QuestionCan a person spontaneously combust?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts. Today we explore the topic of Spontaneous Human Combustion with two researchers and a professional skeptic.
Death by fire consistently ranks in the top 3 worst ways to die. The idea of burning alive is only trumped by the chance of spontaneous human combustion (SHC), or bursting into flames without any external source of ignition. Making matters worse, experts often cannot make any conclusive statements about potential cases of SHC because whatever sparked the ignition has burned up with the body.
This leaves the scientific and theoretical debate open. Can someone just go up in flames simply because they exist?
Brian J. Ford
Independent Research Biologist, author and TV personality
People for centuries believed that spontaneous human combustion might be alcohol-related but the idea was dismissed in the 1850s by a scientist named Justus von Liebig who pointed out that tissue samples stored in 70% alcohol do not burn. I marinated pork in pure alcohol and we could not get it to light. The aroma from these experiments of barbecued pork fat and the evaporating alcohol was delicious, I have to say, and we proved the point: alcohol cannot make flesh inflammable.
However, in many illnesses acetone is formed as a metabolic byproduct—and acetone is highly inflammable. A bottle of the the pure liquid has warnings to keep away from sparks and naked flame. So we marinated pork in acetone instead, and it goes up like a rocket. Later we constructed scale-model people from fatty pork and showed that they burned away to nothing but ash, just as has been described in the literature. You can often smell acetone (nail polish remover) on the breath of someone who is ill.
The levels of acetone in these experiments is far higher than you'd ever experience in life, but acetone could accumulate in fatty tissues, and the vapor seeping into clothing could conceivably give rise to a flash fire if ignited by a spark (perhaps even one from an acrylic sweater, for example).
In the end, we had proved that there is a possible mechanism to account for this otherwise inexplicable phenomenon.
reported cases of suspected HSC
"I cannot conceive of such complete cremation without more burning of the apartment itself. In fact the apartment and everything in it should have been consumed. [...] As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear. Were I living in the Middle Ages, I'd mutter something about black magic." — Dr. Wilton M. Krogman on the mysterious 1951 SHC case of "cinder lady"
Mary Reeser, source
deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer, science-based paranormal investigator
There is no doubt that bodies can burn; crematoriums routinely reduce the human body to ashes in the course of a few hours. It's a whole different matter to claim that people can suddenly burst into flames for no apparent reason. 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, and the furniture and floors under and surrounding the victims (including even their clothing) remain mysteriously unburned.
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. 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? What could possibly cause people to suddenly burst into flames? A century ago, it was blamed on intemperance and even God's wrath: most victims were assumed to be drunkards who had saturated their cells with alcohol. In the 1970s, a quasi-Freudian explanation came into vogue suggesting that a person's depressive emotional states could somehow cause him or her to become enflamed. Others have suggested that sunspots, cosmic storms, gas-producing intestinal bacteria, or even a buildup of the body's supposed "vibrational energy" may be to blame.
Yet all these explanations are pseudoscientific, and there is no evidence for any of them. Our bodies are about 60-70% non-flammable water, and the simple fact is that there is no physical or medical mechanism by which a person could possibly self-combust.
If people truly could suddenly burst into flames without being anywhere near an open flame, presumably there would be examples that have occurred while the victim was swimming, in a bathtub, or even scuba diving. Yet those cases do not exist.
Materials that factually spontaneously combust
Theories for SHC
→ Internal static electricity buildup
→ External geomagnetic force
→ Methane buildup in the intestines
Civilian fire deaths
in the US:
Once every 2 hours and 42 minutes
fire deaths (or 85%) occur in the home
deaths in highway vehicle fires
Gerry Callahan, Ph.D.
Professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology; Colorado State University
The essay I wrote about spontaneous human combustion focused on the role of mitochondria and the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen to form water. This form of combustion could not result in people catching fire.
As for the famous case of Mary Reeser, I don't think she spontaneously torched, because, based on my knowledge of biochemistry, I don't think anyone spontaneously torches, but since seemingly rational people wrote the reports, it appears something out of the ordinary occurred there. As to what that was, I cannot even speculate usefully.
Top five characteristics of SHC victims according to 18th Century physician Dr. Pierre Lair: Over 60 years old, overweight, led inactive lives, alcoholic, women more prone than men
ILLUSTRATION: Yulia Goldman