Why Spontaneous Human Combustion is Really About Human Candles

By Veronique Greenwood | October 13, 2011 1:25 pm


Last month when British papers reported on the “first Irish case of death” by spontaneous human combustion—going up in flames with no apparent cause—many eyebrows were raised in the scientific regions of the Internet. Apparently the coroner in the case had never heard of the “wick effect,” in which a flaming object like a cigarette dropped on a sleeping person can slowly melt all their (quite flammable) fat until it leaks out and saturates the body, forming, in effect, a human candle or torch. It’s what forensic scientists think happens in cases of so-called “spontaneous” human combustion.

Blogger Jennifer Ouellette, it turns out, is a font of knowledge on the wick effect and the various other explanations people have come up with over the years for the gruesome discovery of a pair of legs leaning against a chair full of ash and grease. Dickens, along with the rest of the Victorians, thought it happened because of heavy drinking. But these explanations really take the cake:

A man named John Heymer wrote a book called The Entrancing Flame in 1996, in which he advanced his hypothesis that SHC victims are loners who fall into a strange kind of trance that triggers a chain reaction of “mitochrondrial explosions” by “freeing hydrogen and oxygen within the body.” That hypothesis might make sense if hydrogen and oxygen actually existed in gas form inside a mitochrondrial cell, but they don’t — and a good thing, too, otherwise the very act of inhaling could cause spontaneous ignition.

Even more far-fetched is the take of a man named Larry Arnold, who thinks that occasionally human cells get hit by a mysterious particle — he calls it a “pyrotron” — that causes a nuclear chain reaction inside the body. We give Arnold points for creativity and coming with a really cool moniker for his imaginary new particle.

Read more at Cocktail Party Physics.

Image courtesy of puzzledmonkey / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Kevin R. Bridges

    I’ve always been interested in the wick effect. I have to say, though, I’m curious if there have been any experiments done.

    In my imagination, I just can’t imagine a cigarette burning a hole in skin, fat leaking out, and then that same cigarette igniting the fat, much less while the individual sleeps. If I could see the effect on video (perhaps on the carcass of a pig?) it would make more sense to me.

  • Kevin R. Bridges

    I’m also curious if there are any reported cases of this happening halfway. As in, “I woke up, and there was a hole burned in me, and my fat was on fire! So I stopped, dropped and rolled. Whew!”

  • bigjohn756

    A pyrotron is a rare quantum particle. It has no mass and it travels faster than light speed, so, it is very hard to study. When one does occur, it ignites the test equipment and all data accumulated is lost, thus nothing is known about it at all.

  • http://omegamom.com OmegaMom

    How on earth does this happen without people waking up and…er…noticing it?! You’ve got to be in some kind of super duper torpor to have a butt smoldering on you long enough for fat to leak out of your skin (!!) without having all those neurons sending URGENT!! FLASH!!! EMERGENCY!!!! messages to your brain.

  • Cat

    I remember this being addressed on an episode of CSI several years ago, where it turned out that the deceased woman’s nightgown acted as a wick. Grissom and Sara tested the theory using a pig carcass wrapped in a nightgown. I know CSI can be pretty fanciful, but this might actually work.

  • Linda

    My theory is that people who are alone and drinks can get very emotional. Strong emotions can cause a person’s kundalini to activate and rises and that mixed with the alcohol in their bodies can cause one to burst into flame from the inside. Just kundalini activation alone can cause a lot of heat in the body and is the reason a person is recommend to drink a lot of water, can you imagine drinking alcohol instead of water during that!

    I read a bible verse, (wish I could remember where) that stated something to the effect that Lucifer’s end will be a fire that will consume him from within. So hellfire is found within a being same as heaven can be found within. :)

  • DerekH

    The BBC’s QED science programme set fire to a pig – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/158853.stm

    While the wick effect may explain some cases, there are others that I’ve read about where the victims were nowhere near a source of ignition, and/or there were no possible accelerants to get things going.

    I’m not so sure about pyrotrons 😉 but just because some SHC cases can be explained by the wick effect doesn’t mean that they all can….

  • vel

    could the people who evidently don’t notice being on fire, have something like diabetic neuropathy where they simply don’t feel it?

  • BioSlayer

    My hypothesis, the dude is silly-drunk or goes unconscious for whatever reason, passes out while smoking a cigarette, it falls between his legs at the same time he farts and their he catches fire !

  • Zack

    Well, alcohol could have something to do with it. To wit: being souced might be the proximate cause of falling asleep with a burning cig in hand into such a stupor you weren’t awakened by burning alive.

  • Brian Too

    I believe that the wick effect was strongly implicated in that London tube escalator fire. Testing revealed that decades of lubricant grease were not enough, alone, to explain the high intensity burn. The grease simply would not catch fire under the conditions present.

    However the escalator also had a heavy buildup of litter, dirt and lint. These provided thousands of tiny wicks that could support ignition and expansion of the fire.

  • lost irish

    How do you explain that if it was a wicking fire why is surrounding area undamaged, and the ceiling area above the victim is smoke damaged a little . ????

  • Ubi Dubium

    Linda, when you find some way to actually measure a person’s “kundalini” then it might make sense to propose it as an explanation. Until then, suggesting “kundalini” and bible verses come across as saying “it’s just magic”. This is a science blog, not a magic blog.

    All the cases I have read about this effect involve someone who was smoking or near a flame source, and was also drunk or otherwise impaired. Nothing mysterious about that.

  • Hmmm

    Okay if there is a wicking effect, then why there so many burn victims in house fires, etc. If this were true of the body, then anyone being burned surely would burn alive. With the body fat being mixed in and the large percentage of water in the human body, that seems laughable at best. The alcohol thing is also laughable as even with someone at 3% compared to the human body being mostly water, a heavly drunk individual still has a very small percentage.

    Further using this wicking theory when you get cut why doesn’t this body fat pour out then?

    Since the laws of physics in our universe prevents anything from exceeding the speed of light, google relativity, then the pyrotrons cannot exist in our universe. Perhaps they exist in someone’s personal universe of their wild imginations!

    Perhaps these people are in the direct line of a gamma ray burst which is one of the most powerful energies in the universe? I mean throw that out there too with some of these other crazy, I mean interesting ideas!

  • http://DiscoverMagazine Templar 7

    Measure the hate that I have for you on a scale.

  • Sharon

    The body is simply a bag of chemicals. The brain regulates the release of enzymes, hormones, etc. and the blood circulates that chemistry throughout the body. Is it possible for the brain to make a mistake and release a combination of chemicals that causes a chemical reaction that ignites the body fat? Maybe the cause comes from inside the body not from the outside. Just a thought.

  • MikeG

    Apologies to everyone for pasting bible verse here. This is just a demo to Linda of the power of google. Next time you wish you could remember something…google is your friend.

    Ezekiel 28:18-19 …’Thou hast defiled thy sanctuaries by the multitude of thine iniquities, by the iniquity of thy traffick; therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee. All they that know thee among the people shall be astonished at thee: thou shalt be a terror, and never shalt thou be any more.’ …

    I’m inclined to agree with Bioslayer on this one. I can vouch that the methane from flatulence ignites quite easily. If the guy was drunk on vodka say, with fumes all over the place, and we assume he spilled drinks on his clothes…boom.


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