Spontaneous Human Combustion: Mystery of Burning in Fire from Within


By Eric Elezuo (With Agency Reports)

If you think you have really seen wonders, ask yourself if the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion has happened to you or someone you know.

Spontaneous human combustion, also known as SHC is a term encompassing reported cases of the combustion of a living (or very recently deceased) human body without an apparent external source of ignition. In addition to reported cases, examples of the phenomenon appear in literature, and both types have been observed to share common characteristics, regarding circumstances and remains of the victim.

Ordinarily, spontaneous human combustion refers to the death from a fire originating without an apparent external source of ignition; the fire is believed to start within the body of the victim.

Forensic investigations have attempted to analyze reported instances of SHC and have resulted in hypotheses regarding potential causes and mechanisms, including victim behavior and habits, alcohol consumption and proximity to potential sources of ignition, as well as the behaviour of fires that consume melted fats. Natural explanations, as well as unverified natural phenomena, have been proposed to explain reports of SHC. Current scientific consensus is that most, and perhaps all, cases of SHC involve overlooked external sources of ignition.

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This idea and the term ‘spontaneous human combustion’ were first proposed in 1746 by Paul Rolli in an article published in the Philosophical Transactions. Writing in the British Medical Journal in 1938, coroner Gavin Thurston describes the phenomenon as having “attracted the attention not only of the medical profession but of the laity” as early as 1834 (more than one hundred years prior to Thurston’s article). In his 1995 book Ablaze!, Larry E. Arnold wrote that there had been about 200 cited reports of spontaneous human combustion worldwide over a period of around 300 years.

However, in 1938, an article by L. A. Parry cited an 1823-published book Medical Jurisprudence, which stated that commonalities among recorded cases of spontaneous human combustion included the following characteristics:

  1. the victims are chronic alcoholics;
  2. they are usually elderly females;
  3. the body has not burned spontaneously, but some lighted substance has come into contact with it;
  4. the hands and feet usually fall off;
  5. the fire has caused very little damage to combustible things in contact with the body;
  6. the combustion of the body has left a residue of greasy and fetid ashes, very offensive in odour.”

A research project conducted in 1984 by science investigator Joe Nickell and forensic analyst John F. Fischer, which looked at cases in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, showed that the burned bodies were near plausible sources for the ignition: candles, lamps, fireplaces, and so on. Such sources were often omitted from published accounts of these incidents, presumably to deepen the aura of mystery surrounding an apparently “spontaneous” death. The investigations also found that there was a correlation between alleged SHC deaths and the victim’s intoxication (or other forms of incapacitation) which could conceivably have caused them to be careless and unable to respond properly to an accident. Where the destruction of the body was not particularly extensive, a primary source of combustible fuel could plausibly have been the victim’s clothing or a covering such as a blanket or comforter.

According to Nickell and Fischer’s investigation, nearby objects often went undamaged because fire tends to burn upward, and it burns laterally with some difficulty. As with other mysteries, Nickell and Fischer cautioned against “single, simplistic explanation for all unusual burning deaths” but rather urged investigating “on an individual basis”.

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Steve Novella has said that skepticism about human spontaneous combustion is now bleeding over into becoming popular skepticism about spontaneous combustion.

A 2002 study by Angi M. Christensen of the University of Tennessee found that osteoporotic bone samples “consistently displayed more discoloration and a greater degree of fragmentation than healthy ones.” The same study found that when human tissue is burned, the resulting flame produces a small amount of heat, indicating that fire is unlikely to spread from burning tissue.


Some hypotheses however, attempt to explain how SHC might occur without an external flame source, while other hypotheses suggest incidents that might appear as spontaneous combustion actually had an external source of ignition – and that the likelihood of spontaneous human combustion without an external ignition source is quite low.

Benjamin Radford, science writer and deputy editor of the science magazine Skeptical Inquirer, casts doubt on the plausibility of spontaneous human combustion, “If SHC is a real phenomenon (and not the result of an elderly or infirm person being too close to a flame source), why doesn’t it happen more often? There are 5 billion [The world’s population reached 5 billion in 1987] people in the world, and yet we don’t see reports of people bursting into flame while walking down the street, attending football games, or sipping a coffee at a local Starbucks.”

Paranormal researcher Brian Dunning states that SHC stories “are simply the rare cases where a natural death in isolation has been followed by a slow combustion from some nearby source of ignition.” He further suggested that reports of people suddenly aflame should be called “Unsolved deaths by fire”, stating that an unknown cause did not necessarily imply that the fire lacked an external ignition source.

There are explanations with natural undertones that have been proffered with regards to spontaneous human combustion. Some of them are:

In the first place, almost all cases of SHC involve persons with low mobility due to advanced age or obesity, along with poor health. Victims show a high likelihood of having died in their sleep, or of being unable to move once they had caught fire.

Secondly, cigarettes are often seen as the source of fire, as the improper disposal of smoking materials causes one of every four fire deaths in the United States Natural causes such as heart attacks may lead to the victim dying, subsequently dropping the cigarette, which after a period of smouldering can ignite the victim’s clothes.

The “wick effect” hypothesis suggests that a small external flame source, such as a burning cigarette, chars the clothing of the victim at a location, splitting the skin and releasing subcutaneous fat, which is in turn absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick. This combustion can continue for as long as the fuel is available.

John Abrahamson suggested that ball lightning could account for spontaneous human combustion. “This is circumstantial only, but the charring of human limbs seen in a number of ball lightning cases are very suggestive that this mechanism may also have occurred where people have had limbs combusted,” says Abrahamson.

Brian J. Ford has suggested that ketosis, possibly caused by alcoholism or low-carb dieting, produces acetone, which is highly flammable and could therefore lead to apparently spontaneous combustion.

Sometimes there are reasonable explanations for the deaths, but proponents ignore official autopsies and contradictory evidence, in favor of anecdotal accounts and personal testimonies.


There are also unnatural causes which though are yet to be authenticated. Some of them are as follows:

According to Larry E. Arnold in his 1995 book Ablaze!  the flammability of a human body could be increased by certain circumstances, like increased alcohol in the blood. He also wrote that extreme stress could be the trigger that starts many combustions. This process may use no external oxygen to spread throughout the body, since it may not be an “oxidation-reduction” reaction however, no reaction mechanism has been proposed.

Again, in his 1976 book Fire From Heaven, UK writer, Michael Harrison, suggests that SHC is connected to poltergeist activity because he argues “the force which activates the ‘poltergeist’ originates in, and is supplied by, a human being”. Within the concluding summary, Harrison writes: “SHC, fatal or non-fatal, belongs to the extensive range of poltergeist phenomena.


Can humans actually spontaneously burst into flames? A lot of people think spontaneous human combustion is a real occurrence, while some think otherwise.

Musibau Odunsi is a traditionalist. He said: “Though I don’t understand how the body can bring out fir to burn the same person, I know that fire can be sent from the outside to consume somebody by incantation. We cannot howvever, rule out the potency of African black power; anything is very possible, especially where wicked practitioners are involved.”


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