The enigma of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is among the most bizarre and frightening phenomena in the world of unexplained mysteries. For centuries, people have debated the possibility of humans spontaneously combusting or randomly bursting into flames without an external trigger. Many people believe that stories of people spontaneously catching fire are just urban legends and never actually happened. But there are scientists, and psychical researchers extensively studying this strange phenomenon and believe incidents of people turning into charred remains and ashes are very rare yet real occurrences.
What is Spontaneous Human Combustion?
Spontaneous combustion occurs when a person bursts into flames from an internal chemical reaction, apparently without being ignited by an external heat source. The first known accounts happened in the 17th century, but during the 19th century spontaneous combustions gained wider exposure after the popular author, Charles Dickens, killed off a character in his book “Bleak House.” Critics attacked Dickens for legitimizing an urban myth, but the author pointed to research showing 30 historical cases of the phenomenon.
Hundreds of spontaneous human combustion accounts over hundreds of years follow a pattern: the victim is almost completely consumed and usually at home. Witnesses of the scene sometimes reported a sweet, smoky smell in the room. Oddly, the charred bodies' extremities often remain intact. While the torso and head burn beyond recognition, the hands, feet, and even part of the legs may be unburned. Also, the room around the burned victim shows little or no signs of fire besides a greasy residue sometimes left on furniture and walls.
Not all cases involving spontaneous human combustion end up with victims completely burning into flames. Some people even develop strange burns on their body which have no obvious cause or emanate smoke from their body when there's no fire. Moreover, not every person who caught on fire died in the process. A small percentage of people allegedly survived their experience.
Tales of Spontaneous Human Combustion
During the last 300 years, over 200 reports exist of people burning to a crisp for no clear reason. Many people believe the history of spontaneous human combustion traces back to early texts of the Bible and medieval literature.
The first reliable evidence of bizarre phenomenon appears from 1641 when Danish physician, Thomas Bartholin, detailed the death of Polonus Vorstius in his book "Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum," which is a collection of strange medical phenomena. Vorstius was an Italian knight in 1470 who, while at home in Milan, drank a powerful wine and began to vomit fire before bursting into flames.
Then in 1673, Frenchman Jonas Dupont published a collection of Spontaneous Human Combustion cases and studies entitled De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis.
One famous incident dates back to 1725 in France when a Parisian innkeeper was woken by the smell of smoke and discovered his wife, Nicole Millet, burned to ashes while lying on a straw pallet that itself was untouched by the flames. All that was left of Madam Millet, allegedly a chronic alcoholic, was her skull, some back bones, and lower legs. Oddly enough, wooden items found around her were undamaged. Millet’s husband was initially found guilty murder but, on appeal, the judges agreed with his defense of “spontaneous human combustion,” declaring it to be the consequence of “a visitation of God.”
While it may seem that cases of spontaneous human combustion are nothing more than old wives’ tales or stories confined to books of antiquity, there are several accounts of this horrific phenomenon even in modern times.
The most recent account took place in Ireland in 2010 when the burned body of 76-year-old Michael Faherty was found lying with his head near the fireplace of his apartment in a room that had virtually no fire damage. No traces or burn marks were found on the floor, on the ceiling directly above him, or anywhere else in the room. An Irish coroner later ruled the unexplained death to have fit into the category of spontaneous human combustion.
Theories About Spontaneous Human Combustion
To combust, a human body requires two indispensable things: intensely high heat and a flammable substance. Normally, our bodies have neither of these, but over the past few centuries, experts speculate on possible explanations for this rare occurrence — some with an external flame source and some without.
Here are some crazy theories about spontaneous combustion:
1. Too Much Alcohol
Since alcohol, a flammable liquid, consuming too much of it might make your body flammable as well and catch fire more easily.
2. Too Much Fat
Fat is a flammable solid and having so much may increase the possibility of catching on fire.
3. Gut Gas
Digestion produces flammable gases that enzymes may chemically ignite.
4. High Voltage Static Electricity
Accumulating high voltage of static electricity combined with external geomagnetic forces may spark flammable substances in the body.
5. Divine Retribution!
Receiving punishment from divine beings or being attacked by demons.
On another note, Larry Arnold – a self-proclaimed expert on spontaneous human combustion – has suggested that the phenomenon is the work of a “new” subatomic particle called a “pyroton,” which he claims to have the ability to interact with cells to create a mini-explosion.
While many of these theories have attempted to explain spontaneous human combustion, none of these proposals have succeeded in scientifically proving their claims.
Scientific Explanation for Spontaneous Human Combustion
At present, the theory that is most approved by experts in science in explaining spontaneous human combustion is referred to as the “wick effect.” The wick effect likens the body of a burned victim to a candle. A candle is made up of a wick on the inside while it is surrounded on the outside by a wax coating made of flammable fatty acids. According to this hypothesis, a small external source – like a burning cigarette, for example – ignites the wick or the victim’s clothing or hair, with the person’s body fat acting as the flammable substance that keeps the wick burning for as long as there is fuel or fat available.
Supporters of this hypothesis claim that the wick effect is consistent with the evidence recovered from cases of human combustion. The human body allegedly has enough stored energy in fat and other chemicals inside to fully combust the body itself. Hence, the effect of slow combustion lasting for hours in an enclosed area is sufficient in explaining why the victims’ bodies are destroyed during such incidents while their surroundings are barely burned.
As for why limbs like the feet or hands remain intact while the entire torso is charred almost into nothing, the answer may have something to do with temperature gradient – the idea that the top of a seated person is hotter than the bottom. This is similar to what happens when you hold a lit match from the bottom: the flame usually goes out on its own because the bottom is much cooler than the top. As for the greasy stains left on the walls and the ceilings? Those could be from the fatty tissue.
Many people agree there's so much about our human body that makes us unique among other beings on earth that we still don’t fully understand, and one of them is spontaneous human combustion. This rare phenomenon seems to strike without warning leaving almost no clues. Even now, no scientist or investigator has determined the critical set of circumstances that could sufficiently and scientifically make body cells burst into flames without external influence. And that is why spontaneous human combustion remains a baffling mystery and a permanent resident in the annals of the unexplained mysteries.