s kind of human, like, you know, hands… I could feel it all over my body.”
Grim grinnin’ ghosts: Despite the elbow-nudging and eye-rolling the idea of ghost sex can evoke, eerily similar experiences of supernatural sex or spectral rape have been reported in one form or another since at least 2400 B.C., when demons Ardat Lili and Irdu Lili were described on the Sumerian King list, the tablet that gave the world the epic of Gilgamesh. On the tablet, the demons are described as visiting men and women nightly to either become pregnant or to impregnate humans with hybrid spawn.
“This is something that’s gone on — truly written in every culture, in every philosophy, in every religion — since the beginning of time,” Patti Negri, a psychic who conferred with Blasick after her experience and who served as a paranormal expert on the Travel Channel special Ghostly Lovers, told Mic.
The book Sleep Paralysis: Nightmares, Nocebos and the Mind-Body Connection further recounts the demonic predators and spectrophilia-like experiences that have appeared in the more than 4,000 years since the tablet was etched. They include reports from ancient Greek medical literature, a tale from the Old English epic poem Beowulf, an account from the prophet Mohammed and 16th- and 17th-century witch trials.
“You feel like you’re going to die.” But even though ghost sex predominantly has its roots in mythology, modern-day researchers now attribute the phenomenon to a very real, very common condition: sleep paralysis.
“When I first started working on it, a lot of people thought it was a cardinal symptom of narcolepsy, which it’s not,” David Hufford, author of The Terror That Comes in the Night and one of the first researchers to begin studying spectrophilia, told Mic. “Other people mistook it for psychosis — schizophrenia, for example — which it’s not. It’s normal and it’s common, much more common than people thought that it was.”
Sleep paralysis is thought to be the result of someone waking up before their REM, or the rapid-eye-movement sleep phase, cycle is finished. (Estimates for exactly how many people are affected by sleep paralysis vary widely, but Hufford said he believes roughly 20% of people have experienced it at some point.) Because of a physiological mechanism that prevents sleepers from acting out their dreams, those who experience sleep paralysis are left paralyzed (hence, the self-reports of being “frozen” during ghost sex encounters). They can also experience intense fear, chest pressure, hallucinations and difficulty breathing.
Worst of all, the sufferer, despite being unable to move, feels fully awake throughout the entire episode. “Your body can feel like it’s getting pushed or crushed. It can be painful for some people,” Ryan Hurd, an independent dream and consciousness researcher and the author of Sleep Paralysis: A Guide to Hypnagogic Visions and Visitors of the Night, told Mic.
In fact, sleep paralysis can be so terrifying that a string of sleep-paralysis related deaths amongst Laotian Hmong refugees in the United States inspired horror vanguard Wes Craven to create the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. “You feel like you’re going to die,” Joy told Mic. “No matter how many times it happens to you, you feel like you’re going to die.”
When terror turns to sexual arousal: It’s not exactly clear why certain people experience sleep paralysis, or who’s at risk for the condition, though anxiety and lack of sleep do play some role. Negri told Mic that anecdotally, women are more likely to report spectrophilia and sleep paralysis than men, but she attributes that largely to reporting bias.
“I certainly have men who’ve experienced it, but women seem to want to talk about it more and experience the wheres and the whys,” Negri said.
More difficult to pinpoint than the cause of sleep paralysis is the fraction of sufferers whose episodes aren’t terrifying but are instead of a sexual nature. According to Hufford, sexual sleep paralysis experiences are “maybe no more uncommon” than blissful, out-of-body reports of sleep paralysis, which have also been reported. And according to data from sleep paralysis researcher James Allan Cheyne, while 95% of people who experienced sleep paralysis over a lifetime reported feeling fear, 13% of those respondents also reported having pleasurable sleep paralysis experiences.
Laura Hale, a 23-year-old woman from Louisiana, said she has experienced both sexually pleasurable and terrifying episodes of sleep paralysis. The first time, she said, it was a combination of the two.
“It obviously creeped me out. I definitely felt sick about it, but it definitely felt like something sexual was happening to me and my body was responding,” Hale told Mic. “It was all kind of just ‘This is really weird and I’m not sure what’s happening.'”
Joy reported using self-pleasure as an antidote to the terror sleep paralysis would otherwise bring. She told Mic that she has a technique for keeping night terrors at bay: using a hand that “floats out of [her] body” ethereally, “I will go down and just pleasure myself and it will take the fear away and I’ll have an orgasm. If I don’t do that, I get super scared and it’s a horrible experience.”
Yet the question remains: Why do some people find sleep paralysis pleasurable, while others find it terrifying? Physiologically speaking, there are a handful of possibilities. One common theory is that we enter a natural state of sexual arousal while we sleep. When our heads hit the pillows and our brains enter REM sleep, our genitals engorge, resulting in erections in men and lubrication in women.
Another possible explanation lies in the intrinsic link between terror and pleasure. Numerous studies have determined that fear can trigger sexual arousal, possibly due to the fact that both emotions activate the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes both sexually arousing and threatening stimuli.
Hurd’s readers have supported that theory, reporting feeling both scared and aroused by sleep paralysis episodes. But the truth is that researchers still don’t really know what’s going on.”It’s really an understudied aspect of sleep paralysis and sleep paralysis hallucinations probably because of all the nested taboos related to the topic,” Hurd said. “Who wants to talk about how they had sex with demons?”
A thriving community of ghost lovers: Apparently, the answer to that question is quite a lot of people, if the popularity of online spectrophilia and sleep paralysis forums are any indication. Both Hale and Joy are members of the subreddit r/sleepparalysis, where they share experiences, compare notes and swap stories with other people who have similar experiences.
“It’s a really helpful resource for just kind of feeling more normal, even though this is a really weird thing happening to you,” Hale said.
Joy said she finds comfort in the forums because they normalize sleep paralysis and provide a nonjudgmental space for people to discuss its sexual dimensions. She’s even used the forums to recommend her “technique” to other paralysis experiencers who have intense fear during their episodes.
“I shouldn’t be embarrassed of it because it is what it is. I think it’s just the sexual part of it that’s embarrassing,” she told Mic. “If I was to say [to the ghost], ‘Oh, I just say go away in the name of Jesus,’ it would be considered ‘Oh, she’s cool.’ But since it’s [sex], it’s almost kind of like, taboo. Even though everybody masturbates.”
As more and more sleep paralysis experiencers come forward with their own accounts — supernatural, natural or otherwise — perhaps researchers will continue to learn more about the spirits that visit people in their sleep and what makes them so horrific (or just horny). But until then, we’ll continue to hear reports of spectral sexual encounters. And as we do, it’s important to remember that these accounts, while frequently bizarre and often inexplicable, are never quite as out of the ordinary as we might think.