a befuddling coroner’s photo of retired doctor John Bentley, 1966
Dear diary, today my heart leapt when Agent Scully suggested spontaneous human combustion…
-Agent Fox Mulder
Ho hum, the good old days. Pluto was still a planet, Nessie, Big Foot and leprechauns frolicked unfettered among us and the theoretical possibility of true Spontaneous Human Combustion seemed feasible. Well, to me, at any rate. I’m not really sure what’s to blame for that. (Repo Man? Krook from Bleak House? My unhealthy childhood obsession with Brad Dourif?) In any case, Ablaze! was required bathroom reading in my apartment for many years. Until quite recently, I clung to my hope that there was a chance, albeit remote, of my asshole ex being inexplicably reduced to a pile of ashes with feet.
Alas, thanks to a series of informative scientific articles and National Geographic specials, believers must face facts: SHC is a most likely myth.
The notion has been kicking around for centuries: a person bursts into flames without any apparent source of spark or heat, then burns almost completely to ash without igniting their surroundings, sometimes leaving behind an untouched foot or hand. There are hundreds of such cases on record: the victim’s charred remains discovered (usually in their own home) in a room with few or no other signs of fire. Furniture, walls, sometimes even their clothes are virtually untouched. Sometimes there’s a greasy residue left behind, or a sweet hickory-smoked ham smell. Mmm mmm.
The first reliable account of SHC was offered up in 1663 by Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin, who described how a Parisian woman “went up in ashes and smoke” in her bed, yet the straw mattress on which she slept remained intact. In 1673, Jonas Dupont profiled several incidents in a book titled De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis (hee hee). In the Victorian era, alleged cases were often blamed on drunkenness and sloth, serving as cautionary tales. Jules Verne, Gogol and the aforementioned Dickens were all staunch believers in SHC who referenced it in stories.
from Karen Russo‘s video installation “Spontaneous Human Combustion”
Over the last decade, researchers have turned to scientific method to explain the phenomenon. One hypothesis suggests that SHC is caused by static flash fire (clothing goes up in flames due to a large and sudden discharge of static electricity). Then there’s the popular wick effect theory: a person burns through his/her own fats after being ignited (perhaps by a cigarette or errant spark), with the clothed human body acts like an “inside-out” candle. Human fat providing a long-lasting fuel source as the victim’s clothes become a wick.
Wick effect would seem to be the most likely explanation for the bulk of SHC cases, but many elements remain unexplained and the controversy continues.