For well over a century, some have claimed that people can suddenly and inexplicably explode into a ball of fire. The phenomenon is called spontaneous human combustion (SHC), and it has been described in many popular books on mysteries and the unexplained.
Though the term “spontaneous human combustion” is of fairly recent vintage, it was a rare-but-real concern to many in the 1800s. In fact, there are nearly a dozen references to people bursting into flames in pre-1900 fiction. The most famous example is Charles Dickens’s 1853 novel “Bleak House,” in which a character explodes into fire, though the phenomenon can also be found in the works of Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Washington Irving and others. In modern times, SHC has appeared in movies and on television shows, including “The X-Files,” and it’s even, sort of, the super-power of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, in “Fantastic Four” comic books.
Spontaneous combustion theories
Fires do not typically start on their own. When investigators search for the cause of forest fires, they don’t assume that the flame ignited itself. Rather, they usually suspect that a careless camper or a lightning strike caused it. However, many things can self-ignite without exposure to flames, under the right circumstances, including coal dust, piles of compost and used oily rags.
But it’s a whole different matter to claim that people can suddenly burst into flames for no apparent reason. There is no doubt that bodies can burn; crematoriums routinely reduce the human body to ashes in the course of a few hours. The mystery of SHC lies in the supposedly strange circumstances under which victims burst into flames. Typically, the story goes, there is no obvious source of ignition, no open fires nearby that might set the person aflame. Furthermore, the victims are killed, and not, for example, only partly burned on one arm or a leg; SHC is fatal. Some claim that burning often seems to begin in the chest or stomach area, leaving the grisly remains of legs and hands intact. Others claim that the furniture and floors under and surrounding the victims (including even their clothing) remain mysteriously unburned.
A closer look
Some of these popular claims are simply wrong. For example, there are many photographs of supposed SHC victims that clearly show extensive burning and damage to the clothing and surroundings of the burned person. It’s also important to understand a bit of fire forensics: many fires are self-limiting; that is, they put themselves out naturally because they run out of fuel. Though the public often sees uncontrolled fires completely engulfing and burning down entire rooms and buildings, fires are unpredictable. It is quite possible, for example, for only a rug, bed, or sofa to catch fire without spreading to the rest of the room. Because fires normally burn upward instead of outward, there is nothing paranormal or strange about finding a victim in one part of a room burned to death while the rest of the room has little more than smoke damage.
What about the source of ignition?