Paranormal & Unexplained Mysteries: Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC)

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SHC - Spontaneous Human Combustion

Despite most people amongst the general public believing that Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is nothing more than a paranormal or supernatural belief, as of 1995 there have been about 200 cited cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion globally over a 300-year period.

Perhaps the reason for the majority of people believing SHC to be a supernatural belief is due to the fact that people have proposed supernatural and biblical explanations for the phenomenon. In fact, it's possible that there may be references to Spontaneous Human Combustion in the bible, or at least this is how some people have interpreted it.

In February 2013, Oklahoma resident Danny Vanzandt, 57, was found burning on the floor of his home. Initially police officers thought that Vanzandt's burning body was “just trash that was burning on the kitchen floor” but it turned out it was his badly burned, deceased body. Police were stumped when they couldn't find any evidence of fire damage to furniture or any evidence of any kind of a struggle.

Sheriff Lockhart believes that, even though there are only about 200 cited cases worldwide, Vanzandt's death was a result of Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) and the authorities certainly haven't ruled out the theory.

Danny Vanzandt was a smoker, which seems to be the case with all unfortunate victims of Spontaneous Human Combustion, and he was also an alcoholic which is also common amongst victims of SHC and was originally thought to provide a vital clue, although this doesn't seem to be the case. Sheriff Lockhart confirmed that the body was burned in such a way that an alcohol/cigarette-related accident was simply not possible.

The remains of Mary Reeser after she spontaneously combusted in 1951.
The remains of Mary Reeser after she spontaneously combusted in 1951. | Source

SHC In History

According to historians, the first reported case of spontaneous human combustion dates back to 1641. However, the incident documented in 1641 actually occurred as early as 1470. Danish physician, Thomas Bartholin, had reported how Polonus Vorstius had been drinking wine at home in Milan, Italy one evening before suddenly bursting into flames.

Charles Dickens is also known to have used spontaneous human combustion to kill off one of his characters in Bleak House, after carrying out research into 30 real-life cases. The FBI have also been involved in investigating spontaneous human combustion after the police found Mary Reeser's ashes and just her foot (in a slipper), her spine and her mysteriously shrunken skull left behind after the incident. In 1951 her landlord had tried to deliver a telegram only to find that the doorknob was incredibly hot, so he called the police who then found her remains, mostly ash, inside the house.

Although the FBI concluded that she must have fallen asleep whilst smoking a cigarette, physical anthropologist Wilton Krogman disputed their conclusion claiming there was a lack of any evidence of a fire being in her apartment.

It was also reported in September 2011 that Irish pensioner, Michael Faherty aged 76, was found lying face-down on his living room floor near an open fire, though the only other damage investigators could find to the house was the ceiling above him and the floor underneath him.

Dr. McLoughlin carried out research into the incident and noted that such cases, rather unusually, almost always occur near an open fireplace and chimney - another vital clue perhaps?

Although a small percentage of spontaneous human combustion cases have been sufficiently and officially documented, many (ie most) of them have not.

Proposed Explanations For SHC

In addition to the proposed supernatural and biblical explanations for SHC, other more conventional proposed explanations for spontaneous human combustion include the wick effect - which is when the clothing of a person absorbs melted fat from their body and begins to act like the wick of a candle.

The wick effect has been scientifically proven under certain conditions and is the most common proposed logical explanation for the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion. However, this theory does not address the spontaneous nature of SHC, unless we assume that all victims must have unknowingly somehow ignited their clothing without realizing.

On the other hand, scientists have also shown how there is enough methane to lead to a fire, within our intestines, whilst the source of the fire could exist in our active enzymes (proteins which help accelerate the chemical processes in our body).

Other explanations proposed for SHC include the theory of Larry Arnold that body cells can be ignited by a subatomic particle (Pyroton) which interacts with organic molecules, causing them to burst into the flames, the theory that static electricity is the culprit and that external geomagnetic forces may be responsible.

However, none of these theories have yet been proven to be the case and are not yet publicly acknowledged, so for now, the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) remains a mystery.

By Sparkster

Do you believe there is a logical explanation for spontaneous human combustion?

  • Yes, it can be explained in conventional ways.
  • No, it's a paranormal/supernatural phenomenon.
  • Not really sure.
See results without voting

© 2013 Sparkster Hubs

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7 comments

cryptid profile image

cryptid 3 years ago from Earth

I've always found spontaneous human combustion intriguing, but I can't say I have any clue about how it could happen. One would think it would have to be related to smoking, and/or perhaps somehow the composition of a person's body, but who knows? We don't see animals bursting into flames for no reason, so it has to be behavior-related.

Very interesting and thought-provoking Hub!


sparkster profile image

sparkster 3 years ago from United Kingdom Author

Indeed cryptid, as you point out, there are two indications that it could be linked to smoking - everyone who has ever suffered spontaneous human combustion has been a smoker and animals do not smoke, which may possibly be why it never happens to them. One very good reason for giving up smoking! Thanks for commenting.


Joseph D Schaaf profile image

Joseph D Schaaf 3 years ago from Arizona

Just because there has never been a documented case of an animal bursting into flames doesn't mean it has never happened. Spontaneous combustion is a type of combustion which occurs by self heating (increase in temperature due to exothermic internal reactions), followed by thermal runaway (self heating which rapidly accelerates to high temperatures) and finally, ignition and it's natural to nature. Hay stacks, coal, cow manure, pyrite, cotton and linen (maybe soemthing all cases have had in common is what they've been wearing?), and even pistachio nuts stored in large quantites have all been known and documented to spontaneously combust.


watergeek profile image

watergeek 3 years ago

They mentioned the first woman was alcoholic, but didn't say anything about the others. How often is alcohol a part of it? The body and brain tissues of alcoholics are filled with alcohol, which itself is flammable. It comes out on their breath too, so now add that to someone lighting a match. (I actually believe that bodies and minds are a lot more powerful than most of us realize, so these are only physical speculations.)


Elias Zanetti profile image

Elias Zanetti 3 years ago from Athens, Greece

I remember that the X-Files had an episode with a SHC case ( it was in the fisrt season if I'm not mistaken) and that was my very first introduction to this phenomenon. To be honest, I had no idea if there could be a scientific explanation to such a phenomenon or if there were real life incidents attributed to SHC. Interested hub and well balanced presentation of SHC.


Michele Travis profile image

Michele Travis 3 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

This is a very interesting hub. But, if a persons clothing catches fire why wouldn't a person notice it and put it out? Pretty sure scientists don't know exactly what causes it. It is still scary.


sparkster profile image

sparkster 3 years ago from United Kingdom Author

@Joseph,

"Just because there has never been a documented case of an animal bursting into flames doesn't mean it has never happened."

Very true. Maybe it has happened and we just don't know about it!

"Hay stacks, coal, cow manure, pyrite, cotton and linen (maybe soemthing all cases have had in common is what they've been wearing?), and even pistachio nuts stored in large quantities have all been known and documented to spontaneously combust."

I did not know that, that's crazy!

@watergeek,

"They mentioned the first woman was alcoholic, but didn't say anything about the others. How often is alcohol a part of it?"

Alcohol seems to be common but I don't think it's present in every case ever documented. They have concluded that it doesn't seem to be alcohol-related but could be very related to smoking.

@Michele,

"if a persons clothing catches fire why wouldn't a person notice it and put it out?"

I was thinking of someone perhaps brushing past a candle and setting fire to their top without realizing, then the fats that have been absorbed by the clothing bursting into flames - this doesn't really address the spontaneous nature of these incidents though, as you would smell the burning.

Thank you for your comment Elias!

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