The Wolfman's Lament: People Who Believe They Are Animals

“Where got’st thou that goose look?”—MacBeth

Posted Jan 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

During the Middle Ages, when witches and demons were considered ever-present threats, the transformation of humans into animals was considered a very real possibility.  Thomas Aquinas, writing in the 13th century, opined that both angels and demons have the power to change the form of any person.  During this era before the Enlightenment, sickness – and especially mental illness – was frequently attributed to past sins, witchcraft, pacts with the devil, or similar superstitions. During the Spanish Inquisition, a severe mental disorder might result in imprisonment, torture, and even death by auto-da-fe.  (As a teenager, I was a movie extra for a scene in which heretics were burned at the stake by the Inquisition.)

Speaking of movies, our modern cinema archetype, the “werewolf,” owes its existence to these superstitions from medieval and even earlier periods.  Many myths refer to humans transforming into animals.  For example, in the Book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar is transformed by the wrath of God into an ox after which “his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.”  The Roman poet, Virgil, wrote in 39 B.C. of a werewolf named Moeris: “Oft by their [i.e., magical herbs] sorcery I have seen Moeris turn wolf and hide within the woods, oft call forth spirits from their deep-dug graves.”

In 2013, Dutch psychiatrist, Jon Dirk Blom, published a study of a condition known as clinical zoanthropy or lycanthropy (from the Greek words for “wolf” and “man”).  It is a delusional state in which one believes that he or she has become, or is turning into, an animal.  Some of the earliest cases involved people who believed they were becoming wolves or dogs, and thus the term “lycanthropy.”  But now that term is used interchangeably with clinical zoanthropy to indicate any kind of perceived animal transformation.  Blom researched all the way back to 1850 and found 56 cases of which 34 patients were male and 22 female.  Schizophrenia was present in about 25 percent of the cases, clinical depression with psychotic features in 23 percent, and bipolar disorder in roughly 20 percent. 

In terms of DSM-5 classification, clinical zoanthropy would be diagnosed as a “bizarre delusion,” meaning one which could not possibly occur (as opposed to a non-bizarre delusion, such as a false but possible belief that one is being stalked).  Cases have presented of patients believing they were dogs, leopards, crocodiles, sharks, frogs, snakes, and bees, to name a few.  Here are some examples:

Cases

  • In 2010 a 47-year-old French woman presented with a history of depression and disorganized behavior (e.g., opening and closing cabinets for no reason).  She lived with her parents and held a secretarial job.  She began experiencing auditory hallucinations of the devil telling her that she was a snake. As this delusion took hold, she was taken by her family to a priest for an exorcism.  This proved unproductive whereupon she was taken to a hospital.  The patient attempted to bite medical personnel and moved by slithering on the floor.  She refused hospitalization because this was for people whereas she, to her way of thinking, was a serpent.  She was ultimately treated for a major depressive disorder with psychotic features.
  • A 20-year-old man was brought for medical attention by his family after several weeks of increasingly erratic behavior.  He had no previous psychiatric history.  At his initial evaluation, he was inattentive, suspicious, and reluctant to discuss his condition.  He was hospitalized and given medication for psychosis.  However, his condition worsened.  He began howling, snarling, and leaping about on all fours.  When questioned, he explained that he was a werewolf.  Eventually, he revealed that he had been hearing voices for years and that the devil had told him he was a special person. 
  • A 32-year-old man in Jordan came to believe he was a cow (a subcategory of clinical zoanthropy known as boanthropy, as in “bovine”).  He had a long history of profound psychiatric illness, including paranoid schizophrenia.  He experienced auditory hallucinations and believed variously that the TV was spying on him, that he was Jesus, and that he had cockroaches and metal in his stomach.  While in treatment, he bellowed and explained that the devil was controlling him. 

For more psychological conditions that defy belief, see this article.

“Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”—Lewis Carroll / Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There