Clinical lycanthropy

Clinical lycanthropy

Clinical lycanthropy is defined as a rare psychiatric syndrome that involves a delusion that the affected person can transform or has transformed into a non-human animal or that he or she is an animal.[1] Its name is connected to the mythical condition of lycanthropy, a supernatural affliction in which people are said to physically shapeshift into wolves. The terms zoanthropy and therianthropy are also sometimes used for the delusion that one has turned into an animal in general and not specifically a wolf.[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.
  • A patient may voice their belief in being an animal.

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 behavioural consequences.

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. 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

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 and cultural influences may lead to the expression of the human-animal transformation theme that defines the condition.

Neurological factors

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. Body image distortions are not unknown in mental and neurological illness, so this may help explain at least part of the process. One further puzzle is why an affected person does not simply report that their body "feels like it is changing in odd ways", rather than presenting with a delusional belief that they are changing into a specific animal. There is much evidence that psychosis is more than just odd perceptual experiences, so perhaps lycanthropy is the result of these unusual bodily experiences being understood by an already confused mind, perhaps sifted through cultural traditions and ideas.

In popular culture

Episode 13 of season 1 of the Fox television series Mental, "Bad Moon Rising" (2009), tells the story of a man who suffers from lycanthropy, believes he can transform into a bloodthirsty wolf-like animal at full moon and fears he will harm innocent people. In the episode, the man has a previous history of anxiety disorder and a pathological fear of dogs, all of which are supposed to contribute to his condition, which began after he was bitten by a strange dog.

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.

In the Bible (Daniel 4:4-36), King Nebuchadnezzar is humbled by God for 'seven periods of time' by being driven from among men, and dwelling with the beasts of the field.

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.

On an episode of Psych, a man claims to be a lycan and suffers from clinical lycanthropy.

See also


  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. pp. 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. PMID 2639384. 
  5. ^ Moselhy HF (1999). "Lycanthropy: new evidence of its origin". Psychopathology 32 (4): 173–176. doi:10.1159/000029086. PMID 10364725. 

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