From Wikipedia, the free Internet encylopedia.
Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the burning of a person's body, allegedly without any external source of ignition. The combustion may result in simple burns and blisters to the skin, smoking, or a complete incineration of the body. The latter is the form most often 'recognised' as SHC.
There is much speculation and controversy over SHC. It is not a proven natural occurence, but many theories that attempt to explain how SHC may happen also attempt to prove that it exists.
Of these theories, the two most common explanations offered to account for apparent SHC are the non-spontaneous "wick effect" fire, and the rare discharge called static flash fires.
1 Alleged Characteristics
2 Some alleged SHC fatalities
3 Some survivors of alleged SHC
4 SHC historical controversy
5 Some theories
5.1 General misidentification theory
5.1.1 The wick effect theory
5.1.2 The static flash fire theory
5.1.3 Survivors of static flash fires/events
5.1.4 A suspected case of fatal static flash fire
5.2 Spontaneous Human Combustion theories
5.2.1 John E Heymer and 'The Entrancing Flame'
5.2.2 Larry Arnold and the 'Pyroton'
6 Use in written fiction
7 Use in other popular culture
There are many characteristics that together distinguish alleged SHC from other forms of fire.
Indeed, it is a combination of most or all of the following factors in a fire death that leads to allegations of SHC in the first place.
The fire seems to have been generated spontaneously without any observable source of ignition.
Fire damage is usually localized to the body of the victim. Furniture and appliances near the victim are usually left untouched. Little or no damage is done within the vicinity of the victim. However, this may be an artifact of the sampling process, since it is possible that in other cases, the fire spreads and causes major destruction of surroundings (especially domestic). This is discussed below.
The body of the victim is usually more severely burned than in a normal house fire. The burns are, however, not distributed evenly across the body. The entire torso and arms of the victim are reduced to ashes, while the head sometimes survives as a bare skull and the lower extremities of the victims -- the lower legs -- are typically left intact.
Most cases of alleged SHC have occurred indoors. Again, this may be an artifact of the sampling process.
The temperature of incineration in cases of alleged SHC is apparently much higher than temperatures achieved in commercial fuel-driven crematoria. This contrast is examined below.
Due to the high temperature yet localized nature of the fire, hot air exposure can damage objects high above the fire.
Victims are apparently as likely to be male as female.
In the overwhelming majority of supposed cases, the victim is elderly.
Eyewitnesses to the actual combustion process are rare, tending to create suspicion or even confusion about alleged cases of SHC. However --
-- It is conjectured (by Heymer) that the recurring circumstance of aloneness, or actual loneliness in alleged SHC victims may be significant. The reason for the rarity of eyewitnesses may, in his view, be precisely because SHC happens to people when they are alone.
Some alleged SHC fatalities
This list is not intended to be taken as comprehensive.
Robert Francis Bailey
Dr John Irving Bentley
Alan J. Hinkle
George I. Mott
Mary Hardy Reeser, (aka The Cinder Lady)
Anne Gertrude Webb
Some survivors of alleged SHC
A number of persons have reported serious burns that injured their bodies with no apparent cause.
If this is not the alleged phenomenon known as SHC, it would appear to be a very closely-related occurrence.
SHC historical controversy
The idea that a human body can burst into flames without an external source of combustion is not accepted by mainstream science, although some individual scientists believe it is possible. This is not a new debate, but one that has been conducted over the last several centuries, and is still ongoing. This debate is discussed in more detail at entry: spontaneous human combustion controversy. A link at the end of that entry will return you to the main entry spontaneous human combustion, at the section immediately following this, entitled Some theories.
At the present day, opinion on SHC remains divided.
As with any apparently anomalous phenomenon, there are a number of theories that attempt to explain how SHC happens.
These fall broadly into two camps, which we might call the misidentification theorists and the SHC theorists.
General misidentification theory
This is a theory that all cases of alleged SHC are simply normal fires in which the cause has not been identified. This does not necessarily exclude the wick or static flash fire effects.
