Spontaneous Human Combustion – The Wick Effect Explained

Most everyone these days has heard of the term Spontaneous Human Combustion, otherwise known as SHC; the spontaneous ignition of human flesh and subsequent burning of the body, usually until death and often until there are no remains to collect and analyse.  Quite gruesome deaths if you ask me, though there have been cases of reported SHC wherein the victim did not die.

In the last 300 years there have been somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200 cases of SHC worldwide, though that number will vary depending on your source.  Of those 200-some reports of persons bursting into flame like roman candles, only the most recent claims have stood to closer scrutiny, and some scientists think they have the phenomena explained.

Before we get into the science of SHC, let’s review the common characteristics of Human Combustion:

1)    As the name suggests, there is to be a certain spontaneity to the event; a sudden ignition similar to a small explosion of flame.  Surviving victims have reported feeling no heat or discomfort prior to realising that they were ablaze, though many, if not most victims of SHC were either alone or sleeping at the time of ignition, or both.

2)    Analysis of the remains and scenes of known cases of SHC often reveal extreme heat, sometimes in excess of 1000◦, yet the surrounding environment is found characteristically unharmed.  Even nearby draperies and furniture remains largely unaffected by the heat and flame, and in many cases, the very bed or chair in which the victim was seated survives the event with little damage.

3)    No external source of ignition and no accelerant are found near or associated to the body.  This point can be, and usually is argued, as many of the cases revealed both recent prior consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, and many researchers point to those elements as potential causes of non-SHC fire being to blame.  Though this argument fails to acknowledge the second criteria in evaluating an SHC event (See above).

4)    For unknown reasons, a majority of cases, in which the victim dies as a result of SHC, a single limb or extremity is left behind.  The limb is normally severed by the heat/fire and, like the surrounding environment, remains largely unaffected by the fire (aside from the fact that the rest of the body was consumed).

In recent years there have been numerous explanations and theories presented for SHC, most of which have failed to impress fire officials, scientists and sceptics alike.  Some of these hypotheses include: pyrokinesis, deliberate suicide by arson, accidental ignition by cigarette, low voltage electrocution, freak lightning strikes, demon attacks and even the Smite of God.

On the trail of these less conventional and sometimes completely ridiculous theories, Dr, John De Haan conducted an experiment for the cameras of BBC 1’s, QED program, in an effort to reveal the truth behind SHC.  What followed is now commonly known as the Wick Effect.

It should be said that Dr. De Haan is an adamant sceptic when it comes to Spontaneous Human Combustion, and that he happily attributes all previous and future claims of SHC to the Wick Effect.  This is important to remember as, while his theory does provide some explanation for many SHC cases, it does not tie a neat little bow around every report in history and present the phenomena as “solved”.  However, at our current position of scientific understanding, the Wick Effect is a more suitable hypothesis in the face of all others.

To briefly explain the chemical mechanics of the Wick Effect; Dr De Haan showed in his experiment, that under the correct conditions, a subtle ignition source such as a cigarette butt, can ignite clothing that rests close the surface of the victims skin.  During the initial phase of the event, the rising heat can split the victims flesh exposing natural subcutaneous fat, which when exposed begins to melt.  This melted fat becomes soaked into the unburned clothing and quickly becomes an oil wick.

SHC2Apparently, the chemical composition of the subcutaneous fats is such that when ignited it can sustain the flame at a very high temperature, but allow only a very small, low flame.  Dr. De Haan believes that this explains several key characteristics of SHC, and can even account for the often reported connection of alcohol consumption and cigarettes.

In his experiment, Dr De Haan used a pig corpse as a human analog, and set up what he believed to be the common conditions of a naturally occurring SHC event.  However, since the ignition source for true SHC cases is entirely unknown, De Haan was forced to use a small amount of gasoline as an accelerant and a wooden match to ignite the pig.

The results of the experiment showed that the Wick Effect phenomena could sufficiently answer many of the questions surrounding SHC; the corpse of the pig was entirely consumed along the area that was exposed to flame, after several hours ablaze.  Apparently the flames were quite low for the duration of the fire, even though the heat exceeded 800◦.  Upon examination, De Haan confirmed that the consumed portions of the pig had been completely obliterated by the fire, including flesh, fats and bone.

While the Wick Effect is not a new phenomenon, in fact experiments similar to De Haan’s were conducted as early as 1963 in Leeds (UK), others have been shy to attribute all cases of SHC to the Wick Effect, and Dr De Haan thinks he knows why.

He claims that the gruesome and surprising state of the bodies, coupled with the virtually untouched surroundings at the scene, often traumatise fire officials and force them to believe that there must be a supernatural explanation.

Whatever you choose to believe, it is clear that the victims of SHC, whether attributed to God, psychic misfortune or simple science, suffered intensely in their own fiery hell.  If we can accept the theory of the Wick Effect as an explanation for the spontaneous incineration of unsuspecting people, maybe we’re one step closer to finding a way to prevent others from suffering the same fate.

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