by Ashton Schneider
Spontaneous human combustion is a phenomenon where a living or deceased person suddenly begins to catch fire and burn from the inside out, despite the supposed lack of an ignition source. Most often, only the person themselves appears to be consumed by the fire, with the exception of the hands and feet, which remain behind unburned. The rest of the room in which the event occurs, as well as most of the objects in it, are untouched by the flames. In the cases in which the victim was presumed to be alive at the moment of ignition, it appears that the fire started so quickly that they were simply unable to escape the blaze.₃,₅
Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) has been around for hundreds of years. It is first mentioned as an explanation for the death of an italian knight in the 1400’s, who suddenly burst into flames after consuming alcohol.₇ In fact, alcoholism or intoxication as well as being elderly and female are common factors in many SHC cases.₅ Several explanations have been proposed in order to articulate how this phenomenon might occur. One such explanation was proposed by a man named Larry E. Arnold, engineer and director of ParaScience International*, and suggests that the cause must be a new subatomic particle called the pyrotron that somehow interacts with human tissue to cause an explosion.₁
If this explanation isn’t setting off your baloney detector, you might want to get that recalibrated. The assertion of the existence of an entirely new particle with no evidence whatsoever of said existence seems like a bit much to me. The pains that physicists go through to establish the existence of particles is no trivial matter. The total estimated cost of finding the Higgs boson was somewhere in the ballpark of 13.25 billion dollars.₆ If a new particle really does exist this would be of great interest not only to physicists but also to each and everyone of us as these particles are responsible for a fair number of deaths; the most recent of which that I was able to find happened in 2015.₄
The circumstances surrounding SHC are very peculiar, the lack of an ignition source as well as the relatively contained nature of the blaze itself make it seem reasonable to assert that something strange must be going on. It’s easy to imagine that some type of chemical reaction that takes place within the body might be responsible for the ignition or could, at the very least, make a person more flammable. It could certainly explain why the fire was so localized. Despite statements about there being a lack of an ignition source many cases referred to as SHC cases actually do have an ignition source. The most common culprits are things like lit cigarettes, lamps, or candles. These details are simply conveniently left out of the story as it is passed on.₅ Afterall, a mysterious fire makes for a much more impressive story than an easily explained one. Arnold combats this little factoid with an entirely new assertion that the bodies still burn much faster than a body should. He claims that the body’s cells somehow enter a state of increased flammability termed “preternatural combustibility”.₂ A claim that also is asserted with no scientific evidence to back it.
The most popular explanation that is grounded in science is referred to as the “wick effect” theory. This theory posits that when something like a cigarette falls onto clothing worn by the intoxicated or already dead victim it will catch the clothing on fire and scorch a small section of skin exposing the fat underneath. This fat then melts and soaks into the fabric of the clothing creating a sort of wick, thus turning the persons body into a candle of sorts. Because hands and feet have less fat, these don’t provide enough fuel to allow for their consumption by the flame so they are all that is left behind.₅
Multiple cognitive and social factors are at play in the creation and maintenance of this belief. First and foremost, Arnold is a mechanical and electrical engineer and as such is educated in areas such as physics and occupies a position of authority. This higher social position may be something that believers find convincing when evaluating his explanation. Secondly, reliance on information from anecdote as opposed to the original case files when evaluating the stories of these deaths, certainly plays a role in the maintenance of this belief. In a similar vein, confirmation bias also plays its role as well. As stories of SHC are passed on details such as there actually being an ignition source present are left out and reasonable explanations ignored because they don’t agree with what people already believe. In cases where an ignition source is actually not found to be present, instead of allowing these cases to be mysteries, the ambiguous information is twisted to be evidence of an entirely new particle. And finally, Arnold himself uses post hoc explanations when confronted with evidence that refutes an earlier explanation of his. This can be seen in his use of the new concept of “preternatural combustibility” to explain that something strange must still be going on even though there was in fact an ignition source in many of these cases.
In conclusion, as interesting as Arnold’s explanation might be, and as much as we all love a good mystery, spontaneous human combustion appears to have a much more parsimonious explanation. We don’t really need to resort to pseudoscience to explain the mysteries of the world, no matter who presents them to us. Authority and a degree are not sufficient in the absence of good scientific evidence. If nothing else the strange cases of SHC can be a good lesson in the concept of parsimony: When given two theories that both explain the same phenomenon equally well, the simpler of the two is preferred.₉
*ParaScience International is a group that studies phenomena that seem to contradict traditional science.
1. Larry E. Arnold’s Website: (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from http://www.parascience.com/ablaze.htm
2. Not-So-Spontaneous Human Combustion (Joe Nickell): Nickell, J. (n.d.). Not-So-Spontaneous Human Combustion. Retrieved April 13, 2018, from https://www.csicop.org/si/show/not-so-spontaneous_human_combustion
3. Video: Spontaneous Combustion. (2017, June 26). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKgi_ikYOQw
4. Most recent case: Gander, K. (2015, November 10). Spontaneous Human Combustion:
5 apparent instances that no one can explain. Retrieved April 13, 2018, from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/spontaneous-huma n-combustion-woman-who-suffered-burns-in-germany-spurs-debate-about-controversiala6722166.html 5. Wiki page: Spontaneous human combustion. (2018, April 10). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spontaneous_human_combustion
6. Knapp, A. (2012, July 11). How Much Does It Cost To Find A Higgs Boson? Retrieved April 13, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2012/07/05/how-much-does-it-cost-to-find-a-hig gs-boson/#7fbc819b3948
7. Inglis-Arkell, E. (2011, November 04). 10 Cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion. Retrieved April 13, 2018, from https://io9.gizmodo.com/5855700/10-cases-of-spontaneous-human-combustion
8. Watson, S. (2018, March 08). How Spontaneous Human Combustion Works. Retrieved April 13, 2018, from https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/unexplained-phenomena/shc1.htm
9. Occam’s razor. (2018, April 11). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam’s_razor