According to a psychiatric report released in March 2019, a South Florida man, accused of murdering a couple and chewing on the face of one, suffered from “clinical lycanthropy delusions.” This is a psychiatric syndrome in which a person believes he can transform into a non-human animal—in this instance the killer believing he was “half-dog, half-man.” It is thought to stem from schizophrenia or other mental disorder. It is sometimes popularly called the werewolf delusion.
The diagnosis was made by forensic psychiatrist Dr. Phillip Resnick in a 38-page mental health assessment of Austin Harouff. Harouff was charged with the murder of John Stevens III, 59, and his wife Michelle Mishcon, 53, at their home in Martin County on August 15, 2016. When sheriff’s deputies arrived on scene they reported discovering Harouff, then 19, lying on top of Stevens, growling and chewing on his face. Subsequently, Resnick concluded that Harouff exhibited signs of “clinical lycanthropy delusions” and “severe mental disease” (Roustan 2019).
Among the criteria that may be used to diagnose clinical lycanthropy are the patient’s having reported feeling like some animal—such as a wolf, dog, hyena, or tiger—or behaving in a manner resembling an animal, such as growling, howling, or crawling. The delusion can cause sadistic and even cannibalistic or necrophilic behavior (Stein 1988, 37).
In mythical form, lycanthropy is said to consist of a supernatural transformation, with the individual physically shapeshifting into a wolf. Such are the werewolves of yore, among those creatures that supposedly inhabit the night as supernatural man-beasts.
The term werewolf literally means “man-wolf” from Old English, and describes either a human being who has been turned into a wolf by sorcery or one who makes the transformation (whether by will or otherwise) from time to time. In European folk belief, the werewolf preyed on humankind each night but returned to human form at the light of dawn (Leach 1984, ii; King 1991, 114). The concept that one could turn into a wolf may have originated with the simple wearing of an animal robe for warmth, with people coming to believe that the person wearing the skin took on the animal’s powers (Nickell 2011, 101).
A historic case I investigated onsite in Austria in 2007 showed what a superstitious belief in werewolves could lead to. During a werewolf scare of 1715–1717, an unusual number of cattle and deer were killed by wolves in the Moosham district. When attempts to hunt them down failed, local folks concluded the predators were supernatural. As a result, two adolescent beggars were tortured in a chamber of Moosham Castle (where I investigated). They soon confessed that they had indeed used an unguent on their bodies to transform themselves into wolves. They escaped execution by being sentenced to lifelong service as Venetian galley slaves (Nickell 2011, 101–107).
Some historical instances of supposedly supernatural werewolves are now seen in today’s light as examples of clinical lycanthropy. These include the horrific crimes of sixteenth-century Peter Stump (or Stub) who raped, murdered, and devoured men, women, and children. His was among the most famous werewolf trials, culminating in his execution near Cologne in 1590. Even so, when his interrogators could not locate the magic girdle he had confessed to wearing that supposedly transformed him into a wolf and back, they assumed it had merely returned to the devil who had provided it (Summers 1966, 253–259).
The Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” seems to evoke lycanthropy, but we learn that—as in other Sherlockian stories appearing to suggest the supernatural (Nickell 2006)—there is a real-world explanation: the man in question had sought to regain vitality through injections of animal serum.
An actual physical condition that may be confused with clinical lycanthropy is what is sometimes called—very inappropriately, in my opinion—werewolf syndrome. That is a condition known as Hypertrichosis, characterized by abnormal hair growth over the person’s body. In previous centuries such individuals were often exhibited in circus and carnival sideshows as so-called freaks. However, they were typically normal in every other respect, and their being likened to werewolves in any way was simply absurdist promotion (Nickell 2005, 154–155).
King, Francis X. 1991. Mind & Magic. London: Crescent.
Leach, Maria, ed. 1984. Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. New York: Harper & Row.
Nickell, Joe. 2005. Secrets of the Sideshows. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
———. 2006. Sherlock Holmes, Paranormal Investigator. Skeptical Briefs, 16:1 (March), 1–2.
———. 2011. Tracking the Man-Beasts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Roustan, Wayne K. 2019. Face-biting murder suspect believed he was ‘half-dog, half-man,’ doctor says. South Florida Sun-Sentinel, March 29.
Stein, Gordon. 1988. “Werewolves.” Fate (January): 30–40.
Summers, Montague. 1966. The Werewolf. New York: Bell Publishing.