WHO, ME, NAKED?
Common Misconceptions of Theriomorphy
Vampires may be a red flag category in paranormal fiction, but there’s another creature that suffers even more from being under-researched and inconsistently presented. This is the fate of the theriomorph – what too many writers have taken to lovingly butchering as “shape-shifters” or “were-(insert animal here).”
Without getting into the nitty-gritty of why I don’t like the terms “shape-shifter” or “were-whatever” (for that, you can read my blog on theriomorphy in parapsychology at http://wildflowerpara.wordpress.com ), theriomorphs are one of the least-researched and most often incorrectly portrayed of paranormal creatures in fiction. Especially the Lycanthrope, which suffers from the Hollywood stereotype – which is nowhere near to accurate, as Hollywood doesn’t even seem to have researched what real wolves are like.
If you’re going to write about Lycanthropes – or indeed any animalistic theriomorph – my first and primary suggestion is research the animal you’re basing your theriomorph around. Find out everything you can about the animal your character is going to become, or shares traits with. I guarantee that, for the most part, you’re going to be highly surprised by what you learn. Lycanthropes, especially, have suffered bad press for centuries – most likely because the wolf itself has suffered bad press, portrayed as a ruthless killer who hunts men and tears their throats out. Anyone who’s studied wolves, or researched them at all, knows this is false. Wolves are extremely loyal, playful, and try to avoid human interaction whenever possible. I can’t imagine how they perceive us, but I’d be willing to bet we’d be the monsters, since humanity has actively hunted wolves, without cause, for centuries. But I digress…
Once you’ve done your research on the animal in question, then turn to the character him/herself. What nationality/cultural group are they from? Does this culture have specific mythology/traditions about theriomorphy? There are very few cultures on the face of the Earth who do not have some kind of historical, mythological or cultural beliefs about theriomorphy. It’s a common mistake of paranormal fiction authors to believe that every theriomorphic transformation must be physical. In point of fact, there is little historical or anecdotal evidence to suggest this, and more evidence to suggest that the changes are spiritual or psychological.
Which brings me perfectly to my next point – clothing. In the case of many theriomorphic stories I’ve read, it seems the issue of clothing is never addressed. So, as we did with the vampire, let’s create a generic theriomorph to use as an example.
Meet Jake. He’s a North American lycanthrope. I won’t go into any more personal detail at the moment, because it’s not important. So, let’s first look at what we discussed above, referencing wolves and lycanthropic traditions. Since we know wolves aren’t scary creatures who eat helpless grandmothers and little girls in red capes, Jake’s going to have a wary disposition, be fiercely loyal to his small, close circle of friends, be interested in finding a mate for life, not sleeping around (sorry, wolves are monogamous, so cross out that “player” thought process with your lycanthrope – he most likely wouldn’t understand the concept), and he’s going to have a playful, mischievous side. He’ll likely be tolerant of children (wolves love their cubs – and the cubs in a pack are everyone’s cubs, not just the biological parents). Given that he’s from North America, we’ll look at the Native American traditions a little bit. Now, each one has a slightly different take on theriomorphy. Some (such as the Navajo and Hopi) believe that theriomorphs are sorcerors with evil powers who change into animals to trick the unwary. Others, such as the Huron, Seneca, and Iroquois, have legends that talk of great shamans who protected their tribes through the use of theriomorphy. So, let’s go with that, and say Seneca.
And we’ve run into our first problem. Native American tradition doesn’t ascribe any real differences between animals and humans. The animal kingdom is intricately connected to the human world, in their traditions, and all animals are our brothers and sisters. Also, few Native American legends tell of actual physical transformations from human to animal or vice versa. Most traditions and legends, when they speak of theriomorphy, speak in terms of the Otherworld, where great shamans changed into other creatures in order to learn from them, or to travel the Otherworld in search of knowledge and guidance. In essence, the transformation was spiritual, sometimes even to the point that the shaman would go to live as, or act as, the animal in question, for a time.
Hopefully, you’re beginning to see my point. But let’s be stereotypical for a moment, and say that Jake does physically change form. As a wolf, he is free of his clothing (this is the case in most theriomorphic stories). But what happens when he changes back? Amazingly, his clothing suddenly reappears, completely unaffected by his transformation.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Unfortunately, it happens way too often in paranormal fiction. It’s fine to have clothing magically appear and disappear if you’re working in fantasyland, or some other completely fictional world you’ve created (I have a lycanthrope in one of my series who uses magic to remove his clothing and replace it as he’s changing form – but this is part of the definitions I set in place for a fantasy world, and I make it quite clear what he does, and stick to that). Just be conscious that the rules you create, you still have to stick to. But if you’re working in our world, you don’t have the luxury of playing with physics. If Jake dumps his clothes with his transformation at point A, he can’t have them back when he turns human again at point B. He’s going to be naked. So either he’s going to have to be prepared somehow (and please make it believable), or he’s going to have to walk around naked for a while.