CREEPY CORNER: Can Spontaneous Human Combustion Really Happen?

AKA Another One of Those Weirdo Things Louise Worries About In Life

If you're anything like me (and I suspect you are), you worry about spontaneous human combustion.

Alright, it's not exactly keeping me up at nights. Anymore. But it used to.

When I was a kid, I read about it in one of my many supernatural books (probably in a book titled something like, "UNSOLVED! 13 Weird But True Stories About Ghosts, UFOs, and Other Unexplainable Mysteries From the Beyond"). It's always held a special place of irrational (IS IT???) concern for me.

As a child, if I got a sunburn, I feared I might be a goner. While I loved the smell of gasoline, I feared inhaling too deeply while my mom fueled up might be just asking to FLAME ON that night in my flammable '80s nightgown.

I never liked playing that game where you scoot your feet on the carpet, then shock someone with static electricity. One, because my cousin told me that if I did it too many times my fingernails would fall off, and two, because of the danger of spontaneous combustion.

It's still a knee-jerk reaction for me to check my fingernails when I get a a little static shock.

Point being, spontaneous human combustion was so baffling and unbelievable to me, that I found it terrifying. Like gremlins or "cool moms" who talk like teenagers.

So what exactly is spontaneous human combustion? (Or SHC as the cool moms call it.)

Spontaneous human combustion is when a human bursts into flames without the apparent aid of an external ignition source or accelerant. The flames originate from within the body.

Here are some hallmarks of supposed SHC that appear in most, if not all, cases:

  • The fire seems to start from the core of the body, in the torso area, and rapidly consume the victim from there. Often unscorched extremities are all that remains of a human who combusts. Sometimes the entire body is consumed by fire.
  • Rarely the inner organs of a victim remain unburned, "while the outside of the body is charred".
  • A "greasy residue" is often reported on the walls, floor, and on the surfaces around the victim. (Likely residue from fatty tissue.)
  • A "sweet, smoky" smell is also a common report at SHC scenes, though this is probably just the smell of burnt flesh.
  • While the body may be burned beyond recognition, more often than not the victim's surroundings — the room, the walls, carpet, a bed — will be largely untouched by fire. In the earliest account of SHC in 1663, a Parisian woman's body went up in flames, but the straw mattress she slept on remained "unmarred."
  • It's often been reported that the fire burns so hot, so intensely that bodies are reduced to ash within 30 minutes. (But who just sits there and watches a person burn?)

Okay, I'm not going to sit here and say, "WOO WOO! The ghost aliens are setting people on fire!" (though saying this out loud in your best Jerri Blank voice is highly satisfying), but SCIENCE reasons or not, I find this whole business a bit creepy and disconcerting.

And what are those SCIENCE reasons?

Well, a lot of folks who have bigger SCIENCE brains than me say that SHC is total hogwash. That those who seem to burst into random, inexplicable flames were probably smoking or nearby an open flame, and/or may have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol. While many cases of SHC have been disproved by the above findings, some are a little harder to figure out.

Take for instance, the 2010 case of a Michael Faherty in Galway, Ireland.

The 76-year-old man tragically burned to death in his home, alone one night. Upon investigation by the authorities, forensic experts, and coroner, the cause of death was ruled as spontaneous combustion. The coroner claimed that for "the first time in 25 years of investigating deaths," this was the first SHC that he had ever recorded.

No external accelerant was found (lighter fluid or the like), and though Mr. Faherty had been found near a fire in the fireplace, investigators ruled that the fire was not the source of ignition. No evidence of foul play was found.

What happened to Michael Faherty?

"Retired pathology professor" Mike Green as well as Benjamin Radford at Live Science suspect SHC just isn't the case.

Insisting there had to be a source of external ignition, Green says, "There is a source of ignition somewhere, but because the body is so badly destroyed the source can't be found."

Says Radford, "It seems likely that a spark or ember might have popped from the fire onto his clothing, and caught his clothing on fire. It's not clear why the coroner conclusively ruled this explanation out."

As for an accelerant, hair, clothing, and human body fat will all burn until used up.

Why "conclusively" rule out the nearby fire? Who knows, maybe the investigators know things that I don't. It's possible.

Maybe the remains and the scene didn't match that of a fire started by embers (forensic people out there, can you shed light on this?). But isn't spontaneous combustion quite a big leap to make?

Then again, isn't it kind of chilling to think that that's the ONLY fitting solution the coroner could match to poor Mr. Faherty's death?

Of course there are theories as to how SHC could naturally occur within the human body. If these are remotely true (again, SCIENCE smarties pipe up!), it's more than a little freaky.

Cambridge professor and spontaneous human combustion "scholar", Brian J. Ford, claims that through a process called ketosis, the human body creates acetone which is highly flammable. "A range of conditions can produce ketosis, in which acetone is formed, including alcoholism, fat-free dieting, diabetes and even teething."

If a person with high levels of acetone were to encounter a source of ignition, they could burn up very quickly — within half an hour, claims Ford.

Another theory is that methane gas (yes, the stuff that farts are made of... well, methane is a percentage of the average fart — yes, I googled "composition of farts") builds up in the intestines and is then ignited by enzymes in the body. I don't know if this is even feasible, but since enough cases of SHC involve intact internal organs but a charred exterior, this doesn't quite hold up. You can continue suppressing your farts without fear.

Some theorize that static electricity can build up within the human body, due to geomagnetic forces. I'm not totally sure what that means. All I know is that little Louise may have been on to something with her fear of shocking people with static electricity.

The wackiest theory comes from spontaneous human combustion "expert" Larry Arnold. Arnold claims that humans have subatomic particles in them called Pyroton. These Pyroton interact with cells in the body causing mini, cellular-level explosions. Et voila! Spontaneous combustion!

Here's the problem: there's no such thing as Pyroton and Arnold's theory has absolutely no basis in credible science.

I may be reaching with this whole spontaneous human combustion thing. Perhaps it's just an urban legend that spun out of control in my adolescent, Unsolved Mysteries-addled brain, and has since held on tight. Whatever it is, I still enjoy occasionally falling down the mad science-ish rabbit hole of spontaneous human combustion.

I admit, the combination of my childhood fears and the adult realization of what those burn victims suffered makes this mystery that much more disturbing to me.

There's bizarre stuff out there, and whether it's science or supernatural, my curiosity is piqued.

What do you think? Do you think spontaneous human combustion could be a real thing? Do you agree that it's all hogwash? Do you understand the SCIENCE and can explain a lot of these theories or explanations?