It’s Gettin’ Hot in Here: A Look into Spontaneous Human Combustion

The first documented case of spontaneous human combustion, (also cited as preternatural combustibility, or auto-oxidation), which reached print in 1763, set off a fire-storm of bewilderment and fascination from both the general public and scientific community due to its cause being shrouded in the unknown. This phenomenon involves an individual suddenly becoming engulfed in flames, with the fire usually fixated on a specific region of the body. The inferno appears to arise quite literally out-of-nowhere, as the flames do not originate from any known source within the victim’s environment (Whittington-Egan, 2012). Even more striking, in some cases, an individual’s body can be torched beyond recognition, while items near the victim, such as furniture and room furnishings, are left completely unscathed. This anomaly was such an avid concern for those living (in France, particularly) during the 1800s, that several prominent authors from that time period composed stories with fictional characters who all met their demise via unexplained combustion (LiveScience, 2013). There has been back-and-forth within the scientific community regarding alternative explanations for this phenomenon, however, controversy was really stirred up in September 2011, when a coroner from Ireland ruled a 76-year-old cadaver’s cause of death’ as likely due to spontaneous human combustion (Whittington-Egan, 2012). Ultimately, the fear of an unknown catalyst/cause for such an impromptu death is what continues to stoke believers’ fears.

Beginning with the common description of a typical victim, most charred remains belong to “elderly, overweight Caucasian women who are socially isolated and have consumed a large amount of alcohol” (Byard, 2016). In fact, alcoholism was once outlined as a leading component to the occurrence of spontaneous human combustion; however, today, this piece of the belief has been reduced to nothing more than mere folklore. Believers of spontaneous human combustion point to a variety of explanations, which fluctuate from religious interpretations to more scientific arguments. Some believers of spontaneous human combustion blame some holistic force with an intent to punish plus-size, alcoholic women who are merely driven by gluttony. Others claim that “movement of vital humors or blood particles within the body” can spark an involuntary fire; yet, others suggest a range of explanations, including flammable phosphates within the body or gastro-intestinal gases that interact poorly when released from an individual (Byard, 2016). The most well-conceived justification, the ‘wick or candle effect’, conjures up the notion that perpetual alcohol consumption can lend itself to much more flammable human fat, which then seeps into an individual’s clothing or bed sheets, allowing them to act as a ‘human wick’ (Byard, 2016).

Nonbelievers point to an assailant-set fire (following a homicide or other crime, with the intent to destroy evidence) to explain the absence of signs of smoke inhalation in a victim’s toxicology report; or, victims’ bodies were set aflame and then moved to a new location—this would explain the lack of fire damage to any immediate surroundings. Additionally, this phenomenon has only been displayed in human beings, despite our close ancestral lineage to primates—nonbelievers point to this fact as lack of evidence to support claims of an anatomical or physiological cause (Byard, 2016). Finally, and quite possibly, the most important of all, there has never been a documented eyewitness to any proposed case of spontaneous human combustion, therefore, it is quite possible that any outside witness fled the scene of the crime.

The belief in spontaneous human combustion, particularly during the 1800s, lent itself to some psychological fear instilled in commoners by the Church. Religious texts extended themselves from a interventionist perspective, where threats of spontaneous human combustion were often combined with an individual’s lack of clerical devotion to God or interaction with the Devil. Further analysis of the belief touches on the idea of “purification by fire”, in which an individual’s last hope involves giving him/herself up to personal demons in order to maintain some sanctity with God (Levi-Faict & Quatrehomme, 2011). Interestingly enough, this public fixation on spontaneous human combustion also aligns with societal expectations that outline what is both appropriate and worthy for a citizen (especially a 19th century woman, at the time) to engage in. As victims’ characteristics are often saddled up with reclusive, alcoholic women, perhaps this belief was invented by a society bent on forcing proper etiquette onto its people. France in the 1800s was set on dictating differences between its social classes of people, and the labeling of alcohol as a sinful drink was an attempt to discourage citizens from giving into bouts of drunkenness (Whittington-Egan, 2012). It was in this way, that any religious claims or beliefs regarding spontaneous human combustion were able to be sustained for decades, until explanations with greater pseudo-scientific backing were able to fill their place.

