Posted : 2010
Author : Brooke Windsor
The idea of someone simply bursting into flames is a relatively old one. Stories abound about people who could control fire or merely act as a human spark for the radical element. Technically known as spontaneous human combustion (or SHC), it is the burning of a live human body without any external ignition source. Incidents of spontaneous human combustion from around the globe over the past three hundred years total over 200 in number. However, most of these occurrences were not thoroughly or scientifically processed properly and many of the claims are based totally on oral testimonies or hearsay alone which makes people outside of the supernatural belief realm doubt spontaneous human combustion exists at all. Diverging in the other direction though, some scientists believe that spontaneous human combustion might be the only credible paranormal happening once the appropriate investigation has been conducted on enough of these incidents.
The key identifier of spontaneous human combustion to hardcore believers is that no source of external ignition is used. Apparently, these select few people burst into flames for no outwardly obvious reason or external heat source while their surroundings (and even in some special cases their clothes) remain practically untouched by the fire. It is assumed that victims of spontaneous human combustion catch fire through an internal chemical reaction that causes them to heat from the inside out almost like the warming of food in a microwave oven.
The earliest case of SHC that we know of today comes from a Danish anatomist named Thomas Bartholin who in 1663 described an occurrence in Paris where a woman was burnt completely to ashes in her sleep while the straw mattress upon which she was laying remained unmarred by the flames that had consumed her. Since the reporting of this case of spontaneous human combustion to the whole of the European community, many others have been recorded in history. Yet, they tend to have a similar pattern in the resulting accounts. The victim is generally found almost completely consumed by a then died out fire in his or her home or place of residence. Even though the fire itself normally has died out by the time the coroners arrive on site, a lingering smell of smoke is common in the room with the victim combined with a slight sweetness in addition to the fumes.
The true peculiarity of SHC victims is the results on the body of these unique fires themselves. While most of the room will almost never show signs of fire other than a greasy residue on the furniture or walls, the center portion of the person’s body like the torso and the head are generally almost unrecognizable while the limbs and extremities may be left intact or only slightly burned. In very rare cases the outside of the torso becomes charred while the internal organs are relatively untouched.
However, one must note that not all victims die from SHC like is the common misconception since not all victims merely burst into raging flames. Some will give off smoke from their bodies while no flames or fire is present or develop strange or odd burns on their skin with no clear, obvious source. These lucky few can generally put out any flames if they do pop up or deal with the smoking and burning after the fact. They will live after this incident of spontaneous human combustion with nothing more than an understandable fear it happening again and a desire to figure out its cause to act as a means of prevention.
Theories Based on Natural Explanations
The causes that most modern scientists embrace deal with natural explanations. The vital core of these theories are based on the ignition source of the fire for spontaneous human combustion simply being something not found at the scene or obvious to even skilled investigators. Cigarettes are favorites to explain away the charring of SHC. Since victims tend to be alone at the time of death, the theory goes that the person dies of natural causes such as a heart attack while they were smoking which leads to dropping the cigarette they were smoking on before death. The embers of the lit cigarette or even a pipe can then ignite clothing - even though most experimentation of this happening shows that a dropped cigarette on clothing tends to merely create a burn hole that does not expand into open flames which spread. Another problem with the cigarette based theory is that they smolder at temperatures too low to ignite any other combustible materials that might be nearby to cause a fire. The difficulties associated with trying to make cigarettes seem like a normal and natural explanation have led people to try to figure out other theories.
A less acknowledged theory involves scalding (such as from steam) to the development of burn like injuries on a person’s skin or even death without fire being set to the victim’s clothing. Cases where the body is charred or burned cannot qualify for this theory, but a few SHC events where the victims lived and just experienced burns could possibly fall under this category.
The most popular theory is by far the wick effect though. Using the idea of yet another external ignition source (even still a cigarette to many theorists), the wick effect hypothesizes that a source of ignition chars the clothes of the victim at one specific location, splitting the skin underneath the cloth to release one’s subcutaneous fat which is then soaked up into the burning clothes to act as a wick like an old fashioned candle. As long as the fuel is available (the fat released by the initial burning), the combustion and fire can continue. This theory has been tested several times with animal tissue (usually a pig is used) and provides consistent evidence that it lines up with the results of spontaneous human combustion.
Theories Based on Natural Phenomena
Unverified natural phenomena are some of the most embraced theories by the paranormal community. There are far more explanations from this angle than the scientific processes even if they are less probable and less accepted by the intellectual community.
One is the natural fact that human bodies have electric fields surrounding them and flowing through them at various strengths in addition to the truth that the body also contains flammable gases (such as methane in the intestines) which means that an electrical discharge could possibly cause ignition.
Drawing on electricity again, there is a theory that suggests the possibility where both the person and his or her clothing start to burn by means of a static electricity discharge. While walking across a carpet a person can certainly build enough of a charge to ignite a spark, but it needs to be an intense spark to cause enough heat to catch a person’s clothing on fire and then lead to a spontaneous combustion event.
A more random and rare occurrence thought to be a credible possibility for spontaneous human combustion is the controversial phenomenon known as ball lightning. The electric phenomenon of ball lightning is not widely studied and little is known about it. It technically refers to luminous spherical shapes that last considerably longer than a normal lightning bolt and can eventually explode to cause SHC ignition.