An influential historical case of misidentification is that of the Countess Gorlitz . In 1847, the Count Gorlitz, who lived in the region of Darmstadt, arrived home and was unable to find his wife. When her locked private room was broken into, her body was found. It had been partially incinerated. The room was fire-damaged and in a state of disorder, with a door broken and windows smashed. A writing desk was also found burned, with its mirror broken. Candles in the room were found to be melted as well.
The question arose of whether this death (in an apparently locked room) was caused by SHC.
Three years later, a man called Stauff, former manservant of the Countess, was accused of her murder. He was arrested, tried and convicted. Stauff confessed that he had gone to the Countess's room and been tempted by the sight of the jewellery and money there. The Countess had returned unexpectedly and caught him in the act of stealing them. In the ensuing struggle, Stauff had strangled her. To cover his crime, he had made a heap of combustible items on her desk and set fire to them. His intention had been to destroy the entire room.
This is a clear case of a murderer trying to cover his tracks, however Misidentification theory does not propose a single cause for alleged SHC. Rather, misidentification theory holds that a number of unsolved fire cases have built up into an overarching SHC myth.
In modern times, Beard and Drysdale  cite the following as a single example of misidentification (taken from the files of CSICOP):
An unnamed man was leaving his place of work (unstipulated but presumably a garage or similar, for reasons which will be immediately clear) when he lit a cigarette and immediately burst into flames. It transpired that the victim had been in the habit of using a compressed air line to blow detritus off his clothing. On this occasion the victim had accidentally used a pure oxygen line, temporarily (but greatly) increasing the flammability of his clothing.
Within misidentification theory, there are two main schools of thought, neither of which excludes the other. These are usually referred to as the wick effect and static flash and are now discussed.
The wick effect theory
The wick effect is a real phenomenon that has been proven to occur under certain conditions, and thoroughly observed.
Since both wick effect and SHC would necessarily involve the incineration of bodies, and therefore the melting and combustion of body fat, there are many similarities between the known phenomenon (wick effect) on the one hand and the alleged phenomenon (SHC) on the other.
A fuller discussion of contemporary mainstream scientific acceptance of the wick effect theory of SHC can be found here
An outlined example of a typically 'deadlocked' exchange between an SHC adherent and a wick effect adherent follows.
In the case of Henry Thomas, Heymer published a description of the scene and his own questions about what he suspected was a case of SHC, which appeared in the magazine New Scientist .
A rebuttal was printed in the next issue of the magazine from David JX Halliday of the Metropolitan Police Force's Fire Investigation Unit, stating inter alia:
"This process, which I prefer to call prolonged human combustion, is usually fuelled by fat rendered from the body by the fire. It is no coincidence that in many of the cases this unit has encountered the victim was obese, and there was always a long delay before the fire was discovered.
"Examples of prolonged human combustion are, admittedly, rare but this should not be taken as evidence that an unusual source of ignition is involved. Indeed, all cases investigated by this unit have been resolved to the satisfaction of the courts without recourse to the excuse of 'spontaneous' human combustion." 
The static flash fire theory
This is a condition in which static electricity apparently builds up to such dangerous levels in the human body that a sparking discharge can ignite clothing.
A noticeable static electricity shock typically measures 3,000 volts, created by performing certain activities. The charge can build up to much greater levels depending on other conditions such as humidity. Walking across a carpet can create a potential difference of 1,500 to 35,000 volts. 
Static discharges can ignite petrol fumes at filling stations, and are one suspected cause of filling station explosions which are popularly (but erroneously) believed to be caused by emissions from mobile phones.
Seventy per cent of such incidents occur in cool dry weather, which favours the buildup of static.
The phenomenon of massive static charges on human bodies was first noted by the late professor Robin Beach of the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute .
Professor Beach believed that some people could build up a sufficient static charge to ignite combustible materials in contact with their bodies. While putting this forward as a possible cause of SHC reports, Beach did not believe there was a connection to allegedly genuine SHC as no known form of electrostatic discharge could cause the tissues of the human body to ignite.
In static flash fire cases, the voltage that builds up is much higher, producing bright flashes capable of illuminating dark surroundings, or shimmering flame-like effects, depending on circumstances. In some cases, the charge is apparently sufficient to ignite dust or fluff clinging to clothing, which may then set clothing alight.
