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The Monsters Are Real! SEL Fall Exhibit: Werewolves

The Science behind our favorite Halloween Monsters; “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ― Stephen King



““Even a man who is pure in heart

And says his prayers by Night

May become a wolf

When the wolfbane blooms

And the autumn moon is bright.”

                             Curt Siodmak

What are werewolves? Are they humans who shapeshift into wolves when the moon is full and wreak havoc upon human, livestock, and wildlife? Are they suffering from a mental disorder? Or do they have a genetic condition that causes extreme hirsutism?


According to Hafdahl and Florence,

The concept of werewolves has been mentioned in legends and stories dating back to the first century AD by author Petronius and by Gervase of Tilbury in the 1100s. Werewolves were said in European folklore to bear certain physical traits in their human form including having a unibrow, curved fingernails, low-set ears, and a swinging stride. A Russian superstition suggests that a werewolf can be recognized by having bristles under their tongue (p. 226).

The first literary mention of a werewolf is in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The goddess Ishtar turns a shepherd of whom she has grown weary into a wolf and he is torn apart by his own hounds (similar to the Greek tale of Artemis turning Actaeon the hunter into a stag as punishment for spying in her taking a bath; he, too, was transformed into an animal and torn apart by his own hounds). Later, Snorri Sturluson (1179 CE– 1241 CE) writes of “Berserkers,”

His own men went to battle without coats of mail and acted like mad dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were as strong as bears or bulls. They killed people, and neither fire nor iron affected them. This is called berserker rage. (Sturluson, 1225, trans. Hollander, 1964: 10) (Heath & Cooper).

Berserkers were more than just frenzied warriors. The name, berserkr,  may come from Old Norse úlfhéðnar,  which means “wolf-coat.” There are contemporary accounts of warriors wearing wolf skins or bear skins into battle and taking on the characteristics of these animals in the frenzy of battle (Heath & Cooper).  Saniotis discusses shapshifting as,

A fascinating element in many shamanic traditions

shamanism involves a belief and practice of

shapeshifting, which for this analysis refers to an

imaginary transformation of a shaman into an

animal; and second, a shaman behaving like a specific


He states that Medieval European beliefs about werewolves probably originated with the berserkers wearing their wolf pelts, frezied by battle into animalistic behaviours (82).

Wolfskrieger (Wolf Warrior) Gutenstein sword sheath, c. 8th century CE. Replica in the Roman-Germanic Museum in Mainz. (Original in the Pushkin Museum Moscow).

Shamanistic shapeshifting beliefs have been around for a very long time, as evidenced in the neolithic cave paintings in Lascaux and Chauvet:


Other elements, such as the full moon and silver bullets evolved around the lore later.

There are some medical conditions which may have also led to the belief in werewolves:

  • Rabies; symptoms of rabies include delirium, abnormal behaviour and foaming at the mouth and it is spread by the bite of an infected animal – one of the lore surrounding the werewolf
  • Hypertrichosis; a genetic condition in which there is excessive hair growth over and above the normal for the age, sex and race of an individual

  • Clinical lycanthropy; “a rare form of delusional misidentification syndrome (DMS) … wherein patients believe that they are undergoing transformation or have transformed into a non-human animal” (Shrestha).
  • Ergotism; “A disease that is caused by the contact with ergotoxin, which is produced by the ergot fungus (Aspergillus fumigatus ), a fungus that grows on rye. A person, infected with this toxin suffers from hallucinations because of the structural identity of this toxin with a neurotransmitter” (Wettstein).
  • Porphyria; specifically, “porphyria cutanea tardea, which presents a very different spectrum of symptoms. In this case, the hallmark is photosensitivity (an excessive reaction to light), which causes chronic blistering and even burns on sun-exposed areas. Healing is slow and is associated with scarring and hair growth, especially on the face. Most of the time the facial hairs are fine, so the hirsutism is barely noticeable. Sometimes, however, the hair growth can give the appearance of a werewolf, leading to speculations that the myths may have had a medical basis” (Lane).

