When Humans Become Candles

**Warning for graphic images**

As a child I read about a “true” case of Spontaneous Human Combustion in one of those World Weekly News type prints that I had snagged from my parents. The article explained the bizarre condition in a manner which my young brain deemed reasonably scientific. It also posited some possible causes of SHC, including that it may be triggered by intense emotional outbursts or unrest, as many of the victims had been crotchety old people and drunks. Due to the fear the article triggered in me, that idea struck me with a terror that I had never known before. I became convinced that I would soon burst into flames. The more I feared my fate, the more likely it seemed to become, until soon I was sitting on my laundry room floor sobbing into a tabloid and my mother had to console and assure me that I was not in fact going to spontaneously combust.

But was that a promise she could really make? Am I REALLY safe from spontaneous human combustion? Are any of us?

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is the unexplained phenomenon of a human body bursting into flames without an apparent ignition source. According to proponents, there have been over 200 cases of SHC, dating back to (completely fabricated) reports of a 1400’s knight.

SHC has been widely considered an explainable phenomenon in the scientific community, and cases have been theorized to have been caused by such mundane occurrences as clandestine cigarette drops and clumsy fireplace keeping. It helps that a multitude of cases happened to women tending fires long ago and more modernly, elderly smokers.

Many ‘cases’ are of people literally found half inside a fireplace.


(Note, I couldn’t even find a reliable source for this image so Im not even sure if its real.)

While proponents will quickly quip that another peculiarity of victims is that few things in the room around them are affected by the combustion, it becomes clear when reading up on cases and looking at more photos that this also isn’t true. The fire often scorches the walls and nearby furniture, and though it is unusual it doesn’t spread further, it is not scientifically impossible.

Skeptics claim SHC is caused by the something called the Wick Effect.

“The wick effect hypothesis suggests that a small external flame source, such as a burning cigarette, chars the clothing of the victim at a location, splitting the skin and releasing subcutaneous fat, which is in turn absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick. This combustion can continue for as long as the fuel is available. This hypothesis has been successfully tested with animal tissue (pig) and is consistent with evidence recovered from cases of human combustion. The human body typically has enough stored energy in fat and other chemical stores to fully combust the body; even lean people have several pounds of fat in their tissues. This fat, once heated by the burning clothing, wicks into the clothing much as candle wax (which typically was originally made of animal fat) wicks into a lit candle wick to provide the fuel needed to keep the wick burning.


In short, it is possible, under rare circumstances, for a person to become a very macabre human candle.

Mary Reeser

Mary Reeser is known as the “Cinder Woman”. She was the first new age case of SHC which “reignited” public interest in the phenomenon. She went up in flames in Florida, 1951. All that remained of her was her left foot, still slippered, her backbone, and her skull which had inexplicably shrunk to nearly half its original size leaving scientists and doctors baffled. She was not the only one to be found this way either (see George Mott later in the post!). Reeser was an elderly woman and a known smoker, and her death could have feasibly been due to a heart attack or something akin, killing her and resulting in a dropped cigarette. The ignited cigarette would then cause the wick effect. The strange state of her remains however, particularly her skull, still defy explanation.



51 year old Helen Conway, of Upper Darby Pennsylvania, died sitting in a chair in her bedroom in 1964. Her grandchildren sat downstairs unaware. Like most SHC cases, the fire was already out when firemen arrived, but had been hot enough to melt a TV across the room. Helen is the focus of a documentary purported to “dis-prove” the existence of SHC. The documentary (understandably) blames careless smoking and dropped matches. However, it fails to explain the fact that Ms. Conway burst into flames and collapsed into ash in less than 20 minutes, given the last time she was seen alive. The wick effect takes a slow burn over a long time, and though it can account for many instances of SHC, this one is still a mystery.


Dr. John Bentley seemed to have combusted quite suddenly while in his Coudersport, Pennsylvania bathroom in 1966. He was 92, and though a known smoker, his pipe was still on his bed nightstand. His body burned through his linoleum floor, leaving a pile of his ashes in the basement below. The only suggestion put forth to his cause of death was that the man had dropped cinders on his robe and had gone to the bathroom to douse them, where he slipped and fell. Once incapacitated, the wick effect did the rest. It is a lot of speculation, but like with many SHC cases it is all we have.


