Reflections on the Gnarliest 'Unsolved Mysteries' Episode of All Time

A 1997 episode about spontaneous human combustion exposed a generation of young true crime lovers to a total nightmare.
July 2, 2020, 11:00am

I spent a chunk of my childhood concerned that I would, at any moment, burst into flames.

At times, the thought kept me up at night—that my body would ignite into a ball of fire. An anxious person by nature, I thought this was just another one of my many preoccupations, like the need to constantly wash my hands or do things in even-numbered, symmetrical patterns. It turns out, however, that I wasn't alone in this fixation: There are plenty of us, kids and teens from the 90s, who grew up thinking we'd spontaneously combust.

Many of us with this particular horror can thank Unsolved Mysteries, the true crime documentary show that bounced around networks from 1987 to 2010, and which has found a new home on Netflix in a series reboot that launched yesterday. In one particularly memorable episode from its ninth season, which first aired in 1997 and also covered the murder of Tupac Shakur and the hunt for home invaders in Ohio, the deep-voiced host Robert Stack introduced the idea of spontaneous human combustion to the show's vast audience. "Students of the paranormal call it spontaneous human combustion, or 'SHC,' when a perfectly normal person bursts into flame without warning and without apparent cause," Stack said.

Through a series of re-enactments and interviews with alleged witnesses of spontaneous human combustion, a skeptic, and a supporter, the episode explored examples of—and made cases for and against—the idea that a human body could light itself on fire from the inside out. Detailing the experience of Kendal Mott, for example, Stack narrated a re-enactment of a man finding his father's charred remains in bed: "Fire had reduced his father to a scattering of ashes, a few splinters of bone, and a fragment of skull." Even compared to segments about murders and supernatural events, Unsolved Mysteries' spontaneous combustion segment left a fear-inducing and indelible mark on impressionable youths in the visual form of a burned bed, a walker next to a grisly piece of a leg, and a woman caught in a cloud of smoke.

For Jessica Brennan, the co-host of the California True Crime podcast, the images associated with the Mott example have stuck with her ever since. "When anyone mentions Unsolved Mysteries, two things come to my mind: the theme song and spontaneous combustion," Brennan told VICE in an email. Though she started watching the show around 1990 at the age of 10 or 11 and loyally watched its reruns, the spontaneous combustion segment is easily the one that frightened her the most. "In the episode, they show the bed where someone died from fire, and the room just looks so strange that it really sticks out. The bedding is red so in my mind it looked like blood, even though there wasn’t any blood in the shot, and then the way just that part of the room is burned but everything else is untouched is creepy. That bedroom scene is stuck in my memory forever."

Naissa Lopez, a communications director who recalled watching reruns of Unsolved Mysteries at night on Lifetime when she was around 10, had similar takeaways from the Mott scene. "The ashes looked as though they belonged to somebody who was laying on the bed. I can still see it so clearly!" she told VICE in an email. With fire as her biggest fear, Lopez thought of spontaneous human combustion as a particularly terrible way to go, she said. "Up until I was about 14 or 15, I thought I was going to turn to ashes out of nowhere. I even remember there’d be times that I’d feel my forehead to make sure I wasn’t feeling hot because I was afraid I would overheat and combust. It’s kind of like quicksand—as a kid, I always thought quicksand was going to be more of a problem than it actually is."

It was the example of Kay Fletcher—who claimed that in 1996, while having a peaceful morning at home, smoke and the smell of burnt flesh began to emanate from her body—that terrified Laine Cordell, an executive assistant who spent her sick days as a tween curled up with Unsolved Mysteries marathons. "What I remember vividly was a shot of the actor re-enactment of someone standing in a kitchen, and their back/shoulders caught fire and they ripped their clothing off in a frenzy," Cordell told VICE in an email. Before the episode, she'd never heard of spontaneous human combustion, and after having seen it two or three times, the kitchen scene gave her nightmares. (Other episodes about kidnappings, meanwhile, inspired what Cordell qualified as more "legitimate" fears.)

For me, the segment's depiction of Dr. Irving Bentley, who'd died of an odd fire in 1966 and left behind his walker, part of his head, part of his leg, and a pile of ash was the scariest, especially when combined with an explanation from Joe Nickell of Skeptical Inquirer Magazine: "In many cases, a person's own body fat could contribute to the fire," he said. That rationale haunted me: that my body could, terrifyingly, act like a giant candle.

"We've gotten feedback over the years about the stories that kind of pop more, that there's more buzz about, and spontaneous combustion is definitely one of those," Terry Meurer, an executive producer of the original series and its Netflix reboot, told VICE in an interview. "I think we were introducing it for the first time in the mainstream sense. The term had been around for a while, but I don't know that anybody had actually tracked down any of the stories of people who claim to have spontaneously combusted or who believe had."

Though Unsolved Mysteries was intended for anyone with an interest in the unanswered and bizarre, Meurer has heard about its appeal among people who were children at the time it was on-air. "We hear that a lot—that there were young children who would sneak the show because their parents wouldn't let them watch it because they were afraid they were going to be too frightened," she told VICE. In fact, the thought that kids could be watching influenced the show's approach to re-enactments, Meurer explained: "We were very conscious of the fact that we were on at eight o'clock, and wanted to not be too graphic with any of the violence or the special effects that we produced."

With its premise of exploring unsolved mysteries and oddities, the show left the idea of spontaneous human combustion open-ended. Though it included counterpoints from a skeptic, the segment ended with a sense of possibility through comments from Larry E. Arnold, investigator and author of the book Ablaze. For young people, especially in a pre-internet era, the concept became particularly scary. "There is a part of the episode when a 'scientist' talks about how he thinks it works and I remember telling myself this sounds like nonsense, but it was the kind of nonsense you couldn’t pin down," Brennan said. "The idea that a person could just exist one moment and then the next, you combust with no warning was just terrifying."

As with all supernatural incidents, the validity of spontaneous human combustion remains contested. As recently as last year, British tabloid The Sun made the claim that the phenomenon "is REAL," and YouTube pundits continue to explore the topic. However, in the age of the internet, it's now much easier to parse through scientific explanations and alternative theories, should one want to dive into that particular rabbit hole, than when the Unsolved Mysteries segment first aired. Gizmodo, Pacific Standard, and Encyclopaedia Britannica have explained it, and the Daily Beast debunked the ways the temperance movement helped push the narrative.

With age and added research, some find that their fears of spontaneous human combustion have lessened. For Brennan, seeing the episode again as an adult and paying attention to the fact that two of the cases involved people who smoked cigarettes helped her explain the phenomenon to herself; every so often, though, she'll still have a dream about the horrifying images she saw on the show.

Cordell has also done more digging to help assuage the concerns. "The irrationality of spontaneous combustion is really just simply based on statistics—it doesn't really occur THAT often and I ridiculously convinced myself that since I typically have a below normal body temp (my normal is usually 97.1 degrees Fahrenheit), that I would likely not be combusting spontaneously anytime soon. This is, of course, not based on any science whatsoever, it's just the lie I tell myself to sleep at night," she said.

I, too, no longer worry that I will unexpectedly catch fire, though it's reassuring to realize I'm not the only one. And though the thought of spontaneously combusting no longer scares Lopez, either, the episode still sticks with her. When it comes to the burned bed in particular, she said, "That photo ... is something that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get out of my head. It’s the epitome of the entire series for me."

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