Spontaneous Human Combustion

I love the supernatural, I love the unexplained, the paranormal, a good mystery. In the early 1980s, the perfect magazine was published. Called The Unexplained, it was all about the unexplained.

It nearly scared me to death. Literally.

The adverts started to appear on telly and I was soon hounding my parents to buy it. I was at school at the time and someone else beat me to it. Another lad, Jeffrey Westwell, no stranger to the unexplained himself after turning up for school one day in a pair of inexplicably flared trousers, told me all about the first edition and a terrifying phenomenon called SHC: spontaneous human combustion.

When someone standing in a school corridor describes the human body going up in smoke it doesn’t have quite the same impact as seeing the after effects in print. The article had several pages of ugly black and white photographs of a solitary leg or the top half of a torso, surrounded by ash, the rest of the room virtually untouched.

At the time, the phenomenon was little understood. The surroundings unaffected by the heat, the burning apparently confined to the body and nothing else, baffled experts and with no obvious source of the fire the primary explanation was that the fire came from within, starting spontaneously. Hence the name.

Spontaneous combustion is not unknown. Haystacks, wood shavings, bales of paper, can heat up internally to immense temperatures and if the ignition temperature for that material is reached it spontaneously combusts. I’ve seen and felt a fire brick left inside a pile of tree bark mulch. After several hours the brick was too hot to handle without wearing gloves.

And spontaneous human combustion isn’t new, as anyone who has read Bleak House will know. Dickens, no stranger to the unexplained, created a seminal scene in which Mr Krook dies after spontaneously combusting.

It was a perfect storm. Grisly photos and a teenager already possessing a distaste for charred bodies. In 1975 following the IRA bombings in Guildford and Birmingham, the BBC helpfully displayed a police poster asking if witnesses could ‘identify this person.’ ‘This person’ being nothing more than a carbonised lump. I never forgot that image.

After reading the magazine, I lay in bed that night waiting for it to happen. Every twitch was the first stirring of the flame, every tingle round the ankle, every mild rumble of the stomach was the beginning of the inferno. I didn’t sleep for a week and got so worked up I had to sleep in a spare bed in my parents’ room.

I survived and life returned to normal until about two years later. We had moved house, my sister was married and one evening her husband bounded up the stairs with a question I hoped I’d never hear: “Chris, have you ever heard of spontaneous human combustion?” The anxiety began again.

But what exactly caused this bizarre form of death? There were two elements that had originally confused the experts: no apparent source of the fire (no bomb, no flame thrower, no anti-tank round, no exploding petrol tank. . . .); and the fire seemed to be contained to a very limited area (no burned furniture or walls, the only damage being to that immediate area where the body lay).

Experiments eventually concluded that the fuel was body fat and everything else fell into place when all the victims were considered as a group rather than viewed as individuals.

Many of the victims were elderly and living alone. Many of them were found close to an open fireplace or heater. The best explanation was that they caught fire from an exposed hem of clothing or a dropped cigarette end after they had fallen asleep. What happened next was rare, and by its rarity, exacerbated the explanations. Instead of going up in flames, the victim would lie burning, the fire fuelled by body fat which burns very slowly at high temperatures. They were in effect, cooked from the inside out. And because of the slow smouldering and internalised fuel source, there was little damage to the objects around them.

What these victims didn’t do was spontaneously combust.

Little comfort to me back in 1980, lying in bed shaking like a leaf, terrified of turning into a human candle. It ruined my birthday; the magazine was one of a number of gifts which included a 7 inch single of The Big Match theme tune, which to this day still reminds me of the torment.

And if you’re wondering why there are no images of spontaneous human combustion in this post, there are plenty on the internet if you want to search for them. But maybe leaving it to your imagination will be enough. It’s where the unexplained sometimes belongs, not in front of you in the real world.