Metal Ways To Die: Spontaneous Human Combustion


You, like everyone else, are going to die. But that doesn’t mean your death has to be boring. Fuck being surrounded by weeping family members — leave the world a story! Welcome to Metal Ways To Die, where we take a look at the most killer ways to mosh off of this mortal coil. Death to false death!


History: To this day, spontaneous human combustion, in which a fire starts within a human body and immolates it entirely, has no formal scientific explanation. While there are a few recurring characteristics in cases of SHC, the phenomenon itself remains a somewhat mystifying phenomenon (if it exists).

One of the recurring attributes leading up to SHC is alcoholism, which makes sense in a certain way–a body inundated with booze would be quicker to burn, making a Molotov cocktail of sorts out of the victim. Another is obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, which provides the blaze fat to feed it. One interesting theme, noted in L. A. Parry’s Medical Jurisprudence from 1823, is that the hands and feet fall off of the combustion victim, which seems to suggest that the fire starts from within and burns outward, and that the extremities drop off before they can be consumed.

But what causes the fire? The most common answer is cigarettes or cigars; a burn from a cigarette could cause the skin to split and eject the fat underneath, thus setting off the wick effect (see below). In the case of alcoholics, it’s been suggested that ketosis resulting from a bad diet and constant boozing can cause acetone to build up in the human body, which can then be easily ignited. Another idea is that ball lightning could cause the burning of the human body, and that the charring of human limbs in previous ball lightning cases was similar to those suffered by SHC victims.

My favorite cause of SHC, of course, is an unfounded one: poltergeists! In his 1976 book Fire From Heaven, author Michael Harrison suggested that SHC is caused by energy created from poltergeist activity deep within the human body. He claimed that since ghosts were located at the core of our corporeal forms, it makes sense that the energy they produce would create an outward burst of flame when it comes in contact with a fat- and booze-filled body. Obviously, this theory sounds flimsy, but hey, if you believe that a human body can explode for no reason, why not also believe that said explosion could be caused by ghost sparks?

Whether or not SHC actually occurs the way we think it does continues to be questioned by medical authorities, specifically the ‘S’ part. An investigation in the 1980s by investigator Joe Nickell and forensic analyst John F. Fisher suggested that most of the victims of SHC were positioned near external sources of ignition, and therefore most likely caught fire rather than actually burst into flames. However, they also noted that surrounding objects were often unharmed by the fire, and that it was best to observe SHC on a case by case basis rather than declare the whole phenomenon to be a hoax.

Why It’s So Metal: The idea that a fire rages within one’s core is not a strange concept to metalheads, who often feel consumed by their burning emotions and desires, so the idea of literally bursting into uncontrollable flames is pretty poetic. It also has a satanic aspect, suggesting one is suddenly overwhelmed by the fires of Hell, which were no doubt set off by a life of gluttony and drunkeness. And, well, a person exploding with fire for no fucking reason…that’s just killer, man. That rules.

Ultra-Brutal Version: The wick effect. Basically, after the fire starts, the fat that spills out of the victim’s body and soaks into the their clothing and the material of surrounding them (chair stuffing, carpet, et cetera). That fat-covered material then acts like the wick of a candle, causing the person to burn harder and longer.

False Version: Self-immolation. For all my love of death, I’m very anti-suicide (obviously terminal illness is an exception). But to kill yourself via an enormous fire endangers those around you (also, I know it’s not “spontaneous”, as it’s premeditated), and is therefore, in my opinion, an especially awful way to end your own life.

Famous Cases:

  • Polonus Vorstiusan Italian knight in the late 1400s, who drank two ladles of wine and then vomited fire before bursting into flames entirely.


  • Countess Cornelia di Baldi combusted halfway to her window in the 1700s, leaving her legs and three fingers behind.
  • Mary Reeser, who in 1961 was found burnt to a greasy pile of ash, her skull shrunk to the size of a teacup. The room in which Reeser combusted (and a pile of newspapers therein) was left relatively intact, even though it was discovered the temperature within was 3,500* F.
  • Henry Thomas, a 73-year-old Welsh man, combusted in 1980, leaving only his skull and portions of both legs below the knee. The portions of the legs left behind were dressed in unharmed portions of his trousers.
  • Michael Flaherty, an Irish gentleman, was listed as dying of spontaneous human combustion as recently as 2010.

Any explosive personalities I forgot or other factoids about combustion that are worth noting? Let me know in the comments section. Meanwhile, here’s a playlist of songs to listen to while being consumed by the flames within.

[with aid from io9]


Show Comments
Metal Sucks Greatest Hits