SHC: “It happens sometimes. People just explode.”

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.

13 Responses to “SHC: “It happens sometimes. People just explode.””

  1. Heather Says:

    Ah, I love Coilhouse, not least because it gives me a sense of peace knowing that there are others out there who were and are consumed (ha!) by things like spontaneous combustion and Brad Dourif.

    “A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities,” by Jan Bondeson, devotes a whole wonderful chapter to SHC, and is worth the read. It also covers hirstute humans, women who gave birth to rabbits, people with tails, and other oddities. Yum!

  2. Skerror Says:

    Those pics are always so much freakier when there’s a limb or two left over…it’s like some metaphysical demon came through a portal and snatched what it could cuz it was in a hurry.

  3. Mer Says:

    Heather, yay! I LOVE that book. Bondeson’s sense of humor and his attention to detail makes that one of my favorite tomes on human oddities. I’ve been meaning to do a blog on sad, beautiful Julia Pastrana for a while now.

    Skerror, those pics are definitely freaky. They kept me up late at night as a child, afeared that I might wake up in flames. The freakiest account of all that I’ve heard of was of a woman’s corpse found standing in a doorway, intact but burned to a crisp. Brrrruhhhh.

  4. Marie Says:

    Oh my god, I have always loved and believed in this phenomena. I just harrassed abunch of friends to come look at this article. Iam not the only one!

  5. Marc Says:

    That first picture used to haunt me as a child.

    I had many pulpy “mysteries of the mysterious unexplained” type books and my young mind was easily able to handle any number of tales about Spring heeled jacks, Doppelgangers, reptile aliens and rogue panthers wandering around the english countryside.

    But that picture (alongside some rather worrying stories of poltergeist) used to chill a deeper part of my little mind.

    This site is getting good at reminding me of these lost childhood nuggets.

    xx Marc

  6. tymcode Says:

    I cannot think of SHC without thinking of two things, instantly:

    1) Repo Man (nice title, btw — that’s the bit I think of)

    2) Spinal Tap drummers, including Mick Fleetwood audtioning to be their tour drummer in an asbestos suit

  7. Skerror Says:

    Ewww…still standing :o
    That’s another thing that’s freaky about these…there’s a calm about them. I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid it so far, but if I were being engulfed by flames…I’m sure I’d be thrashing all around, contorting, breaking things and spreading the fire a bit more. It’s almost as though victims of SHC willingly ACCEPT their fates. Either that or it happens ridiculously lightening quick…more like a spontaneous human vaporization. If people are being vaporized, those reptile aliens Marc talks about might be involved ;)

  8. Mer Says:

    One theory is that they’re usually already dead by the time they light up.

    Then again, there are tales like this:

    In 1982, a mentally handicapped woman named Jean Lucille “Jeannie” Saffin was sitting with her 82-year-old father at their home in Edmonton, in northern London. According to her father, a flash of light caught his eye. When he turned to his daughter, he saw that her upper body was enveloped in flames. Mr. Saffin and his son-in-law, Donald Carroll, managed to put out the blaze, but Jeannie died of her third-degree burns about a week after entering the hospital. According to Carroll, “the flames were coming from her mouth like a dragon and they were making a roaring noise.” There was no smoke or fire damage in the room.

    Ack. Ack, Ow. Ouch.

  9. q gauti Says:

    finally, someone who shares my fondness for mr. Dourif..

  10. Lauren Says:


    I had an obsession with the same sort of books as a kid… I’d give anything if I could find one in particular again.. I used to read and re-read stories about Jack the Ripper, SHC, the Jersey Devil, the Bermuda Triangle, you name it. I wish I still got the shivers now that I did then when reading about all these strange phenomena.

  11. Shay Says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by SHC. I distinctly remember hoping my 5th grade History teacher would go up in flames in front of class.. Troubled child that I was =]

  12. Tashina Feuerstein Says:

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