After a protracted absence, spontaneous human combustion has returned to the headlines. Until recently, the last genuine report of anyone inexplicably bursting into flames was in 1952, when firefighters discovered Mrs. Dora Fleming — or at least a pile of her smoldering ashes, which were later positively identified by Mr. Fleming.
In truth, these mysterious incidents have never abated, and the plethora of modern news outlets, coupled with the human brain’s inability to grasp more than three important facts at any one time, could explain the apparent ellipsis of these accounts.
But with the description of a shopper suddenly cremated while sniffing cantaloupes at a Florida Piggly Wiggly recently, spontaneous human combustion, or SHC, is back in the media, and everyone seems to be talking about it.
Before we scoff at these reports, however, we must scrutinize this peculiar phenomenon under the harsh light of modern criticism and advanced scientific techniques.
Scholars trace tales of ordinary folk self-igniting back to ancient Egypt, where it was known as “The Wrath of Ra” and was probably caused by looking up at the sun through a large magnifying glass. During the Middle Ages, the Church feared that spontaneous human combustion was the work of the devil and decreed that anyone caught erupting into a fireball without a pious explanation would be declared a heretic and burned at the stake.
A thousand years later, SHC truly captured the public’s attention with the publication of Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House, in which a character abruptly and dramatically self-ignites; the author even attributed the internal combustion to an excessive intake of spirituous liquors, which temperance crusaders had long blamed for every societal ill from fallen women to fallen arches.
Dickens may have been ahead of his time in linking human conflagration with stomach contents. Modern forensic scientists studying SHC events postulate that self-ignition is possible if the victim has eaten a certain combination of foods such as, say, a bale of hay followed by several pints of kerosene and a lit candle.
While there has been no shortage of incendiary incidents in the last half century — some deadly, some superficial — authentic examples of SHC are rare. The naysayers contend that much of this anecdotal evidence does not hold up to cogent scrutiny. For example, certain organized crime figures told authorities in Chicago last year that SHC had tragically claimed the life of a rival crime boss, though police became suspicious when they found a gas can and half a road flare near his remains.
Since skeptics of alternate realities demand verifiable eyewitnesses and reproducible results, researchers working under controlled conditions at the Brooklyn Pyrotechnic Institute are endeavoring to duplicate the ideal environment for spontaneous human combustion; unfortunately, they have so far only succeeded in making smoke come from a man’s ears — and this might have been a parlor trick involving an ice pick and cigar.
Lack of scientific evidence has prompted critics to dismiss all but a few cases of SHC. These disputants attribute fires to natural causes, citing the principle of Occam’s razor, which says the simplest answer to a problem tends to be the correct one. Yet, can we really apply Occam’s razor to incinerated humans, especially without a good moisturizer? Regardless, skeptics claim reports of human infernos are grossly exaggerated, though even the gravest cynics agree it caused Atlantis to sink and probably accounts for Don King’s hair.
One detractor, an illusionist named the Amazing Presto who fancies himself a debunker of paranormal activity, even attempted to demonstrate before a live audience how easy it is to make a person appear to spontaneously combust. The display called for Presto to torch his leggy assistant, but a magic-wand malfunction inadvertently set the magician’s ascot ablaze, and a quick-thinking stagehand doused him with a spray of seltzer water, although Presto’s eyebrows had to be replaced with a set of quotation marks from one of his own reviews the next morning.
In the final analysis, what we can agree on is that for those suffering from spontaneous human combustion, these sudden flaming bouts must truly be a curse. As much as they’d like to, they cannot control the pain and embarrassment of their unpredictable blazing. It’s sort of like a fiery Tourette’s Syndrome.
Predictably, television executives plan to capitalize on the popularity of this topic with a reality program in which a SHC bachelor chooses a companion from among thirty female SHC survivors. Producers hope to have Burning Love on the fall lineup.