Ultimately, the beginning fad cases, involving supposed instances of spontaneous human combustion, all contain much more realistic and human-driven answers. For example, a case set in the 18th century involves an inn keeper who murdered his wife and then burned the remains in the inn’s chimney. Following an investigation, a coroner, obviously oblivious to the innkeeper’s homicidal act, claimed that the woman’s death was a direct result of spontaneous human combustion—taking it a step further, he also claimed that the fireplace was of some undisclosed “divine origin”, and it had “come to punish the wife for her overzealous consumption of alcohol” (Levi-Faict & Quatrehomme, 2011). From the historical context surrounding initial reports of spontaneous human combustion mentioned above, it becomes quite clear to see how this belief has been sustained for centuries. The transition of religious explanations to those that appear to backed by more scientific reasoning is what has maintained this extraordinary belief—however, the clear-cut truth resides in societal expectations perpetuating a false phenomenon whose current roots reside in pseudoscience. Putting it all into perspective, the threat of meeting one’s demise through the unknown—and rather unexpectedly, at that—is all that is needed to create some sort of explanation for slightly more tricky deaths.


Byard, Roger W. (2016). The mythology of “spontaneous” human combustion. Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology Journal, 12(3).

Levi-Faict, Thierry W. & Quatrehomme, Gérald. (2011). So-called spontaneous human combustion. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 56(5).

Radford, Benjamin. (Dec. 2013). Spontaneous human combustion: Facts & theories. LiveScience. Retrieved from

Whittington-Egan, R. (2012). The enigma of spontaneous human combustion. Contemporary Review, (1704)69.

20 thoughts on “It’s Gettin’ Hot in Here: A Look into Spontaneous Human Combustion

  1. Oh my god, I cannot wrap my head around the fact that people thought that this is a way of punishing plus-size women. I don’t understand why the society always looks at extraordinary beliefs with more faith compared to viable scientific solutions to why something might have occurred. Another thing I found funny was that in most of the cases, the victims were alcoholics, well that explains why they were combustible.

  2. I would definitely say I’m a nonbeliever when it comes to spontaneous human combustion. I feel it is far more likely that the fire started someway and the person caught on fire. One thing that I didn’t know about this idea was that there was a certain type of person who was more likely to combust. I though that was really interesting that it was usually plus-size women who were most at risk for combustion.

  3. I find this phenomenon to be very interesting, while I don’t believe that it is actually happening maybe at some point there was as sort of serial killer going around and burning plus sized, alcoholic, women? That would explain why only certain people seemed to “combust” and lack of eyewitnesses. After all, Jack the Ripper managed to murder many women and has still never been caught to this day.

  4. I had never heard of this theory before, but it is certainly very interesting. Its crazy that people still believe in this even though there have been 0 eyewitnesses to something like this happening. I would be really interested to know why that coroner in Ireland believed that the 76 year old died from spontaneous combustion.

  5. I have definitely seen the term “spontaneous human combustion” in cards against humanity before, and I had no idea what it meant prior to reading this post. Though alcohol is flammable, how would it even be possible for nothing near the person on fire to also catch fire? I also think it is really interesting that the claim is associated with overweight women drinking alcohol. I definitely do not believe in this claim and interpret it as an ancient form of shaming women for their weight.

    • Hey I was reading your comment and I didn’t seem to understand something. I was wondering what cards against humanity is. It is like a blog post or a website that talks about “spontaneous human combustion” or something else. And about your question about nothing else catching on fire, I would say that would have just been an exaggeration of facts.

  6. This is one of my favorite topics that pops up occasionally in true podcasts and documentaries. Before reading your post, I had subscribed most to the candle and wick idea, particularly in regards to the classic Mary Reeser case. However, even that theory doesn’t always seem to work and there seems to have been difficulty replicating it in an experimental setting with both human fat and pig fat. This one is really puzzling.

  7. This may be cynical, but I’m fully convinced that spontaneous human combustion was just something that powerful people (e.g. politicians, police) used to get rid of their enemies in the olden days. In the correct socio-political context, it wouldn’t be hard for a person in a position of power, to just light someone on fire and blame it on “God’s Will” or say that it occurred because “They’re a witch.”

    • I like your thought process on the current topic. I would have never thought about something like that. But, honestly the era we live in, your way is a completely acceptable reason. Politicians have always had the knack of doing something bad and blaming it on others.

  8. This is really interesting. I’m not sure if I believe in the likelihood of people just catching on fire but I could definitely see this being like a phenomena of murder? A lot of the other commenters seem to believe this as well which is very interesting. I feel like once someone killed someone in this manner, and it was written off as spontaneous, more would use the “light someone on fire” method.

