Witnesses attest that fire and smoke rose from a woman on a playground bench in Germany. In her mid-forties and originally from Mauritius, the woman may be the latest in a centuries old phenomenon: Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). The Local reports that a witness saw two individuals fleeing the scene and, after an onlooker smothered the flame, the woman was extinguished and is currently in critical condition.
Benjamin Radford is a writer for Discovery News, the Deputy Editor for the Skeptic Inquirer, and a Research Fellow at The Center for Inquiry, a non-profit organization that seeks, "to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values." Like a real-world Dana Scully, Radford investigates fringe, paranormal, and unexplained phenomenon with science, reason, and an open mind.
"To be clear, we don't have a lot of details [about this case]," Radford says. "I read through several police reports. Based on what we do know, there's a couple of explanations and Spontaneous Human Combustion is the least likely, by far, of all of them."
Spontaneous Human Combustion is utterly implausible.
The phenomenon of Spontaneous Combustion is an historical mystery and, "in some ways a manufactured mystery," Radford explains. The idea that humans are capable of inexplicable, internal explosion began in the 17th Century. SHC was then popularized in the 1853 Charles Dickens novel Bleak House, in which one of the novel's central characters spontaneously combusts. Like many paranormal phenomena, the way SHC was initially interpreted reflected the cultural values of the time.
"In the 1800s, [SHC] was considered to be sort of God's wrath for drunkenness; it was considered to be a vice, if you will. Of course, God's going to bring lightning down and put this poor sod into flames because he spends the day drinking." The theory extended into the idea that an alcoholic was susceptible to SHC because they drink so much and alcohol is flammable. Radford says this psuedo-scientific reasoning was eventually debunked, and the phenomona didn't really pick up speed again or become part of the popular lexicon until the 70's or 80's.
"You can trace the popularity of it back to a bus driver named Larry Arnold. He wrote a book called Ablaze, and it was basically hyping and exaggerating what he claimed to believe about this phenomenon."
Put a match to your skin and see what happens.
In true Scully fashion, Radord explains, "Spontaneous Human Combustion is utterly implausible." The main reason, he says, is anatomical. "The fact is, fires don't suddenly appear in people." But, there are circumstances under which a fire can break out spontaneously. "For example, if you have oily rags that are left in the sun, they can actually spontaneously combust. In [the case of SHC] we're talking about the human body, and the human body is between 50 and 70 percent water."
"The fact is most of our body weight is water and the rest of our body is not flammable. Put a match to your skin see what happens, you don't go up. From a physiological or anatomical point of view, it's not possible."
In regard to the woman on the playground bench in Germany, Radford says it's possible that she is the victim of attempted murder. The two individuals reportedly feeling the scene could have done it, he notes—though he believes its far more likely her combustion was the result of self-immolation, a suicide attempt. "In the west, self-immolation is certainly rare, though in January of 2014 a Colorado teenager killed himself by setting himself on fire in a high school. But if you look at the statistics, self immolation accounts for about 1 percent of all suicides."
A study performed by the Department of Pathology at the Victoria Hospital in Ontario, Canada, backs up Radford's statistic. Measuring suicides between 1986 and 1989, researchers found that 1 percent were due to self-immolation. More than isolated incidents, suicide by fire is also cultural; Tibetan monks brought self-immolation to a global audience through acts of political protest.
In developing countries, Radford says, self-immolation can account for up to 40 percent of all suicide."This woman was an immigrant from another country, and elsewhere in the world, such as India and Africa, self immolation, suicide by fire is far more common than in America or Western Europe. It's actually a fairly likely explanation."