Can Spontaneous Human Combustion Really Occur?

People have long wondered about, and even claimed incidences of, the living and the dead alike mysteriously going up in flames.

What Is Spontaneous Human Combustion?

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is one of the greatest mysteries of the world today which, as of yet, has no conclusive scientific proof explaining the reason of occurrence of this phenomenon. Spontaneous human combustion refers to the case of human deaths occurring as a result of burning in fire with the fire triggered internally within the human body in the absence of any external ignition force. The term spontaneous human combustion was coined by Paul Rolli in 1746 and published first time in Philosophical Transactions. In 1938, the topic was also covered by the British Medical Journal.

Reports Through The Years

Only a handful of cases reported in the past few years have been linked to spontaneous human combustion. The 1938 death of a 22-year-old woman who burst into flames while leaving a ballroom party, the discovery of the charred body of a 67-year-old woman seated on a chair in her apartment, by her neighbor in 1951, the 1982 death of a mentally handicapped woman in front of her old father, were all alleged to be cases of spontaneous human combustion. Though scientific evidence was unable to conclusively link these deaths to an external source of ignition, there has been several attempts to scientifically explain the cause of these deaths. In 1980, the charred remains of a 73-year-old man was discovered at his home on the Rassau Estate in Ebbw Vale, South Wales. Forensic officers at the site explained that his death could be due to the wick effect leading to spontaneous human combustion. The most recent reported case of spontaneous human combustion was the death of Michael Faherty in County Galway, Ireland which was also designated as a case of spontaneous human combustion from wick effect by the doctor studying his death.

What Does Science Say?

The combustion of any substance requires two essential conditions. These are that there must be a presence of a flammable substance and intensely high heat, both of which are absent in the human body under normal circumstances. In the past, it was believed that the alcohol drunk by an individual could trigger a fire within the individual, or that the build up of methane gas within the intestines, ignited by biochemical reactions, could also start a fire. However, the fact that most spontaneous human combustion victims’ bodies were more burnt on the outside than inside went against such hypotheses. Some scientists have also proposed that a build up of static electricity or the effect of external geomagnetic forces could also cause spontaneous human combustion. The most recent and more widely accepted theory regarding the cause of spontaneous human combustion has been assigned to the wick effect. In a candle, the wax enclosing the wick is the flammable substance that keeps the wick burning. Scientists say that spontaneous human combustion occurs when the human body acts like an inside out candle. Here the human hair and clothing acts like the wick of the candle and the body fat that soaks into the clothing acts like the wax. Heat in the surroundings trigger a fire in the body which is kept alive by the flammable body fat. This could also explain why the lower extremities of the body are actually spared as the temperature gradient of the body where the top of a seated person is hotter than the bottom, could have a role to play.

Depictions In Media and Pop Culture

Spontaneous human combustion has always fascinated the curious human mind and several supernatural explanations of this phenomenon has also been provided. Spontaneous human combustion has also been extensively depicted in media, literature and pop culture. Several television shows like X-Files, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, South Park, Red Dwarf, ER, Picket Fences, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the 1984 film “This Is Spinal Tap”, and the video game “Parasite Eve” have all depicted spontaneous human combustion. The most famous literary work mentioning spontaneous human combustion was Charles Dickens’ 1853 novel Bleak House, wherein the fictional character of Mr. Krook died due to spontaneous human combustion as a result of excessive alcohol consumption

Should You Be Concerned?

The extreme rarity of spontaneous human combustion does not raise much concern in the world today regarding public safety from such occurrences. There is also possibility of a perfectly logical scientific explanation of all the deaths that are claimed to have happened due to spontaneous human combustion. However, there is always a need to remain at a safe distance from any substances that are flammable, and to use cigarettes and other burning substances in a responsible manner.

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