HAPPY HALLOWEEN: The Culture of Lycanthropy

Oct 31 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science

One of Sci's favorite holidays is here! Halloween, where you get to dress up, pretend to eat brains, and most importantly of all, where all the candy goes on SALE. So while Sci is wolfing down truly sickening amounts of sugar, she invites you to take a spooky jaunt into an interesting disorder: LYCANTHROPY.

Ah, werewolves. We all know about them. Some of us love them.

But do we know where they come from? Where does the idea of lycanthropy arise? It's not from the dark (or the full) of the moon.

Is it a fantasy? Something not real? Well, yes and no.

...that's probably not what you wanted to hear.

But in fact, lycanthropy is real, it's a real manifestation of a severe psychiatric disorder.

Kahlil et al. "Lycanthropy as a Culture-Bound Syndrome: A Case Report and Review of the Literature" Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 2012.

First off, lycanthropy is not what you think it is. While most people think lycanthropy means transforming into a wolf, the clinical definition is different. Lycanthropy is the belief that you have transformed into an animal. Not a wolf, just an animal. Previous documentations of lycanthropy include people believing that they had been transformed into:

a leopard, lion, elephant, crocodile, shark, buf-
falo, eagle, frog, bee, dog, gerbil, rabbit, horse, tiger, cat,
bird, and unspecified animal species.

(I have to admit part of me would have LOVED to see the gerbil)

But what does this come from? The authors of this study, upon encountering a case study of their own and reviewing the literature, conclude that most cases of lycanthropy are the result of psychiatric disease, especially those with psychotic features. However, the actual TYPE of lycanthropy (what people believe they turn into) might be culturally-dependent.

To come to this conclusion, they look at many previous studies of people who believed they turned into animals, as well as a case study of their own. A woman (Ms. A) was taken to the hospital after refusing to take her psychiatric medications. She told her family and the doctors that she could not take the medication because they belonged to Ms. A, and Ms. A had died two weeks before. The patient told them that she had been transformed by the devil into a snake. She was observed sticking out her tongue in snake-like fashion, hiding under things, and attempting to bite (and threatening to kill) her doctors. Ms. A had a past history of several episodes of major depression. When she was prescribed antidepressants and antipsychotics, the symptoms resolves almost immediately and she was able to go home.

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.

This might also mean that people from different cultures might experience lycanthropy in different ways. It would be interesting to see if that's actually the case, and if, say, people from certain cultures favor snakes or or maybe evil-omened birds.

But it doesn't really explain the gerbil.

For those of you wondering, yes, lycanthropy is real. It's just not quite what you thought it was. And for those who experience it, it is probably infinitely more terrifying.

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