Smoke and Mirrors – Spontaneous Human Combustion

January 2006
by Steven Novella, MD

Imagine the following scene: An elderly woman who lives alone is found dead in her apartment. She is the victim of fire; her body is mostly reduced to ash, and only the ends of her arms and legs remain. The ashen outline of her head lies upon the hearth of her fireplace, the iron grill of which has been knocked to the side. There are signs that a fire recently was burning in the fireplace. A brown greasy substance coats the walls and ceiling near the body, but otherwise the room is unharmed.

Now set aside all common sense and reason, and you’ll have a typical case of so-called “spontaneous human combustion” (SHC).

The idea that people can suddenly and spontaneously burst into flames is quite old, existing in folklore for centuries and first chronicled by Jonas Dupont in 1763 (in De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis ). SHC was also made famous by Charles Dickens, who did away with a despicable alcoholic character named Krook in the novel Bleak House by having him combust spontaneously. This episode in fiction also furthered the notion that heavy alcohol use can lead to an inflammatory demise.

Believers in SHC commit the usual flaws in scientific thinking. Stories of alleged SHC are essentially cases of mystery mongering – events with curious or unusual details not easily explained by the lay person. Believers then couple the unusual with a logical fallacy known as the argument from ignorance: “We can’t explain how these people burned the way that they did, or what the source of the fire was, therefore my explanation is correct.” Finally, SHC supporters lack a little thing that scientists like to call “plausibility.” In other words, bodies don’t just burst into flames.

The alleged cases of SHC range form the peculiar to the laughable. Many cases involve obvious external sources of fire, matches and cigarettes being the most common culprits. At other times candles, fireplaces, pipes or lanterns are involved.

SHC believers often cite as evidence the fact that a body has been completely reduced to ash, except for the ends of the arms and legs and sometimes the head. But there is a good explanation for this phenomenon. It is called the wick effect. The clothing of victims can act as a wick, while their body fat serves as a source of fuel (like an inside-out candle). The burning of the clothes is maintained by liquefied fat wicked from the body of the victim, causing a slow burn that can nearly consume the victim and resulting in the greasy brown substance often coating nearby walls.

Another bit of “evidence” often cited is a surrounding room left unscathed by the fire. But this is not unusual at all. Fires burn up because hot air rises. The temperature below or even a short distance to the side of a fire can be very low- low enough not to cause any fire damage. The upward direction of burning is also why the ends of the arms and legs are often unburned, just as the ends of a log may be left behind after the middle has been consumed.

In cases of “spontaneous” combustion, the victims are often overweight, and therefore have plenty of fuel for the fire. Many are old or infirm, and therefore might be unable to stop a fire once it started. Many are alcoholics or taking sedatives, and might not awaken after catching on fire. And many are careless smokers. Forensic biologist Mark Benecke thoroughly reviewed available cases of alleged SHC and concluded that “[t]he pictures and reports published on SHC up to now can be explained by well-known and understood mechanisms that are regularly found at the sites of burning.” In other words, there are no cases that constitute convincing evidence of SHC.

Besides, there is no mechanism that could possibly explain the energy required to ignite a living person. So SHC supporters resort to one of three strategies. They sometimes reply, with a quizzical look, that the mechanism is “a mystery.” Or they may invoke their favorite paranormal explanation, like psychic energy or something equally meaningless.

Some, however, have taken a third approach, trying to explain SHC with a scientific-sounding physical mechanism. Larry Arnold, in his 1996 book Ablaze!, speculates that SHC is caused by a previously unknown subatomic particle that he dubs the “pyrotron” and which he claims can spontaneously undergo nuclear fusion, releasing tremendous energy. But there’s no evidence for this notion, and Arnold appears totally ignorant of how nuclear fusion works.

So if you have been worrying for yourself or your loved ones that they might fall victim to spontaneous human combustion, worry not. If you want to avoid immolation, just quit smoking, or avoid diving head-first into the fireplace.