Clinical lycanthropy: A cry from the past? History of psych.2014


 Lycanthropy ( beliefs of transforming in to wolf) is a notion rooted in demonology/ mythology. Popular media  have used the idea  of transformation in to animals successfully . How often do such themes appear  in mental disorders? Descriptions of clinical lycanthropy or lycomania ( delusional beliefs that one has transformed in to a wolf)  are extremely rare in practice. It is interesting to see how various beliefs in popular culture are represented in delusional themes and how they shape over time.

Jan Dirk Blom reviewed the literature since 1850 on this subject and located 56 original case reports of individuals holding delusional beliefs of having turned in to an animal. Cases were patients imitated animals more or less deliberately were excluded. Out of 56 ( transformation in to various animals), 15 were identified as cases of clinical lycanthropy.

Clinical diagnoses were  variable among all these cases:  schizophrenia spectrum disorder (25%), psychotic depression (23%), bipolar disorder (20%) and psychotic disorder NOS (13%). 36% achieved full remission with treatment.

During the Inquisition period , in France,  many people (+ 30,000) were thought to be practicing or experiencing /believing in lycanthropy. It is also thought that some of them were  sufferers of hirsutism, Ambras syndrome (i.e. hypertrichosis, also known as ‘werewolf syndrome’) or severe congenital erythropoietic porphyria ( reddish-brown urine, reddish-brown teeth, red eyes,  excoriated and ulcerated skin, anatomical malformations due to damage to the cartilage and bones, hyperpigmentation of photosensitive areas, , and abnormal behaviour with an inclination towards nocturnal strolls).

Pathophysiological/psychological  explanations

1.Metaphorical act (i.e. as a symbolic departure from one’s identity as a human)

2. Primitive expression of sexual and aggressive urge.

3. Evolutionary perspective: primitive Man may well have disguised himself in the body or body parts of an animal during moments of danger and this archetype, has survived into the modern human mind and it is awakened by life-threatening circumstances.

4. Severe form of depersonalization

5. Disorder of thought

Conclusion: With 13 cases reported over a time span of 162 years, we should take heed not to cry wolf too often.

Comment: It would be interesting to see how many of the unusual delusions described in the literature is gradually disappearing.

Summary of the article:

When doctors cry wolf: a systematic review of the literature on clinical lycanthropy.

Blom JD. Hist Psychiatry. 2014 Mar;25(1):87-102

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