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The Last Contrarian
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Mystery: Spontaneous Human Combustion

16 April 2014, 15:39

There are nights, indeed entire days, where I willingly become a candidate for spontaneous human combustion. So, perhaps, it would be best not to taunt the spark and the open flame too fervently.

Tiresome as it may be to toil the depths of this spontaneous human combustion (henceforth contracted to SPH for sake of my own convenience) ‘mystery’ and expose its mundane origins, I feel I must do so if only for my own sanity’s sake.

People have always been open to and prone to believe in the unexplainable—while otherwise doubting and suspecting the thoroughly explained. Our species loves mystery and confusion, so much so that some make pursuit of these fruitless ambitions the primary goals of their lives.

The trunk of reason, after all, is not as easily grasped as the more accommodating vine of ignorance.

Seriously, am I to believe from professional documentaries that people really still—in this day and age—believe that while the maid just briefly retreated to the backyard to string up the laundry, the lord or lady of the house simply spontaneously—as in no physical mechanism employed—caught fire and burned to nothingness in a matter of minutes?

(‘Never trust anything a maid says’ should be a new protocol police officers should observe when taking witness testimony.)

But should we in any way be driven to serious contemplation of the supernatural, if the drama depicted in these shows indeed turn out to be authentic, and if the people who make such otherworldly claims actually believe unswervingly in what they say?

What I don’t like about these ‘paranormal’ and ‘mysteries of the unexplained’ shows is that we, the audience, are bombarded with the opinions of those who believe in the phenomenon, not the testimony of those who actually succumbed to it. And it is the latter’s perspective that may cost some paranormal ‘researchers’/‘experts’ significant revenue—which is why they never show you the other side of the ‘expert’ consensus. The side I’m going to show you in this article.

To grasp for the fantastical instead of the factual is a human condition all men of reason are well familiar with. But as much as the facts suck the captivating mystery and wonder out of the paranormal, they must be our first source of reference, and rarely do we need to look beyond them for clues to solving these confusing conundrums.

The telling trend in almost all documented cases of SPH is that the victims were usually chronic alcoholics. I doubt I am the only person who finds it a little humorous (not to mention revealing) that it is mostly chain-smoking heavy drinkers who, traditionally, combust ‘spontaneously’ in but single-digit numbers every century or so. Numbers high enough to pass as ‘evidence’ for the peddlers of the paranormal, mind you. Some people really are easily convinced.

In many historical and present reports of these grizzly scenes where SHC is suspected (scenes where literally only the two lower legs and feet remain  and the rest of them is powdery ash), the telltale signs of excess are woven into the depictions of the scenes:  bottles of booze, ashtrays, and packets of cigarettes were often well within reach of the deceased.

Now, is it unreasonable to rule out spillage of a flammable fluid (oh, say, whisky or cognac—both of which burn enthusiastically when sparked) being ignited as the victim tried to light a cigarette or warm up near the fireplace, albeit while lacking the dexterous finesse one would expect of them had they been sober?

From my own accidents at home—my study, of course, plastered with bottles of flammable booze—I can tell you that I would certainly have caught light and burned to a cinder a few times already had I also been a smoker or, otherwise, sat near a fireplace in the dead of winter.

So you see, it can be done: We can be reasonable when evaluating the claims for the supernatural, but an old woman accidentally immolating herself in her study is not nearly as interesting as the idea that the devil set her on fire for looking like a witch. Is it then any wonder that the SHC phenomenon has its origins in the superstitious dark ages?

The documentaries also conveniently gloss over modern research into SHC and why sometimes (not always) the victims’ bodies burn so thoroughly as to leave nothing but a pile of ash and a few creepy looking limbs that were spared by the inferno:

Human fat is an excellent propellant to keep a blaze going long after the original starter fuel has burned away. As liquefied human fat soaks onto clothing or the cloth of the chair where the deceased sat, a giant ‘wick’ is formed. This is the same principle on which a candle works, so a mysterious cause indeed eludes us for the time being. But it gets worse for those who want the supernatural explanation: The flame that results from this enormous ‘wick’ effect is fuelled by liters of the person’s body fat, which causes a fire so hot that it can burn bone to ash. (I’ve also never seen a case where the victim of a bone-burning blaze was an emaciated peasant.)

The above theory was proved to many experts’ satisfaction by using pig carcasses. Pigs, of course, being an excellent proxy for testing how the human body would cope with certain environmental conditions, because pigs and humans don’t just share a resemblance in how they behave.

But how (or why) did the paranormal investigators miss these sound and testable theories in their quest to document this centuries-old mystery? Well, when you demand to explain an event using supernatural means, why would you consider PHYSICAL evidence, and reduce your expert opinion to mere nonsensical blabber?

So let us recap as well as coordinate the evidence. The vast majority of SPH victims were raging alcoholics, had fireplaces, candles, or lamps in the rooms where they regularly got soaked, and often smoked heavily too. It could even be that there had, in some cases, been foul play by the maids—almost all of whom were conveniently ‘otherwise engaged’ at the time of their master’s immolation. We don’t know such to be the case for sure, but the paranormalists don’t even consider these reasonable potentialities.

It is also not impossible to pinpoint why believers in the strange and those who claim to comprehend its reality dismiss these revealing factors: The thrill and mystery would dissipate for the believers and the ‘experts’ would have to forgo a significant portion of their income made by declaring yet another perplexing scene and its cause as ‘unexplainable’ or ‘supernatural’ in cause.

“But why did only the deceased and objects in direct contact with them burn?” is a favourite ‘comeback’ of the pleaders for the paranormal. Well. This is where we have to invoke a bit of knowledge from a subject that most paranormal purists have no interest in: physics.

Heat radiation obeys the inverse square law. Meaning that if you double the distance from the heat source, the intensity of the heat radiation is quartered. It tapers off very quickly, which is why you can sit relatively close to a raging bonfire and not cook to death. Therefore, even if a person’s corpse burns at bone-dissolving temperatures, there is no reason to expect the curtains nearby to catch fire unless they practically come in direct contact with the flames emanating from the human torch.

SPH, truly, is one of those inanities of human reasoning (or lack thereof) and is right up there with another laughable claim where people simply ‘fall out of dimension.’ Oh yes! There are several ‘documented’ cases of people yelling in terror and then vanishing into thin air, never to be seen again.

On the topic of falling out of dimension, I can imagine it must be shocking for someone who suffers paranoid delusions, or someone who simply always has an imaginary friend embedded somewhere in their surrounding environment, when they show momentary signs of recovery that cause the imagined entity to retreat from view. But that is exactly why we must suspect even our own senses (for they may be malfunctioning) and resist jumping to hasty supernatural conclusions when we encounter the seemingly unexplainable.

As much as I love a great mystery and thoroughly enjoy the entertainment value of the paranormal (as much as anyone who truly believes in these spellbinding phenomena), I remain as skeptical as Dana Scully from that hit show The X-Files. I can’t ignore the physical evidence or rational explanations which seem to point unmistakably to a tragedy born from habit rather than one resulting from the momentary suspension of the laws of nature—laws which in all studies prove consistent, by the way, so suspecting these laws cannot be our first deduction.

Plainly put, we should not reject reality because we are fond of the fantastical. This is madness in the severest of cases and simply intellectual lethargy/dishonesty in the most benign of ones.

To conclude, it is a pity that the supposed ‘experts of the unexplained’ and the producers of these brain-dead documentaries seem to subscribe to a modus operandi that I am highly suspicious of and give very little credence to: Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story!

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