A case report on lycanthropy

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.

Read the full story at the Neurotic Physiology blog

Check out the original journal article (Behind a paywall.)

Via Jennifer Ouellette, who has more on the science of werewolves


  1. Can you imagine how dangerous a were-gerbil would be?

    With occasional dramatic but (population level) irrelevant exceptions, if a species is big enough for rifle fire to be a serious threat it’s either a cow or on the endangered species list.

    Smaller animals, by contrast, move with near impunity through the teeming crevices and warrens of human civilization. A gerbil with human-level intelligence(to avoid traps), and powerful seed-crushing teeth and jaws that hunger for the blood of the helpless would be nigh unstoppable…

    1. Forgive me, but it must be said…

      The were-gerbil’s greatest threat might be during reversion…

  2. Here’s a hornet’s nest waiting to be kicked…

    We say they are “demonstrably human” and treat lycanthropy as a psychological disorder, but if someone has a penis and a Y chromosome, we refer to that person as a female simply because she believes she is one.

    Should we treat lycanthropes’ beliefs with more respect?  Is it ethical to try to ‘cure’ it?

    1. This… Would actually be an interesting conversation. Unfortunately it would also be doomed to end in fire and tears

    2. According to the blog post (I don’t have access to the article behind the paywall), the lycanthropic beliefs most commonly occur in the context of psychotic symptoms. That probably doesn’t help their credibility any. 

      It might also be the case, though TFA doesn’t provide much evidence one way or the other, that lycanthropy patients find being turned into an animal acutely distressing. A fair number of psychological states cross the line into be ‘disorders’ if they cause the patient sufficient distress.

      (Also, even in reasonably progressive circles, isn’t it generally the case that people’s beliefs about their gender might be accorded respect; but sex is treated as a (sometimes ambiguious and sometimes medically modifiable) anatomical fact?)

    1.  My parents bred the horrid things. By accident, but it doesn’t change how horribly familiar I am with them. Not good pet choices.

  3. Chiming in from the cyberpunk/Shadowrun gallery…

    Similar phenomenons, including feelings of becoming inanimate things, were described by Stanislav Grof in his works with psychedelics, notably ketamine. Brain imaging shown high activity in proprioception brain regions during the lycanthropic episodes.

    This leads me to a hypothesis that this phenomenon is potentially exploitable in future brain-computer interfaces, allowing the operator to not merely control a machine/vehicle, but subjectively *becoming* it, with all the benefits of cutting down the interface-imposed limitations and delays. 

    For great descriptions of subjective perception of being a hovertank or a fighter aircraft, see e.g. Walter Jon Williams, “Hardwired”.

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