Technically speaking, any critter that shifts its features is a shape changer. Consider the vampire, occasionally attributed the abilities to transform into a rat or a bat or a large dog or a mist. And that’s to say nothing of faeries, dragons, or spirits that can affect multiple shapes; the djinni of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series, Marvel Comics’ Mystique, or the Dungeons and Dragons version of doppelgangers. In general, though, we’re not speaking that broadly when we talk about shape changers.
Really what we’re on about are werewolves and their ilk, but the fact remains that our imaginations run wild at the thought of transformation. As with our romance of vampires, there is almost always some kind of price to pay – hunger or loss of control and giving in to the animalistic nature, primarily.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t all of those other things, though. Shape changers are another in the big super-category bunch.
A Taxonomy of Shape Changing
We could potentially break this into two groups initially, those who change willingly versus those who change unwillingly, but we could as easily make those groups those who change at will and those who have no control over what they do. No, it’s got to be more complicated than binary oppositions. How about a preliminary list that will, I hope, take into account a variety of factors and features that allow for shape changing in its various facets?
Shape Changing as Ability
Occasionally, people and creatures can simply do this. Maybe there are restrictions and maybe there aren’t. It might be easier to change from human to wolf at the full moon, perhaps, but there’s nothing to stop you from doing it whenever. Or as a vampire, you become that rat or bat. The mutant Mystique can adopt the shape of anyone that she touches. Jonathan Stroud’s djinn (and his fellow spirits) can change their shape because their essence comes from the Other Place and is very malleable here on earth.
In addition, there are always those stories of Greek or Norse deities wandering the earth incognito. It helps that the deities look human, but apparently their disguises are good enough to mask their god-ness. Japanese spirits such as kitsune (fox creatures) can take human form and the witch Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty turns herself into a crone.
All of which is to say, shape changing doesn’t have to be from animal to human, it can also be from human to human.
Shape Changing as Inherent to a Species
Breed, species, I’m not too concerned about the difference here. Now sure, you’re going to say that there is overlap here with Ability and I’m going to agree with you. The reason I separate the two is because doing so raises nuances. Having the ability to shape change does not make one inherently a different kind of creature. I considered this in relation to Rhiannon Held’s werewolves in Silver. They change only between human and wolf (no halfway humanoid shape here) and they are their own species. They keep to themselves but they interact with the rest of the world. There are advantages and disadvantages to these creatures – their shape changing is more of a chronic condition than a disease and they never “lose themselves.” Instead, they are equally rough humans as they are animals.
Shape Changing as a Curse
Consider the Frog Prince, who is *truly* human but cursed to be a frog until freed by an unlikely condition being met, the kiss of a princess (although being thrown and splattered against a wall works in some versions – yay!). This is an unwilling change (similar to Disease below) and not one inherent to the Prince in the first place, the same as the fate of Queen Elinor in the 2012 film Brave (albeit bear, not frog).
Which raises the question: should we consider the thrower of said curses to be shape changers? If the witch who cast that spell on the unfortunate prince (or on the Beast (see: Beauty and the…)) cannot change her own shape, s/he can certainly inflict change on another. Though who’s to say s/he can’t. In Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue, the main character, a changeling private investigator named October Daye in contemporary San Francisco is turned into a fish (a koi?) for fourteen years.
When the curse is broken, you’d think there would be some psychological consequences. The Frog Prince doesn’t often seem to have these, while October Daye’s are limited to disliking being submerged (showers are okay, baths are right out). Do shape changers have to get used to their new bodies again, or is it a seamless shift, mid-leap, into a cinematic landing?
Shape Changing as the Result of a Device
Perhaps a person has a special token that allows them to change shape. These may be foreign objects or what I’ll call inherent objects.
Foreign Objects include such things as hexenwolf belts, greegrees, or other talismans. The first of these turns the wearer into a wolf, as found in Steve Jackson Games or in Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon, in which several baddies don the belts to become, essentially, werewolves-thanks-to-the-belts. Greegrees are tokens in the MMPORG Runescape – the ones with which I’m familiar (thanks, Google!) let the holder become a monkey. The children’s cartoon Jackie Chan Adventures contains a world of magic talismans and the Monkey lets the holder change other people into whatever animal s/he wants. In each of these cases, the Foreign Object is a magically charged thingamahooie that has some kind of specific effect.
Inherent Objects are proper to a creature, and in this regard “Device” and “Breed” overlap. Consider selkies (seal-human), swan or dove maidens, or in some African folklore, people who can transform between leopard or buffalo and human. These changers need their skins in order to effect a change, a seal skin or a robe of swan feathers, for example. Inherent Objects are connected to their owners (or species), though. Unlike Foreign Objects, which can be picked up by any and everyone, if any of us put on a selkie’s skin we wouldn’t turn into a seal. At least if we can there aren’t any stories about this (Anne Ursu tinkers with this in her novel Breadcrumbs, in which the main character Hazel dons a swan maiden’s robe, but because it’s not hers the transformation is incomplete and grotesque).
A third path here contains skinwalkers, humans who use pelt-devices to switch forms. These are trickier because their devices are not inherent to their person (as with a swan maiden or selkie) but nor are they machinistic as with the foreign objects that can be used by anyone who happens on them. Presumably there is a connection of some kind between the artifact (pelt) and the creator (skinwalker) that doesn’t transfer simply because another person is holding the object in question.