  9. Hello!
    I found your post to be very interesting! I think the idea of randomly setting to flame is a strange concept. When you brought up the alcohol and religious connection, it made sense. This sounds like something your told so you don’t do something as a little kid (sort of extreme though). It sounds like a religious way of scaring people from doing certain things and maybe it has now spread further to many people believing this idea. I think that by now scientist would have some sort of diagnosis for this or someone would have witnessed it happening. Overall this is an interesting claim and you put forth a lot of data to better understand the belief!!

  10. It’s interesting that we always could find some kind of moral motivation behind these horrible mysterious cases. From the article I feel that people might pervade the idea of spontaneous human combustion because they try to exaggerate the detriment of alcohol. Many fable stories are wrote to tell some educational lessons to the audience, maybe we could conceive these mysterious cases as new fable stories.

  11. It’s really amazing that we can learn something from Spontaneous Combustion. The explanation from the Byard that drinking a large amount of alcohol will make the intestine release flammable gas must be the most persuasive belief I have ever seem. I think people just want to use spontaneous human combustion to frighten these women driven by gluttony and let them know they will get punished if she keeps eating like that. Overall, the explanation does make sense to me.

  12. For someone to be burned alive, there has to be a series of explanations not just a random act of nature. As you said, the victims were usually, “women who had consumed a large amount of alcohol.” Some correlation between alcohol and smoking would have to occur to explain how fire enters the picture. There have been cases where people burn alive and “combust” if they have oxygen (such things an elderly woman would need) or some other factor that is flammable.

  13. Personally, by far my favorite hypothesis of human combustion was the wick hypothesis. I love the imagery of alcoholic fat seeping into sheets and clothes! I think it is hilarious! And, if i did not know any better, I would actually be tempted to believe it to be true. In a way, it intuitively makes sense: the body stores fat. If one were to drink too much alcohol, it would begin to be stored in the fat. Once the fat became too saturated, it would begin to seep out of the body. I seriously love it. Thanks for sharing this.

  14. I had no idea this was even a belief. I thought the idea of human combustion was just a gag people used for comedy. I think what have sparked this belief was that someone caught themselves on fire and they had the knowledge that alcohol was flammable so they connected the two. They thought if you drank then it meant you could combust. However, I find it interesting how they even narrowed it down to overweight white women.

  15. Reading your post, reminds me of the Incredibles Two movie where the baby Jack Jack has the power to spontaneously combust. I did not know people thought this was an actual thing. It’s like something from a superhero movie. It is also sort of funny that back then the French claimed this would happen to alcoholics, and nowadays the stereotype is that all French are alcoholics.

  16. Before reading this blog I knew that this was an extraordinary belief, but I hadn’t realized there was even this much literature out there to explain spontaneous combustion! What I found to be the most interesting was the idea that, “perpetual alcohol consumption can lend itself to much more flammable human fat, which then seeps into an individual’s clothing or bed sheets, allowing them to act as a ‘human wick’.” I had never thought of this explanation, but it is such a clever way to explain how this phenomenon could occur! I wonder if this would be a decent way to depict over consumption of alcohol as being negative in a commercial on T.V. or something. It could probably be used pretty effectively if placed in a scenario in which a drunk driver was highly intoxicated and ran into lets say a gas station? Spontaneous Combustion folks, don’t let alcohol be the tinder for that fire…

  17. I think the most prolific case of spontaneous human combustion was Mary Reeser’s in 1951. Hers is a little weird since the room she was in showed little evidence of fire, which is a common attribute of supposed SHC cases. However, the actual mechanism the ignited her was likely a cigarette. She was a smoker and took sleeping pills, so she is theorized to have fallen asleep while smoking at night and caught her gown on fire. Regardless, I find the parts about divine punishment interesting, and think they serve as a good lens into some of the mindsets that society held in the past.

  18. This is a very interesting theory that I have not heard before. It sounds like the people who believe this theory are very ignorant and ignore Ockham’s razor, that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. Like the example you brought up in the last paragraph about the case where the inn keeper murdered his wife and then burned the remains in the inn’s chimney. The coroner said the woman dies of spontaneous combustion….. How is that physiologically possible? Out of all the explanations that could explain why this women ended up burned in a chimney. He made a very far fetched claim about this woman being an alcoholic and this resulted in her catching on fire. If he couldnt figure out it was a homicide, how could he rule out that she didnt fall into the fire and die? This is a way easier explanation than spontaneous combustion.The thought processes of people who believe in conspiracy theories really do interest me. How they can abandon such basic facts and settle on some extraordinary belief.

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