Spontaneous human combustion
Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) describes reported cases of the burning of a living (or very recently deceased) human body without an apparent external source of ignition. As of 1995, there have been about 200 cited cases worldwide over a period of around 300 years.
There are many hypotheses that attempt to explain human spontaneous combustion. These include several natural explanations as well as supernatural and biblical explanations.
Natural explanations include those:
- Based on unknown or otherwise unobserved phenomena (e.g., that the production of abnormally concentrated gas or raised levels of blood alcohol might cause spontaneous ignition)
- Relating to health and lifestyle factors (e.g. smoking, not consuming adequate levels of water, etc.)
- That involve an external source of ignition (e.g., the victim was drunk and dropped a cigarette)
Objections to natural explanations typically refer to the degree of burning of the body with respect to its surroundings. Indeed, one of the common markers of a case of SHC is that the body – or part of it – suffered an extraordinarily large degree of burning while the surroundings or the lower limbs remained comparatively undamaged.
Supernatural and biblical explanations of spontaneous human combustion remain popular. In the latter case, some people interpret Bible passages (such as Num 11:1) to be indicative of spontaneous human combustion.
The spontaneous combustion of people (i.e. death from a fire originating within the victim’s body without a direct external cause) is a theoretical explanation for a number of unexplained cases, some of which are well-documented but many of which are not. The more intriguing cases share the following characteristics:
- The body is completely or almost completely incinerated, while nearby furniture exposed to high temperatures remains intact. Damage is limited to the victim’s body and clothing, to the area of the floor or furniture on which he or she died and to the ceiling above the corpse.
- The torso is the focus of the fire and if remains are found these are of the extremities, such as the feet.
- There are no traces of fire accelerant and the fire does not have an evident external cause.
- Often the combustion seems to happen simultaneously at many parts of the body, usually without any obvious points of origin.
- The victim is typically alone at the time of death and is thought to have been alive when the fire started, despite showing little sign of having struggled.
An extensive two-year research project—involving thirty historical cases of alleged SHC—was conducted in 1984 by science investigator Joe Nickell and forensic analyst John F. Fischer. Their lengthy, two-part report was published in the journal of the International Association of Arson Investigators, as well as part of a book. Nickell has written frequently on the subject, appeared on television documentaries, conducted additional research, and lectured at the New York State Academy of Fire Science at Montour Falls, NY, as a guest instructor.
Nickell and Fischer’s investigation—which looked at cases in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries—showed that, again and again, the burned bodies were near plausible sources for the ignition: candles, lamps, fireplaces, and so on. Sometimes these sources were left out of popular accounts of the alleged phenomenon while they were hyped as mysterious. The investigations also found that there was a correlation between alleged SHC deaths and victims’ drunkenness or other incapacitation that could have caused them to be careless with fire and less able to respond properly to an accident. Where the destruction of the body was not extensive, the significant fuel source was the victim’s clothing.
However, where the destruction was extensive, additional fuel sources were involved, such as chair stuffing, floor coverings, the flooring itself, and the like. The investigators described how such materials helped retain melted fat to burn and destroy more of the body, yielding still more liquified fat, in a cyclic process known as the “wick effect” (or “candle effect”).
That nearby objects often went undamaged was not a scientific mystery but a matter of physics. Fire tends to burn upward, and it burns laterally with some difficulty. The fires in question are relatively small, achieving considerable destruction by the wick effect, and relatively nearby objects may not be close enough to catch fire themselves (much as one can get rather close to a modest campfire without burning). As with other mysteries, Nickell and Fischer cautioned against a one-explanation-fits-all approach but rather urged investigating on a case-by-case basis.
Many hypotheses attempt to explain how SHC might occur but according to those that rely on scientific understanding, incidents that might appear as spontaneous combustion actually had an external source of ignition – and the likelihood of true spontaneous human combustion is quite low. Benjamin Radford, science writer and deputy editor of the science magazine Skeptical Inquirer, casts doubt on the plausibility of spontaneous human combustion, “If SHC is a real phenomenon (and not the result of an elderly or infirm person being too close to a flame source), why doesn’t it happen more often? There are 6 billion people in the world, and yet we don’t see reports of people bursting into flame while walking down the street, attending football games, or sipping a coffee at a local Starbucks.” Paranormal researcher Brian Dunning states that SHC stories “are simply the rare cases where a natural death in isolation has been followed by a slow combustion from some nearby source of ignition.” Other stories of people suddenly aflame should be called “Unsolved deaths by fire”; just because the cause was not discovered does not mean SHC occurs.
- Almost all cases of SHC involve persons with low mobility, due to advanced age or obesity, along with poor health. Victims show a high likelihood of having died in their sleep, or of being unable to move once they had caught fire.
- Cigarettes are often seen as the source of fire, as the improper disposal of smoking materials causes one of every four fire deaths in the USA. Natural causes such as heart attacks may lead to the victim dying, subsequently dropping the cigarette, which after a period of smouldering can ignite the victim’s clothes.
- The “wick effect” hypothesis suggests that a small external flame source, such as a burning cigarette, chars the clothing of the victim at a location, splitting the skin and releasing subcutaneous fat, which is in turn absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick. This combustion can continue for as long as the fuel is available. This hypothesis has been successfully tested with animal tissue (pig) and is consistent with evidence recovered from cases of human combustion. The human body typically has enough stored energy in fat and other chemical stores to fully combust the body; even lean people have several pounds of fat in their tissues. This fat, once heated by the burning clothing, wicks into the clothing much as candle wax (which typically was originally made of animal fat) wicks into a lit candle wick to provide the fuel needed to keep the wick burning.
- Scalding can cause burn-like injuries, including death, without setting fire to clothing. Although not applicable in cases where the body is charred and burnt, this has been suggested as a cause in at least one claimed SHC-like event.
- Brian J. Ford has suggested that ketosis, possibly caused by alcoholism or low-carb dieting, produces acetone, which is highly flammable and could therefore lead to apparently spontaneous combustion.
Unverified natural phenomena
- Another hypothesis suggests high-energy particles or gamma rays coupled with susceptibilities in the potential victim (e.g., increased alcohol in the blood) trigger the initial reaction. This process may use no external oxygen to spread throughout the body, since it may not be an “oxidation-reduction” reaction. However, no reaction mechanism has been proposed.
- Ball lightning, a mysterious and debated phenomenon itself, has been suggested as a possible cause of spontaneous combustion.
- “Ablaze!: The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion” Arnold, Larry E. 1995 ISBN 0-87131-789-3
- Num 11:1: "And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD: and the LORD heard it and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp" - from "Spontaneous Human Combustion". BBC. THURSDAY, 28th March 2013.
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