The idea of a person turning into a wolf may sound like something from a horror movie. But there’s a real -- though rare -- syndrome that causes some people to believe that's happening to them. It's called clinical lycanthropy or lycomania.There's not a lot of research on it because there aren't many known cases. But it's pretty well-documented throughout the centuries. While doctors aren’t sure of its exact causes, it can be treated. There's no standard of treatment, however, like there is with some other diseases and conditions.
A Closer Look
Clinical lycanthropy may be caused or affected by neuropsychiatric disorders, cultural and social factors, and physical issues. Experts think causes vary from case to case.
Its name comes from Greek words meaning "wolf" and "human being."The concept of humans shape-shifting into wolves exists throughout history in mythology and in different cultures. In recent years, popular movies have shown people transforming into wolves.
Some experts think those with this disorder see wolves as a delusional representation of evil. In some cases, those with this disorder report believing they're under demonic possession and being punished. But some think wolves are strong and noble.
What Causes Clinical Lycanthropy?
Some experts think it's caused by delusional misidentification syndromes (DMS). That's a group of disorders where people don't recognize familiar objects, or they believe objects are transformed. Other experts say clinical lycanthropy may involve a culture-bound syndrome, which is a mental illness or unusual behaviors shaped by cultural norms or surroundings.
DMS can happen if you have:
- Drug intoxication and withdrawal
- Cerebrovascular disease
- Traumatic brain injury
Those who have clinical lycanthropy seem to have other things in common, too. They may have major mental illness such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or psychotic depression. They may take hallucinogenic drugs, drink alcohol, or have epilepsy.
Research suggests it may be triggered by a mismatch in your brain and your self-image.
More studies are needed to understand how other conditons may be linked to clinical lycanthrophy. Some possible ones include:
- Feelings and sensations that are medically unexplainable (called cenesthopathy), such as thinking there are wires in your mouth or feeling tightening in parts of your body
- Trouble processing information received through your senses
- Abnormalities in the right half of your brain
- Sleep apnea
- Disrupted circadian rhythms or lunar cycles
What Are the Symptoms of Clinical Lycanthropy?
Signs may include:
- Claiming to see physical changes in your body when looking in the mirror (like your teeth lengthening, claws, or your hair growing)
- Making growling or howling noises, or other animal sounds
- Craving or eating raw meat
- Walking on all fours
Some people who've experienced clinical lycanthropy say they had moments when they recognized they were human but could look back and recall feeling like an animal.
One person reported changing into other animals (not just a wolf) before realizing they were human. In other cases, those with this disorder believe people around them are also being transformed into animals or creatures.
Who's at Risk for Clinical Lycanthropy?
A recent study looked at 43 cases of clinical lycanthropy and kynanthropy reported between 1852 and 2020. (Kynanthropy is a related condition when people think they can or have become dogs. Clinical lycanthropy and kynanthropy are forms of zoanthropy, which is when a person thinks they're an animal.)
Researchers say clinical lyncanthropy can happen during a younger person’s first psychiatric episode or in those with chronic psychosis. But not all cases are linked to mental health disorders. Some who've experienced it had epilepsy, while others took hallucinogenic drugs or drank alcohol.
In that study, the researchers looked at cases of clinical lycanthropy reported in the U.S., Western Europe, Turkey, Iran, and India. They found It can affect people anywhere in the world. They also found that how you perceive wolves can play a role in whether you develop it.
How's It Treated?
Clinical lycanthropy is treated on a case-by-case basis. Doctors might give you antidepressants or mood-regulating medications if you also have depression or mania. They might give you antipsychotic medications. Symptoms usually get better or go away over time.
A study linking the disorder with obstructive sleep apnea concluded that doctors should look for underlying neurologic issues in those with lycanthropy symptoms. But more research is needed to know if treating other medical issues can prevent or improve it.
If you think you might have clinical lycanthropy, talk to your doctor or behavioral health professional.