Clinical lycanthropy

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Not to be confused with Werewolf syndrome.

Clinical lycanthropy is defined as a rare psychiatric syndrome that involves a delusion that the affected person can transform into, has transformed into, or is a non-human animal.[1] Its name is connected to the mythical condition of lycanthropy, a supernatural affliction in which humans are said to physically shapeshift into wolves.[2]


Affected individuals report a delusional belief that they are in the process of transforming into an animal or have already transformed into an animal. It has been linked with the altered states of mind that accompany psychosis (the reality-bending mental state that typically involves delusions and hallucinations) with the transformation only seeming to happen in the mind and behavior of the affected person.

A study[3] on lycanthropy from the McLean Hospital reported on a series of cases and proposed some diagnostic criteria by which lycanthropy could be recognised:

  • A patient reports in a moment of lucidity or looking back that he sometimes feels as an animal or has felt like one.
  • A patient behaves in a manner that resembles animal behavior, for example crying, grumbling, or creeping.

According to these criteria, either a delusional belief in current or past transformation or behavior that suggests a person thinks of themselves as transformed is considered evidence of clinical lycanthropy. The authors go on to note that, although the condition seems to be an expression of psychosis, there is no specific diagnosis of mental or neurological illness associated with its behavioral consequences.

DSM-IV Criteria Clinical Lycanthropy is thought to be a cultural manifestation of schizophrenia due to the first 4 symptomatic criteria[citation needed]. The first criteria are delusions, and this fits clinical lycanthropy because a person believing that he or she turns into an animal is a delusion. The second symptom is hallucinations, and people with clinical lycanthropy have vivid hallucinations of being an animal, and having whatever traits that animal has, whether it be claws, fur, fangs, or whatever that particular animal has. The next symptom is disorganized speech. The people who have the diagnosis of clinical lycanthropy often take on the sounds of the animal in which they believe they turn into. So, if a person believes that he or she is a werewolf, they may begin to howl at the moon or sometimes even in the daylight. The last symptom that matches schizophrenia is grossly disorganized behavior. This is appropriate because individuals with clinical lycanthropy often act like the animal they believe they have become, including living outside and picking up their diet[citation needed].

It also seems that lycanthropy is not specific to an experience of human-to-wolf transformation; a wide variety of creatures have been reported as part of the shapeshifting experience. A review[1] of the medical literature from early 2004 lists over thirty published cases of lycanthropy, only the minority of which have wolf or dog themes. Canines are certainly not uncommon, although the experience of being transformed into a hyena, cat, horse, bird or tiger has been reported on more than one occasion. Transformation into frogs, and even bees, has been reported in some instances. In Japan, transformation into foxes and dogs was usual (ja:狐憑き, ja:犬神). A 1989 case study[4] described how one individual reported a serial transformation, experiencing a change from human, to dog, to horse, and then finally cat, before returning to the reality of human existence after treatment. There are also reports of people who experienced transformation into an animal only listed as "unspecified".

Proposed mechanisms[edit]

Clinical lycanthropy is a rare condition and is largely considered to be an idiosyncratic expression of a psychotic episode caused by another condition such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or clinical depression.

However, there are suggestions that certain neurological conditions and cultural influences may lead to the expression of the human-animal transformation theme that defines the condition.

Neurological factors[edit]

One important factor may be differences or changes in parts of the brain known to be involved in representing body shape (e.g., see proprioception and body image). A neuroimaging study[5] of two people diagnosed with clinical lycanthropy showed that these areas display unusual activation, suggesting that when people report their bodies are changing shape, they may be genuinely perceiving those feelings.

In myth and popular culture[edit]

Catherine Clark Kroeger has written that several parts of the Bible refer to King Nebuchadnezzar's behavior in Daniel 4 as a being manifestation of clinical lycanthropy.[6]

Neurologist Andrew J. Larner has written that the fate of Odysseus’s crew at the hands of Circe may be one of the earliest examples of clinical lycanthropy.[7]

In John Webster's play, The Duchess of Malfi (1612) the character of Ferdinand goes insane in Act V, believing himself to be a wolf as well as trying to throttle his own shadow because it follows him and that he is fighting on a battle field.

In the 2004 computer game Nancy Drew: Curse of Blackmoor Manor the character Linda believes she has been cursed with lycanthropy and begins eating raw meat and behaving irrationally.

Episode 13 of season 1 of the Fox television series Mental, "Bad Moon Rising" (2009), tells the story of a man who suffers from clinical lycanthropy, who believes he can transform into a bloodthirsty wolf-like animal at full moon and fears he will harm innocent people.

The movie Birdy (1984) by Alan Parker, based on the novel of the same name by William Wharton, tells the story of a troubled boy who has a morbid fixation with birds. After the trauma of being sent to the Vietnam War, he develops a dissociative psychiatric disorder that makes him think he has transformed into a bird.[citation needed]

The Cow (Persian: گاو, Gāv) is a 1969 Iranian movie directed by Dariush Mehrjui. A middle-aged Iranian villager called Hasan, who owns a cow, gradually goes insane following a nervous breakdown and believes he is the cow, adopting such mannerisms as eating hay.[citation needed]

Notions that lycanthropy was due to a medical condition go back to the second century, when the Alexandrian physician Paulus Aegineta attributed lycanthropy to melancholy or an "excess of black bile".[8] In 1563 a Lutheran physician named Johann Weyer wrote that werewolves suffered from an imbalance in their melancholic humour and exhibited the physical symptoms of paleness, "a dry tongue and a great thirst" as well as sunken, dim and dry eyes.[8] Even King James in his 1597 treatise Daemonologie does not blame werewolf behaviour on delusions created by the Devil but "an excess of melancholy as the culprit which causes some men to believe that they are wolves and to 'counterfeit' the actions of these animals".[8] The perception of a link between mental illness and animalistic behaviour can be traced throughout the history of folklore from many different countries.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Garlipp P, Gödecke-Koch T, Dietrich DE, Haltenhof H (January 2004). "Lycanthropy--psychopathological and psychodynamical aspects". Acta Psychiatr Scand 109 (1): 19–22. doi:10.1046/j.1600-0447.2003.00243.x. PMID 14674954. 
  2. ^ Degroot, J.J.M. (2003). Religious System of China. Kessinger Publishing. p. 484. 
  3. ^ Keck PE, Pope HG, Hudson JI, McElroy SL, Kulick AR (February 1988). "Lycanthropy: alive and well in the twentieth century". Psychol Med 18 (1): 113–20. doi:10.1017/S003329170000194X. PMID 3363031. 
  4. ^ Dening TR, West A (1989). "Multiple serial lycanthropy. A case report". Psychopathology 22 (6): 344–7. doi:10.1159/000284617. PMID 2639384. 
  5. ^ Moselhy HF (1999). "Lycanthropy: new evidence of its origin". Psychopathology 32 (4): 173–176. doi:10.1159/000029086. PMID 10364725. 
  6. ^ Kroeger, Catherine Clark; Evans, Mary J. (2009). The Women's Study Bible: New Living Translation (Second ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-529125-4. 
  7. ^ Larner, Andrew J (September–October 2010). "Neuorlogical Signs: Lycanthropy". Advances in Clinical Neurocience and Rehabilitation 10 (4): 50. Retrieved 6 January 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c Sconduto, Leslie A. (2008). Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity Through the Renaissance. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. p. 131. ISBN 978-0-7864-3559-3.