The 13th Floor

Spontaneous Human Combustion: The Oddest Way to Die

You’re sitting at home. You’re alone. You’re a lonely older woman who’s been alone most of her life. You’re a little chubby since you got off exercise. Your family doesn’t visit, which may be a good thing, because your tiny trailer wouldn’t fit a guest anyway. Friends don’t visit either, which would only be an issue if you had friends who would be interested in visiting. You’ve taken to drinking heavily, and one might even be tempted to call you a proper alcoholic. You are unassuming. You could be erased from the planet, and few would stop to mourn.

It is here, into this depressing milieu, that spontaneous human combustion — or SHC — is most likely to occur. The universe looks at you, sees an uninteresting soul, and elects to even the scales by rubbing you out in the most spectacular way imaginable: By setting you on fire.

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Spontaneous human combustion is one of those unexplained phenomena that teeters on the edge of science. Most serious pathologists contend that there is, in every single recorded case of SHC, an unknown or simply unobserved source of  external combustion involved, and some have said that there is no such thing as SHC at all. But others still find the pathological details to be too strange to allow for anything else. None of the recorded cases of SHC seem to coincide with the usual patterns of immolation, making it a genuine death phenomenon. Sometimes, it seems, lonely people just burn to death for no reason.

The details of SHC are curious. Victims of SHC will be often be found burned to ash, a process that usually takes a much higher temperatures – and a much longer burn time – than common household fires. Bodies will sometimes leave behind a hand or a foot, clearly preserved and often unburned. If a body were to be soaked in a flammable liquid and set aflame, the fire would burn up and out of control, often burning anything above or around the body as well. If someone were to burst into flame, then surely their home, or at least the room they are in, would burn down as well. But in cases of SHC, there will be little damage to the room around the victim. Indeed, most cases, only the things below the victim will be damaged. A recliner will be reduced to a clean round ring of ash. A bed will melt through, but, in one instance, the blanket on top of the person will only be slightly singed.

 

The earliest recorded instances of SHC go back as far as 1746, the phrase having appeared in a text of “natural philosophy” (the term we used before “science” became common). The phrase itself, however, wasn’t popularized in the public consciousness until as late as 1938, when a British coroner named Gavin Thurston wrote about the phenomenon in the British Medical Journal, citing an earlier study from 1823. It was this 1823 study, by L.A. Parry, that codified the various symptoms of SHC. It was also this early study that posited the link between SHC and alcoholism. In 1823, early doctors believed that alcohol would somehow ignite within the body of the victims. They were more or less “saturated” with booze, and burned up from the inside.

This, of course, is not physically possible. The only way a body could burn up this way would be if the victim was already full to the brim of gasoline, only to then be set on fire with a match. Plus, it wouldn’t account for the odd circumstances surrounding SHC.

Some numbers: A crematorium usually runs about 1800° Fahrenheit. Victims of SHC have been recorded at sometimes as high as 3500° Fahrenheit. A house fire usually burns at about 1100° Fahrenheit.

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Theories as to what causes SHC are varied and weird. Since most of the victims were fat loners, and self-immolation is often ruled out, it’s been posited that they would die of natural causes — heart attacks and the like — and then some sort of external combustion would then immolate their bodies. Some scientists have suggested a metabolic chemical process called ketosis is responsible, wherein a chemical reaction in the body would more or less create acetone, that would then ignite. It’s essentially — to use reductive terms — a dead body producing a natural, slow-burning napalm.

A weirder theory has been posited that SHC is caused by rogue ball lightning. True, if weather conditions were just right, and a sphere of free-floating electricity were to form next to a particularly flammable human body, then, yes, it would go a long way to explain the circumstances of SHC. This, however, has never been observed or recorded, and the very behavior of ball lightning has not been well-recorded, due to its fleeting behavior. Personally, I hope to encounter ball lightning someday.

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In a 1995 book called ABLAZE!, all about SHC, author Larry E. Arnold has suggested that there is an as-yet unrecorded atomic particle called a pyrotron that is the primary particle in fire. Arnold’s theories are circumstantial, however, and there has been no serious scientific evidence to suggest the existence of pyrotrons. The oddest theory of them all attributes cases of SHC to the actions of arsonist poltergeists. This was posited in a 1976 book on SHC authored by Michael Harrison, who said that angry spirits would possess people, and then essentially “suicide bomb” them.

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In 1984, a forensic study was held to finally find the reason people would occasionally, out of sight, combust and burn into piles of ash. Two investigators worked hard on the problem, trying to recreate spontaneous human combustion in a lab environment, using pig corpses. The two men, named John Fischer and Joe Nickell, were essentially the Mythbusters of their time. They eventually came up with a scientific explanation that may explain most cases of SHC. They posit that victims would die of natural causes, usually holding a lit cigarette. Since most of the victims have a significant amount of bodyfat, the slow-burning cigarette would start to burn their flesh, causing the fat to bubble up over the victim’s clothes.

Tallow-soaked clothes, it turns out, are exactly the same makeup as old candles, and the clothes would burn, slow and long, over the entire victim’s bodies. It would be a lengthy process, but this “wick effect” would indeed reduce a body to ash, leaving behind feet, and not burning too far beyond the corpse. This may not necessarily account for cases where skeletons are also burned up, as such an effect may not burn hot enough. But it would, perhaps, burn long enough.

Whatever causes it — be it the wick effect, ball lightning, pyrotrons, or naughty ghosts — the phenomenon has been fascinating people for centuries, and it still occurs from time to time. All we can say is, just in case, give up the smokeables. Until the next instance, let’s enjoy this song on the topic from the a cappella group The Bobs:

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