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The Curse of the Werewolf

By Christopher Kemp · June 15th, 2000 · Science & Technology
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Live with wolves, howl like a wolf. -- Proverb

Cast your eyes skyward any night this week, and you'll see a progressively larger sliver of moon making its way across an ocean of stars.

Each night cold, silent mountain ranges and smooth-floored valley plains will emerge a little further from the shadows. But these and other remote lunar features won't be visible fully until June 16, when a fragile waxing crescent will slowly have swelled to a first quarter moon, then to a waxing gibbous and finally proud and luminous full moon.

This is good news for werewolves. They can spend the next week resting up for another tiring metamorphosis. To many, werewolves are the stuff of legend and corny horror flicks. But think again, for they do exist.

They suffer from a condition better known to psychologists as lycanthropy, defined by Oxford's Psychiatric Dictionary as "the belief that one can change himself or others into a wolf or some other animal." Sufferers don't sprout hair and claws or develop an insatiable thirst for human blood, but they've been known to bark and howl at the moon like wolves. And scratch at imaginary fleas like wolves. And, gulp, kill like wolves.

The disorder was named after King Lycaon of Arcadia, a mythological king who was transformed into a wolf by an angry Zeus. Early descriptions of the condition date back to 700 A.D. and can be found in the writings of the Greek scholar Paulus Aegineta. Throughout history, lycanthropy has been most common in areas with a high incidence of wolves, reaching almost epidemic proportions in Europe during the Middle Ages. In the 15th century, noted French philosopher Jean Bodin reported the cases of three men who confessed to having turned into wolves and having eaten parts of nine children.

Reginald Scot wrote in The Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584 that lycanthropy is "a disease proceeding partly from melancholie, wherebie many suppose themselves to be wolves, or such ravening beasts." In The Duchess of Malfi, a 1623 play written by John Webster, a doctor says of sufferers, "They imagine themselves to be transformed into wolves; steal forth to church-yards in the dead of night, and dig dead bodies up."

Admittedly, these references are pretty old, and the near extinction of wolves in Western Europe and most of America has diminished the occurrence of lycanthropy in the Western World.

But there are more recent studies proving the condition is alive and well. In fact, the most recent study was titled A Case of Partial Lycanthropy and published in the March 2000 edition of Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.

Another recent study, published in American Journal of Psychiatry, quotes a lycanthropic murderer thus: "When I'm emotionally upset, I feel as if I'm turning into something else; my fingers go numb ... I can no longer control myself ... I get the feeling I'm becoming a wolf. I look at myself in the mirror and I witness my transformation. It's no longer my face; it changes completely."

A study performed in 1989 described a man who "had sensations of hair growth on his face, trunk and arms ... and experienced structural facial malformations that took place within minutes and remained for hours." The delusion of transformation can be extremely convincing to sufferers; another paper described an individual as behaving "in a bizarre fashion, allowing his facial hair to grow, pretending that it was fur, sleeping in cemeteries and occasionally lying down on the highway in front of oncoming vehicles."

Incidentally, a paper entitled "The Psychopharmacology of Lycanthropy," published in Canadian Medical Association Journal in 1992, was co-authored by H.G. Wellwuff. Wellwuff? Coincidence? I don't think so.

Psychologists believe lycanthropy to be a form of depersonalization disorder, defined by the American Psychiatry Association as "the persistent or recurrent feeling of being detached from one's mental processes or body." The condition is extremely difficult to define or diagnose due to a lack of accompanying neurobiological or pathological effects. Some schools of psychology believe it's caused by drug intoxication and abuse while others argue that it's the result of a predominance of id drives and a weakness of the superego.

So, we can blame either drugs or Freud for the werewolves. Take your pick. Symptoms are often best alleviated with a variety of antidepressant medications or intense cognitive-behavioral therapy. In other words, more drugs or more Freud. Take your pick.

In retrospect, we know that Dr. Bruce Banner's transformation into The Incredible Hulk was probably a clinical symptom of a severe depersonalization disorder and that he too would have benefited from a suitable regime of medication and psychoanalytical therapy. But it's too late now.

There are still other possible scientific explanations for werewolf activity. An alleged werewolf might also suffer from congenital generalized hypertrichosis, an extremely rare genetic condition resulting in excessive hair growth on the face and upper body. Researchers have successfully detected the gene responsible for hypertrichosis and the chromosome on which it's located. In extreme cases, found exclusively in the widely studied multi-generational Aceves family of Zacatecas, Mexico, sufferers are entirely covered with hair. Such characteristics have earned this disorder the cruel pejorative: atavistic werewolfism.

And then there's Gunther's disease. A rare condition afflicting as few as 100 people worldwide, Gunther's disease is a porphyria, or type of red blood cell disorder. A 1996 study in the journal Bone Marrow Transplant stated, "Clinical features include hirsuitism, red discolouration of teeth, finger-nails and urine and stunted growth ... the outcome is poor, and the disfiguring nature of Gunther's disease may partly explain the legend of the werewolf." I'll say.

So next week, when the trees outside your apartment are lit starkly by a full moon and their shadows thrown haphazardly against your window and you think those noises carried into your room are just the investigations of hungry raccoons, think again.

It might be someone with lycanthropy. Or congenital generalized hypertrichosis. Or Gunther's disease. Or it could be a werewolf.

Chris Kemp is a research scientist who lives and works in Cincinnati. Contact him at CityBeat, 23 E. Seventh St., Suite 617, Cincinnati, OH 45202 or e-mail him at letters@citybeat.com

 
 
 
 

 

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