Just in time for Halloween, Sci Curious blogs about a case report, published in a peer-reviewed research journal, covering the strange story of a patient with lycanthropy — which is, to say, a bad case of werewolfitis. Lycanthropy as a Culture-Bound Syndrome: A Case Report and Review of the Literature was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice. And it was published this year.
Yes, in 2012. That's because the technical, medical definition of lycanthropy had nothing to do with physically transforming into a creature of the night. It's a mental thing, where patients believe they have transformed into some kind of animal, even though they are still demonstrably human. According to Sci Curious, the animals involved in lycanthropy include everything from the obvious (wolf) to the unintentionally hilarious (bee, gerbil).
In their survey of the literature, the authors of this study found many more incidences of people who believed they had been transformed into animals, and which resolved after psychiatric treatment. But what interested the authors of this study were WHAT people generally believed they had turned into. While some people believed they had been turned into gerbils or cows, a surprising number believed they had been turned into wolves, and, as with the case with this woman, snakes.
The authors believe that this is because of what different cultures associate with...evil. Many of the people with lycanthropy believed firmly that the devil had done this to them, and of course the devil would turn them into a beast that is usually considered EVIL. Like wolves, which have been associated with Satan since the middle ages, or snakes, which go all the way back to Genesis (and, as the authors note, the Ms. A was a very devout religious woman). So the authors suggest that the idea of werewolves might arise from people suffering from lycanthropy, and believing that they had been transformed into the evil thing which they most feared.
...But it doesn't really explain the gerbil.
Check out the original journal article (Behind a paywall.)
Via Jennifer Ouellette, who has more on the science of werewolves
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.