The science of werewolves

I'm pleased to welcome my pal Cecilia Dominic (@RandomOenophile) to Landless today. She and I have a great many things in common, not least of which is an adventuresome spirit when it comes to food and drink. We get together over a bowl of crunchy frog or a steaming platter of curried goat entrails whenever her travels bring her to Philadelphia. I'm looking forward to visiting Atlanta and comparing its local delicacies with those found here in the city of brotherly love.

Cecilia is visiting in connection with the release of her new werewolf book, The Mountain's Shadow, available for preorder now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For this guest post, I asked her to talk about her combination of science with the traditional horror/fantasy element of the werewolf. What is attractive about the idea of having science in a supernatural story? As you can see below, she gave a terrific answer!


Thanks, Tony, for inviting me to guest post on your blog!

When someone asks what my novel The Mountain'sShadow is about, I often give the short answer of "werewolves with a scientific twist." The genre is urban fantasy (or paranormal depending on who's classifying it), and the main character is a behavioral epidemiologist, or someone who researches the spread of disease. She's close to discovering the cause of Chronic Lycanthropy Syndrome, the hot new behavioral disorder in kids, when a series of strange circumstances makes her lose her job. In spite of a sudden shift from researcher to heiress, she never stops approaching challenges as a scientist.

A lot of urban fantasy and paranormal romance seems to emphasize the fantasy without any scientific explanation for the origin or process of what's happening, particularly when a character is transformed from human to something else. Adding the science makes it more enjoyable for me. For example, in Anne Rice's The Wolf Gift, she talks about the hormonal changes that happen in preparation for the shift and the chemicals that make the werewolf saliva different from a man's or dog's. These elements give the story a deeper dimension and anchor it to our modern world. That added to Ms. Rice's lyrical writing style and interestingly tortured characters made the book hard for me to put down.

In addition to the entertainment value, I wanted to have science as a part of the story because I've always been fascinated by the origins and reasons behind legends and myths. Ancient cultures came up with interesting explanations for certain phenomena before they had the benefit of scientific knowledge, particularly on the cellular level. Although there is a physical disorder called congenital hypertrichosis, which causes people to grow hair all over their face and body and which may have contributed to some of the legends, there are also fascinating behavioral aspects.

The How Stuff Works blog pointed out something I'd never thought of before:  how werewolf origin myths often include the change as punishment for some sort of excess, often sexual. Perhaps the people who came up with werewolves thought extreme sexual or murderous behavior must come from an overabundance of animal drive, and therefore the perpetrators must be part animal or possessed. Yeah, they didn't know much about psychiatric problems, either.

When I wrote The Mountain's Shadow, I was doing my predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, and I was also writing my dissertation proposal. A lot of people don't know that those of us with PhD's in clinical psychology have strong research backgrounds. So at the time, I was very much in scientist mode, and I enjoyed digging around in werewolf legends and other areas to put the framework in place.

The science in The Mountain's Shadow is primarily in the conceptualization of Chronic Lycanthropy Syndrome, or CLS, itself. Some people have asked if CLS is a real behavioral disorder. Not according to the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which doesn't even mention it. At one point, clinicians must have considered it diagnostically, and I've included references that point to case studies below.

Lycanthropy is a type of delusion in which a person thinks they have been transformed into an animal, or seems to think they have, which would make it a delusional disorder. Although the root Lycan refers to a character in Greek mythology who was changed into a wolf when he pissed off Zeus by serving him human flesh – okay, the guy probably deserved it – someone with lycanthropy can think they're any kind of animal.

In my book, I changed the nature of the disorder so that it presents as extreme adolescent behaviors, and it's classified as a disorder of impulsivity like ADHD. Of course the most interesting cases in the novel are extreme, and the sufferers actually do change. Seeing real werewolves confuses my poor researcher – there's nothing in the literature to describe that! – but then draws her back in, particularly since she's starting to realize CLS might have something to do with her "family curse."

Does urban fantasy need science to be convincing? Not necessarily, and in some books, the magic system is so well developed it borders on scientific. I would argue that since we are so bound to science in our modern world, incorporating elements of genetics, chemistry, physiology, or other fields of scientific inquiry can make a story more real, and therefore more enjoyable, for the reader.

What do you think? Does including scientific elements in a fantasy plot enhance it for you, or could you take it or leave it? Why?

References [n.b. You can tell Cecilia's a PhD because she adds references to her blog posts. - Tony]:


Author Bio: Cecilia Dominic wrote her first story when she was two years old and has always had a much more interesting life inside her head than outside of it. She became a clinical psychologist because she's fascinated by people and their stories, but she couldn't stop writing fiction. The first draft of her dissertation, while not fiction, was still criticized by her major professor for being written in too entertaining a style. She made it through graduate school and got her PhD, started her own practice, and by day, she helps people cure their insomnia without using medication. By night, she blogs about wine and writes fiction she hopes will keep her readers turning the pages all night. Yes, she recognizes the conflict of interest between her two careers, so she writes and blogs under a pen name.  She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with one husband and two cats, which, she's been told, is a good number of each.

You can find her at:

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  1. I love scientific explanations for paranormal stuff. OTOH, the husband and I were VERY disappointed in a vampire mythology that showed one could be cured of vampirism by a simple blood transfusion. So I guess it's a fine line.

    I had no idea lycanthropy was a real thing! I thought your character studied actual werewolves. This explanation sounds like much more fun. It's great to see the "But but but but they can't be real!" scenes in books and movies.

    (Speaking of which, do you watch "Teen Wolf" on MTV? If you don't, go catch up online so you'll be ready when the 2nd half of the season starts in January, and no, I do not work for MTV. I just like hot shirtless young men, of which there are many on the show.)

  2. "Werewolf!"
    "There wolf. There castle."
    "Why are you talking that way?"
    "I thought you wanted to."
    "No, I don't want to."
    "Suit yourself, I'm easy."

  3. Thanks, B.! No, I haven't watched "Teen Wolf," but thanks for the tip. It sounds like the show has a lot of aspects to recommend it. ;-)


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