References and Recommended Further Reading


Bruce, Rebecca. "Werewolves, Wolves, and the Gothic." Irish Gothic Journal, no. 18, 2020, pp. 151-154. ProQuest,

Carvajal, Guillermo. “The Strange and Controversial Prehistoric 'Sorcerer' of the Cave of the Trois Frères.” LBV Magazine English Edition, 14 June 2020, Trois Freres

Cybulskie, Danièle. “'One Thing I Know': Werewolves Are a Thing.”, 25 Oct. 2018,

Editorial Staff. “Hallucinogenic Werewolves.” Recovery First Treatment Center, American Addiction Centers, 2 Apr. 2020,

  Eliade, Mircea, et al. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. [Rev. and enl.]., Bollingen Foundation; distributed by Pantheon Books, 1964.

Hafdahl, Meg, and Kelly Florence. The Science of Monsters: The Truth about Zombies, Witches, Werewolves, Vampires, and Other Legendary Creatures. Skyhorse (Kindle Edition), 2019.

Heath, Michael, and Max Cooper. “Wearing the Wolf Skin: Psychiatry and the Phenomenon of the Berserker in Medieval Scandinavia.” History of Psychiatry, vol. 32, no. 3, 2021, pp. 308–22,

Lane, Nick. "Born to the purple: the story of porphyria." Scientific American 16 (2002). 

McDaniel, Walton Brooks. "The Moon, Werewolves, and Medicine." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 13.2 (1970): 155-167.

Otten, Charlotte F. A Lycanthropy Reader : Werewolves in Western Culture. 1st ed., Syracuse University Press, 1986.

  Price, Neil. The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. 2, 2nd Edition, Oxbow Books, 2019.

Rosenstock, Harvey A., and Kenneth R. Vincent. "A case of lycanthropy." The Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture 134 (1986): 31.

  Saniotis, Arthur. “Becoming Animals: Neurobiology of Shamanic Shapeshifting.” NeuroQuantology, vol. 17, no. 5, 2019, pp. 81–86,

Sententiaeantiquae, ~. “Five Days until Halloween: A Roman Werewolf from Petronius.” SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE, 26 Oct. 2015,

  Shrestha, Rajeet. “Clinical Lycanthropy: Delusional Misidentification of the ‘Self.’” The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, vol. 26, no. 1, 2014, pp. E53–E54,

Steiger, Brad. The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings. Visible Ink Press, 2011.

Stewart, Caroline Taylor. The Origin of the Werewolf Superstition. University of Missouri, 1909, Internet Archive | The origin of the werewolf superstition,

  Wettstein, Martin. “The Historical Basis of Lycanthropism.” Academia,, 1 June 2014,


Recommended Further Reading

Andrews Ted. Animal-Speak : The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small. 1st ed. Llewellyn Publications 1993.

Anonymous. “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” Academy of Ancient Texts, 2001,

Arreseigor, Juan José Sánchez. “Did a 'Werewolf' Really Terrorize France in the 1700s?” History, National Geographic, 23 Oct. 2021,

Ashliman, D. L. “Werewolf Legends from Germany.” Werewolf Legends from Germany, University of Pittsburgh, 2010,

Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Book of Were-Wolfes.  Project Gutenberg, 1 Mar. 2004,

Cook, Robin. Acceptable Risk. Berkerly Books, 1996.

Endore, Guy. The Werewolf of Paris. Farrar & Rinehart, 1933.

France, Marie de. “Bisclavret - Reading French.” Mad Beppo, 17 Dec. 2021,

Hamel, Frank. Human Animals. Project Gutenberg, 15 Sept. 2012,

Hernández, Isabel. “A German Werewolf's 'Confessions' Horrified 1500s Europe.” History, National Geographic, 12 Oct. 2022,


Housman, Clemence. The Were-Wolf. Way and Williams, 1896, The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Were-Wolf, by Clemence Housman, Illustrated by Laurence Housman,

Ovid. Metamorphoses. The Internet Classics Archive, 2009

Powell, Shantell. “The Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter.” The Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter, University of Massachusetts - Boston, 2022,

Summers Montague. The Werewolf in Lore and Legend. Dover Publications 2003. Internet Archive

Wade, Jenny. “Going Berserk: Battle Trance and Ecstatic Holy Warriors in the European War Magic Tradition.” International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, vol. 35, no. 1, 2016, pp. 21–38,