Manuscript vs Myth: Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses
The link between lycanthropy and illness is an easy one to make. To paraphrase the protagonist of ‘Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses’ – Does it make you feel so horrible you can’t function for several days? Has it happened before? “that’s like, the dictionary definition of a chronic illness”.
Kristen O’Neal’s novel, ‘Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses’ focuses on protagonist Priya, who recently contracted Lyme disease, and the other members of an online support group named “oof ouch my bones” for people with chronic illnesses. Member of the group, and Priya’s best friend, Brigid, is cagey about her illness, mentioning only that it causes her fatigue and pain, and flares up approximately once a month.
When she goes quiet online, her friends grow worried and Priya makes the impulsive decision to make the hour-long journey to Brigid’s home and see if her friend is okay. When she arrives, she is attacked by a terrifying creature that she assumes to be a large dog…at least until it stands on its hind legs. Desperate, Priya manages to trap the creature in the bathroom and makes a shaky call to animal control. Except, when the confused handler shows up, the dog has vanished. Instead, they find an unconscious woman, who introduces herself as Brigid.
Armed with the knowledge that werewolves are real, one year’s pre-med training, and an out of his depth animal controller, Brigid and Priya embark on a dangerous quest to find out where the lycanthropy came from… and how it can be cured.
O’Neal is not the first author to make the link between lycanthropy and illness, or medical conditions. J.K. Rowling controversially stated the treatment of the werewolves in her ‘Harry Potter’ series was meant to reflect the prejudice faced by people with stigmatised illnesses, such as HIV or AIDs. Darren Shan’s ‘Demonata’ series treats lycanthropy as a terrifying genetic condition carried in the blood of the Grady family, and randomly manifesting after puberty. There are also jokes likening lycanthropy to the menstrual cycle. While allegories between illness and a pop-culture creature typically depicted as monstrous and mindless have often carried a discriminatory undertone, modern depictions tend to be a lot more favourable towards the werewolf. Much like the vampire, zombie and siren, the werewolf has seen a redemption in the 21st century, with an increasing number of sympathetic depictions in TV and film.
Depictions of sympathetic, friendly and even basket-ball loving werewolves have grown more common in recent years. And in ‘Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses’ O’Neal draws parallels between many aspects of chronic illness and the fictional condition. These include the enduring impacts that the condition has on Brigid’s life, the mental stress of ongoing pain and the frustration of invisible symptoms that go unbelieved.
The concept of Lycanthropy as an illness may harken back to medieval werewolf myths, where the werewolf was a symbol of both fear, and pity. The werewolf itself was a creature of horror, but the human afflicted with the werewolf curse was frequently also a victim of the wolf. This may relate to theories that legends of werewolves were inspired by real-life illnesses, or conditions.
One illness popularly thought to have inspired werewolf myths is rabies, which, much like lycanthropy, can be passed through a bite or scratch. Most mammals are at the risk of contracted rabies (unless they have been vaccinated against it) with canines, cats, and bats being the most commonly infected. In animals, rabies is categorised by the classic ‘foaming of the mouth’ and altered behaviour. This is normally depicted as an animal growing more aggressive, such as in the classic film, ‘Old Yeller’, but this is not always the case. An animal that is already aggressive or excitable may instead respond by growing calmer. In humans, initial symptoms may present similarly to the flu, however as the illness advances the person may also experience delirium, hallucinations and altered behaviour.
Another condition thought to have contributed to lycanthropy myths, and even sometimes referred to as ‘werewolf syndrome’ is Hypertrichosis. The condition causes excessive hair growth, sometimes across the entire body. People with the condition have historically been treated poorly, and there are cases of people with the condition being displayed as examples of real ‘wolf-men,’ the most recent example of this being the Aceves family in Mexico.
Although the most obvious metaphor in ‘Lycanthropy and other Chronic Illnesses’ is, of course, the link between illness and lycanthropy, another key allegory is the link between lycanthropy and freedom, particularly as depicted in modern media.
Werewolves, by their nature, reject ordered society. They are wilder and freer, representing the more bestial and untamed side to humanity. In the TV show ‘Teen Wolf’, protagonist Scott McCall may face new supernatural dangers when he is bitten by a wolf in the woods, but he also gains a healthier body, greater reflexes and gets to shed his ‘ugly duckling’ phase for popularity, girls, and a burgeoning talent on the lacrosse field. Similarly, freedom and liberation are key themes in O’Neal’s novel.
Both Priya and Brigid begin the novel in a very dark place. Priya has only recently been diagnosed with Lyme disease and is struggling with the knowledge that she will be managing her condition for the rest of her life, as well as having had to drop out of college and return home to her parent’s house. Brigid is dealing with a version of lycanthropy that does not depend on the phase of the moon, and is getting steadily worse, with transformations that occur more frequently.
In the course of managing Brigid’s lycanthropy and managing the symptoms in a way that will get it under control, Priya is able to come to terms with, and manage her own condition. While neither of them are able to be cured, they do both find ways to live with their conditions. At the end of the novel, and in an expression of freedom, both Brigid and Priya leave home on a road-trip – literally driving off into the sunset.
In her novel, O’Neal provides an original twist to the classic werewolf legend, while at the same time remaining true to many earlier aspects of the werewolf myth. She shows a far more sympathetic side to werewolves, focusing not on Hollywood’s full-moon monster, but instead on the infected person, taking a grounded view on what it might actually be like to live with lycanthropy, in the 21st Century.