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Spontaneous Human Combustion

I swear, with your gods as my witnesses, that there is no such thing as Spontaneous Human Combustion. It's yet another urban legend that, somehow, has been enshrined in pseudoscientific canon for years. Basically, the story goes that, due to some crazy internal chemical reaction, a person can just burst into flames for no reason at all. I'm not saying that people don't burn, I'm just saying that people don't burst into flame for no reason at all. Think about it: The human body is almost entirely water.

That's why cremating a corpse requires thousands of degrees for a couple of hours to get it reduced to ashes. I suppose maybe someone who's eaten a lot of beans may have a few percent of various flammable gases circulating in their bodies, but no, the average person doesn't burn without some sort of accelerant.

According to various "experts," by which I mean occult enthusiasts, there have been as many as 200 cases of human beings just blowing up for no reason in the last 300 years. It's hard to look at this sort of thing scientifically, since you've got to more or less take their word for it that these cases exist, but there are a lot of similarities.

First, the occult enthusiast claims that in "cases" of SHC, the human body ignites and burns at, sometimes, tens of thousands of degrees, while newspapers or other combustible materials found as little as a foot away remain unburned. Also, only parts of the human body can burn, apparently: You're likely to find, if you stumble upon a case of SHC, an unharmed severed limb amongst a pile of ashes.

The torso is often reported to be severely burned, although not necessarily evenly burned, while extremities remain intact. This is just a trend; there are also plenty of cases where people lose their arms or legs.

That's what really strikes me the most about this phenomenon: Every site or book I've been able to find about it contradicts itself, often within the space of a few sentences. Apparently, a greasy soot will completely blacken the inside of a room where SHC occurs, yet a person that spontaneously combusts burns in a fire that does not produce smoke.

Apparently, all of the smoke damage is below a line about 3 feet off of the floor, and above that line objects (mirrors, paintings, windowsills, etc.) will show signs of extensive heat damage. At the same time, nothing but the body will appear to have been damaged by the fire. That's the sentence I like most when discussing this phenomenon: "Only the body is damaged, while other objects in the room will show signs of heat damage." And no, it's not a typo as I initially assumed. Or if it is, it's a widespread and reoccurring one.

For whatever reason, there are some trends that proponents of crazy magic mumbo jumbo self-ignition would prefer you not know. First, it seems that the 1940s were a great decade for SHC. Of every list of people succumbing to this strange and explosive disease (or whatever), the majority seem to have caught fire in the '40s.

Also, of those people that spontaneously combust, the majority seem to be elderly people, 60 years of age or more. One of the leading theories to explain SHC is that the people who "combust" were the victims of murder or robbery, and their charred remains are not indicative of some sort of paranormal phenomenon, but of a pretty good attempt at hiding the crime.

If you're going to rob and kill someone, and then try to dispose of the body, who would you rather target? The elderly, who are relatively weak, live alone, and have scads of cash laying about, or young people like myself who are ridiculously poor, live crowded together, and have good strong bones? Once again, even the smallest pawn of logic and common sense can put the entire SHC argument in check. On one website, I found two claims that I decided to look into. The first is that when a SHC event is witnessed, the witnesses report the victim bursting into flames like a firework. Recall that above, it was claimed (sort of) that these events do not damage material property. Yet, apparently, they shoot sparks and gouts of flame all over the place when they start.

Ignoring that, I decided to try and find a SHC case that had a "witness." I couldn't do it. Every single "case" that I can find has the phrase "was found by" or "was discovered by" or some variation. If there are any actual cases of SHC that have independent witnesses, congratulations occult enthusiasts. You've hidden them well. Since the claim is universally made that SHC events occur only indoors and only when the victim has been alone for a long period of time, I'm going to say I'm pretty sure that the ones that claim there are witnesses are wrong.

Some day, I tell you, I'll find some something to write about in this column where the people that believe in it can agree as to exactly what's going on. "Facts" about SHC vary about as wildly as "eyewitness descriptions" of the Chupacabra.

The other claim was there have been cases of SHC from which the victims have survived. The claim has been made that they can rule out any simple, rational explanation for the event (i.e., they weren't smoking at the time or drinking gasoline), thus shooting a hole in the skeptic's argument against them. While the effects of the event has been well documented ("Sometimes victims develop burns on their bodies that have no known external cause" is one such example, straight from the internet), the actual cases seem not to exist. I've seen the claim that there are survivors of these events that have all sorts of weird physical affects, yet never seen a name or even a specific example. They're always talked about in the most general of terms.

But not only does it seem that the majority of the important claims are unsubstantiated, to the point that they don't even include a victims name or location, but there's a strong history behind it.

In the 1800s medical professionals believed the alcoholism could lead to immolation; since alcohol is flammable, at least their theory made logical sense (at the time). But the theories of medical professionals eventually became urban legend; one person told another that they'd heard about SHC from a doctor, it spread, and eventually the mother of the cousin of the ex-roommate of the baby-sitter of the dogwalker's dentist had exploded!

There are absolutely zero reasons to believe in SHC; at least, there's no more reason to believe in it than to believe that you'll wake up in a bathtub full of ice short by a kidney.

It's the product of rumor and a desire to believe in insane, paranormal things that are outside the realm of human understanding. I don't believe in unicorns, and I don't believe in Spontaneous Human Condition. You shouldn't either.

Be seeing you.

First Published in The Triangle, 27 May 2005