Top 5 Spontaneous Combustion Facts Too Weird to Believe

Written by Eliza Baynes Top 5 Spontaneous Combustion Facts Too Weird to Believe

People and objects can’t just suddenly burst into flames, right? Well, about that… In this instalment of WatchMojo's Top 5 Facts, we’re counting down some of the weirdest facts about the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion, which is what happens when things catch on fire all by themselves. Pistachios! Rags! Even horse poo! Nobody is safe! [citation needed]

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Written by Eliza Baynes

Top 5 Spontaneous Combustion Facts


People and objects can’t just suddenly burst into flames, right? Weeeell, about that…Welcome to WatchMojo’s Top 5 Facts. In this instalment, we’re counting down some of the weirdest facts about the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion, which is what happens when things catch on fire all by themselves.

#5: Pistachio Nuts Can Spontaneously Combust


Don’t worry, your pistachio ice cream cone is not a torch in disguise. But if the nuts are stored in large amounts, say, on a cargo ship, their high oil content combined with excessive pressure can cause them to generate enough heat to start a fire. No spark required, because all a fire really needs to get itself going is heat, oxygen, and any kind of fuel. So pistachio nuts have to be transported very carefully. Other things that can combust on their own include piles of oily rags, which can be heated by oxygen if left exposed to the air, and large compost heaps, which can also get hot enough to burn. And do you know what else can burn by itself? Manure. Yup, self-flaming horse poop is totally a real thing. It happened on a scorching day in upstate New York. Just imagine the smell. No, on second thought, don’t.

#4: Charles Dickens: Spontaneous Human Combustion Expert


Hey, the man was multi-talented! In the English writer’s 1853 novel “Bleak House”, an alcoholic character named Krook gets a little too hot under the collar and dies of spontaneous human combustion. In Dickens’ era, some people thought that it was a possible consequence of alcoholism, and that a large volume of flammable alcohol in a person’s system could somehow cause them to erupt in flames. Dickens didn’t believe in total abstinence from liquor, but he was against abusing it, and didn’t shy away from describing the negative effects of alcoholism in his works. When “Bleak House” was published and the author was criticized for spreading superstitions with poor Krook’s fiery death, he insisted that he’d done his research and that there were around 30 similar cases on record.

#3: Spontaneous Human Combustion Might Just Be Supposed Human Combustion


Real-life author Charles Dickens believed in it. Fictional band Spinal Tap witnessed it - twice! But is spontaneous human combustion, or SHC, real? Unlikely. First off, the human body simply doesn’t spontaneously reach temperatures that high. SHC believers have suggested everything from a build up of static electricity to exploding methane gas in the intestines, but such theories lack scientific support. Instead, scientists suggest “the wick effect”, a theory that a burning body can essentially become an inside-out candle. The body fat melts and soaks into the clothes, providing a continuous source of fuel to feed the blaze. As for how the fire starts to begin with, many victims were smokers who probably just fell asleep with a lit cigarette. Many were also drunk or otherwise incapacitated, so they couldn’t react to the fire. A solid reason not to overdo it at parties!

#2: As Recently as 2011, a Coroner Determined It as a Cause of Death


After a man seemingly burned to death at his home in Ireland and investigators were unable to find the cause, the coroner ruled it as a spontaneous combustion. The room in which the deceased was found had sustained very little damage, and although there had been a fire in the fireplace, forensic experts did not believe that it was to blame. The man was 76 years old at the time, which fits the typical profile of alleged SHC victims, who are usually elderly, frail, or suffer from limited mobility, all of which can make it harder to escape a fire. In addition, victims are often elderly women. I mean, talk about a hot flash! Hahaaa...but, uh, rest in peace. Sorry, ladies, that joke practically wrote itself.

#1: Even if You Burn, Your Feet (and Your Stuff) Might Not


Most cases of SHC have a few creepy-yet-fascinating things in common: even though the victims’ upper bodies are burned to ash, their hands, feet, and lower legs are often perfectly intact. Also, the rooms in which the victims are found are mostly undamaged. Even nearby objects often remain unburned. At most, the area directly under the unlucky individual is burned to a crisp. But how can such things be possible? Actually, the answers are pretty simple. A seated person tends to be hotter at the top than at the bottom, and their lower extremities aren’t likely to catch on fire. As for the un-charred room, the flame is small and stays at a long, slow burn, so it usually doesn’t spread. Basically, your comic book collection would stand a better chance against SHC than your vital organs. Ain’t life grand?

So, are you an open-minded Mulder or a skeptical Scully on this one? And will you ever look at pistachio nuts the same way again? For more warm and toasty Top 10s and ouch-that’s-hot Top 5s, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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