Shape Changing as a Disease
The classic case, naturally enough, is lycanthropy, the horrific affliction under which a human becomes a beast. Nearly always an angry and rabid-like one, too. No one ever becomes a cute were-bunny (except Wallace, sort of). Worth thinking about. In this instance, there’s nothing particularly good about what’s going on – as with disease in general. Typically under the full moon, the disease rears its ugly head and causes the transformation from human to beast.
The short form of lycanthropy is, often enough, “lycan,” which preserves the Greek portmanteau origins: lykos (wolf) and anthropos (human). For a more general term, use “therianthropy,” the shifting between human and wild beast.
Diseases are malevolent forces that act upon our bodies. The victims of therianthropy not only become a creature, but they lose themselves to the anger of said beast.
The Nature of the Change
None of these categories addresses a separate issue, which is, “What kind of change is happening?” Is what we are considering a cosmetic shift, as Mystique, who, if knocked out, reverts to her normal blue form? Is it a full change from human to animal with full loss of human intellect? Is it a third path that has human knowledge in an animal body?
Fundamentally, the question here is how deep or complete does the change go? The dragons in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina adopt human form to interact with people, but it is a great deal like a costume into and out of which it is difficult to climb. Losing oneself may be a matter of deed (the more a person with a hexenwolf belt gives in to the bloodthirsty nature, the more enmeshed s/he becomes in Butcher’s Fool Moon) or it may be a matter of duration, the amount of time a person spends as that-other-thing.
Update: I’ve just started the book Rabid (Wasik and Murphy, 2012), and they mention the goddess Diana’s transformation of the hunter Actaeon into a stag as punishment for him seeing her bathing. Actaeon is completely aware of what has happened to him and names his favorite dogs as they tear him to pieces. So don’t forget to look at Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the source of said story) for more inspiration.
Humanity and Bestiality
Similar to the dangers presented by Composite Creatures, shape changers typically run the risk of giving in to their animal nature and becoming that thing. As I’ve noted, however, that “nature” is almost always one that is hostile to humans. Consider that, while all animals are invariably dangerous to one degree or another (carriers of disease or eaters of meat or simply aggressive), there is not one that I know of that seeks us out as prey. Werewolves don’t seem to hunt anything other than people, if the threatened denizens of fiction novels are to be believed.
Presumably this is less of a commentary upon the bestial nature of beasts than it is upon the bestial nature of humans and the lengths to which we allow ourselves to go, or to which we subject those around us. Whether therianthropes imagine themselves on the next highest rung on the food chain or whether they seek to impose their Nietzschean überwill on the rest of us is one of the things that makes shape changers so interesting. Are they our unleashed id, given raw strength and teeth? If so, why do they always kill and so rarely mate? I mean, I look at my cats having killed a bird or a mouse or a squirrel (I’ve got mean cats) and as soon as that critter is dead, they’ve lost interest. There’s no bloodlust there.
People, on the other hand, we’re known for enjoying killing.
Power and Affliction
No such thing as a free lunch, right? Werewolves are vulnerable to wolfsbane and silver and lose control at the full moon. What they gain in strength and savagery (is savagery really a net gain?) and large invulnerability, they lose in reaction to even small doses of silver. After all, it’s not a bullet through the brain that kills them, it’s simply a silver bullet. Apparently a shot in the leg is as good as a shot to the heart.
When shape changing is not intrinsic to the being in question (it is an ability), there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of cost associated with it. In most cultural references, vampires no longer have the ability to change shape. If kitsune have weaknesses, they are related to their fox-spirit-nature, not to their transformational agility. In this case, it’s simply this cool thing I can do – and don’t forget the occasional gender-bending transformation, when a man can become a woman or vice versa. Question: what is scarier to you – being eaten by a werewolf or having sex with a member of the opposite sex who is actually the same sex as you? I bet more people would freak out about the second. Death, and especially violent death, is too abstract. Sexuality is every freaking day. (See: The X-Files episode “Gender Bender” (1994)).
Similarly, curses and devices don’t necessarily play with costs per se. Curses may leave the afflicted with their intelligence (the Frog Prince, the Beast) or deprive it (Queen Elinor, October Daye). In the former case, the victim may have a hand in their own freedom. In the latter, less and less as time passes and they forget their human side. This is useful for dramatic tension, but doesn’t shed much light on our “better” natures.
The different species are another thing altogether. They are, in good hands, a separate culture entirely. Held’s Silver does a good job of stratifying society, not to mention addressing her werewolves’ particular religious beliefs. Why wouldn’t they have them? Any group this unique would be bound to consider themselves the chosen ones (most likely; it’s what we all do) or the cursed, and they act to try and right whatever cosmic wrong they see themselves as having committed. Mind you, writing new cultures is hard work. It’s not enough to say that they like different music. I’ve held off on mentioning Stephenie Meyers’ werewolves because I haven’t read New Moon and I don’t know much about her world, though from what I gather, her shape changers are more culturally bound/species than they are diseased.
The disease of therianthropy is curious because the shape changer in question (I’m going to go ahead and stick with werewolf for now) is both afflicted with lycanthropy and the vector for the rest of the population. Whether or not that werewolf infects other people with his (for now) disease, he kills the creature around him. One werewolf equals many dead civilians. He is, in effect, an incarnation of disease given animal form.
Which on its own is an interesting idea: the physicalization or instantiation of disease. What kind of animal shape would ebola take? AIDS? Cancer? Influenza?
Is there a cure for therianthropy? Or a vaccine?