Survivors of static flash fires/events
Two examples of people surviving potentially-catastrophic static flash events are given in John E Heymer's book 'The Entrancing Flame'. Each case is backed up by an eyewitness.
The accounts are in the form of written and signed statements from named indviduals, shorn of some details to protect the privacy of correspondents. Summaries follow.
 In September 1985, a young woman called Debbie Clark was walking home when she noticed an occasional flash of blue light:
"It was me. I was lighting up the driveway every couple of steps.
"As we got into the garden I thought it was funny at that point. I was walking around in circles saying: 'look at this, mum, look!' She started screaming and my brother came to the door and started screaming and shouting 'Have you never heard of spontaneous human combustion?'"
Debbie's mother, Dianne Clark:
I screamed at her to get her shoes off and it [the flashes] kept going so I hassled her through and got her into the bath. I thought that the bath is wired to earth. It was a blue light you know what they call electric blue. She thought it was fun, she was laughing.
 In winter 1980, Cheshire resident Susan Motteshead was standing in her kitchen, wearing flame-resistant pyjamas, when she was suddenly engulfed in a short-lived fire that seems to have ignited the fluff on her clothing but burned out before it could set anything properly alight.
"I was stood in the kitchen and my daughter just screamed out that my back was on fire. As I looked down it sort of whooshed all over me. It was like yellow and blue flames all over me. I was not burned at all. Not even my hair was burned."
The daughter, Joanne Motteshead, confirms this account and adds that the fire brigade arrived and tried (unsuccessfully) to set fire to Susan's pyjamas.
The two subjects (Debbie Clark and Susan Motteshead), speaking independently and with no knowledge of each other, give similar histories:
Clark: I was not wearing any nylon clothing [at the time of the flashes]. I used to suffer a lot with static electricity so I tended not to wear anything nylon. I used to crackle with static when taking off my clothes and if I touched any metal thing it used to hurt me. I used to have a lot of trouble with electrical things. they would break down or blow up."
Motteshead: "I had just washed and dried my hair [at the time of the incident]. I used to have a lot of static electricity when I was younger. I used to get shocks from touching fridges, things like that."
A suspected case of fatal static flash fire
On 8 January 1985, in Widnes, Cheshire, a young girl called Jacqueline Fitzsimon caught fire with no apparent cause on a college staircase. She subsequently died, apparently of delayed shock.
Jacqueline Fitzsimons's death was subsequently ruled out as a case of SHC by the coroner and by independent investigators of supposedly 'paranormal' phenomenon - a rare instance of agreement in the SHC controversy.
The essential difference between the circumstances of the Fitzsimon case and 'classic' cases of alleged SHC is as follows:
Fitzsimons's flesh was unburned except where it contacted her flammable clothing (the jumper).
Ergo, the seat of the fire was the clothing, which ignited from an unknown source.
John E Heymer makes further tentative deductions:
Since the flammable clothing (the jumper) ignited while being worn under non-flammable protective clothing (the catering jacket), the source of ignition probably did not ignite the jumper from outside. A source of ignition on or from Fitzsimons's own body seems probable.
Flesh being non-flammable, this supposed source of ignition would only affect any flammable object in contact with Fitzsimons's flesh.
The 'glowing light' witnessed over Fitzsimons's left shoulder may have been the first flickering discharge from the source of ignition (see the Motteshead case, above).
In the light of the cases discussed in the preceding section, it is suspected by Heymer that a static flash fire may have been responsible for a complete accident which the victim, Jacqueline Fitzsimons, could have survived had she not been wearing flammable clothing.
Spontaneous Human Combustion theories
Adherents to SHC theories hold that the cause of SHC is none of the above, but that it is a discrete and genuine phenomenon in which the flesh of the human body catches fire without any external cause.
The field of SHC theories divides into two camps: The supernaturalists and the non-supernaturalists.
The supernaturalists believe that the cause of SHC is almost certainly beyond human knowledge forever. This faction puts forward various theories about poltergeists, divine wrath, etc, which are not considered separately here.
The non-supernaturalists believe that SHC is either knowable or will be knowable.
There is little or no general agreement between those advocating SHC theories. Moreover, there is little agreement between the SHC non-supernaturalists and the SHC skeptics.
Brief discussions of some of these advocates follow:
John E Heymer and 'The Entrancing Flame'
Described by Joe Nickell as an "English coal-miner-turned-constable,", John E Heymer wrote a 1996 book entitled The Entrancing Flame.
This gets its title from one deductive conclusion that he has reached from examining many cases, namely that SHC victims are lonely people who fall into a trance immediately prior to their incineration.
Heymer suggests that a psychosomatic process in such emotionally-distressed people (see The Entrancing Flame) can trigger off a chain reaction by freeing hydrogen and oxygen within the body and setting off a chain reaction of mitochondrial explosions. Heymer's theories have won little support. They have also generated misunderstanding: Ian Simmons, in a review of The Entrancing Flame, criticised Heymer thusly: "He seems to be under the illusion that [hydrogen and oxygen] exist as gases in the[mitochondrial] cell and are thus vulnerable to ignition, which is, in fact, not the case."
Larry Arnold and the 'Pyroton'
Larry Arnold is a private researcher, who has devoted much time to the SHC controversy. He is director of an organisation called ParaScience International .
Arnold, in his 1995 book on SHC entitled Ablaze!, theorises that a hitherto-unknown subatomic particle which he refers to as the pyroton is emitted in cosmic rays, usually passing harmlessly through the body like a neutrino, but occasionally striking a cell nucleus and triggering off a chain reaction that destroys the body entirely.
Reaction to Arnold's theory has been almost unanimously negative.
In 1996, in a Fortean Times article, Ian Simmons said: " There is, however, no independent evidence for such a particle [as the pyroton] and just inventing it to explain SHC is not really a runner"
Use in written fiction
Spontaneous human combustion is occasionally used in works of written fiction:
Charles Dickens used spontaneous human combustion as a plot device in his novel Bleak House (1853), which added considerably to interest in the subject.
In Madison Smartt Bell's novel Waiting For The End Of The World the main character dies due to SHC.
Hermann Melville's story Redburn features a sailor who combusts, perhaps due to alcoholic overindulgence.
In Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's novel Brimstone, there are some killings involving SHC
Use in other popular culture
Spontaneous human combustion is also used in popular culture movies and television shows:
In an episode of the BBC's sitcom Red Dwarf titled "Confidence and Paranoia", the main character, Dave Lister, is informed that a previous mayor of Warsaw spontaneously combusted. He then contracts a virus that turns his subconscious thoughts into reality, thus causing the mayor of Warsaw to appear on the ship and then explode.
In the song "Pardon Me" by the band Incubus, the lyrics refer to spontaneous human combustion. The Blue Öyster Cult song "Fire of Unknown Origin" also refers to this phenomenon.
The television series Picket Fences featured an episode in which a recurring character died in this manner.
The wick experiment was depicted in the television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in the episode "Face Lift".
The film This Is Spinal Tap includes several references to spontaneous human combustion, as two of the fictitious band's drummers, in the band's words, "exploded on stage."
The film Spontaneous Combustion (1990) starring Brad Dourif references many facts that have been reported in cases of spontaneous human combustion. For reasons pertaining to the plot, the cause of the phenomena in the film is attributed to radiation poisoning and a drug that supposedly counters the effects of the radiation.
In the South Park episode "Spontaneous Combustion", some of the town's citizens die due to spontaneous combustion as a result of holding their farts too long.
In the movie Bruce Almighty, Evan caught fire on his hair while doing the news
The original interviewer on the MTV claymation series Celebrity Deathmatch, Stacey Cornbread, died in this manner.
"There's one mystery I'm asked about more than any other: spontaneous human combustion. Some cases seem to defy explanation, and leave me with a creepy and very unscientific feeling. If there's anything more to SHC, I simply don't want to know." — Arthur C Clarke (1994)
"The opinion that a man can burn of himself is not founded on a knowledge of the circumstances of the death, but on the reverse of knowledge - on complete ignorance of all the causes or conditions which preceded the accident and caused it." — Justus von Liebig (1855)
Posted by Bob -- WHOOSH!