1979 was the year that 51 year old Beatrice Oczki of Bolingbrook, Illinois, was found reduced to a pile of ash in her home. Like many cases, Beatrice was overweight, a drinker and smoker, and infirm (she wore a leg brace and had diabetes). Beatrice and the chair she had sat in were a nearly unrecognizable pile of charred remains when discovered, with only her legs remaining intact. It should be noted that to cremate bone to ash takes many hours in temperatures exceeding 2500 degrees F, while a typical house fire tends to linger around the 1000 degree mark.


In 1982 61 year old Jean Saffin sat with her elderly father in their kitchen in Edmonton England. Her father had looked away for a moment, and looked back to find Jean engulfed in flames, but sitting unmoving in her chair. Jean, who was mentally handicapped and had the capacity of a 6 year old, later died from her severe injuries. According to her father and brother, flames shot out of her mouth accompanied by a “roaring” sound. Theories abound as to what caused the woman to be consumed by flames so abruptly, and to this day the only real “explanation” posited is a stray ember caught her flammable nylon dress. However, her father was adamant that besides the distant pilot light of the stove, the kitchen was free of flames. His own pipe had not yet been lit.


58 year old George Mott, ironically a retired firefighter, was found disintegrated into his bed in 1986. Mott’s skull was also recovered, mysteriously shrunken. A multitude of plastic items around Mott’s house had melted, the water had evaporated from the toilet, and hotdogs in the fridge had been boiled in their wrappers. The fire was intense enough to cause this damage, but somehow did not catch the house. George had been a smoker, but had supposedly quit and was on oxygen and various medications. The true cause of his death was never actually determined. George was from Crown Point New York.

In my opinion many, but not all, cases can be attributed to the Wick Effect. The wick effect explanation is satisfying to me not only because of its plausibility, but because it is still really freaking creepy. Though not “spontaneous” it is more or less “Human Combustion” regardless, just the explainable kind.

However, the fact is that not all cases can be attributed solely to this, and even the harshest skeptics such as Joe Nickell admit this. The truth is still unknown, but its possible there are multiple rare contributing factors that can cause these mysterious deaths.

I highly recommend browsing this sites pages on SHC, as they seem to be well documented and sourced.

Anomalies: Spontaneous Human Combustion

This is a good, free on youtube documentary that covers the phenomenon as well.

>>>Special thanks to Val for inspiring this post :3


The Night At Dyatlov Pass

**Warning for Graphic Pictures**


In February of 1959 nine students of a hiking club in Soviet Russia ventured into the Ural Mountains in the northern part of Sverdlovsk. They were out to get an honorable certification from their school for the trip, but it was an honor none of them would receive. The group never returned home, and after a massive search, the bodies of the nine hikers were discovered scattered within a mile around their camp. But why? What had caused the deaths of nine experienced and cautious hikers? And why had they been found lacking clothing? With massive traumas to their bodies? Why was one woman found missing her tongue?

This was the beginning of a mystery that still confounds today, the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass.

The student hikers of Ural Polytech Institute were keeping a detailed record of their adventure for their school, journaling their travels and taking many photographs along their way. But the final logs in their journal ended the morning of February 1st.


When the nine students made camp at the base of Holatchahl Mountain (aptly meaning “Dead Mountain”) on their way to Ortorten Mountain, the pass they were in had no name. It was later named Dyatlov Pass, in honor of the ill fated leader of the hiking group, Igor Dyatlov.

Igor and the rest of his group were well regarded and respected, known to be skilled and responsible hikers. But on the evening of February 1st something happened to the group that caused them to flee from their camp into the night and certain death, improperly dressed, and in temperatures around -15 degrees.

Upon discovery of their tent it was revealed that it had been slashed by a knife from the inside, meaning the hikers had left in terror from inside.


The first two bodies were found beneath a tree, with the remnants of a fire beside them. Their bodies were singed, suggesting they had perished of hypothermia with the fire still going beside them. Their clothing had been cut and stripped off of them, and was found wrapped around several of the other bodies recovered later, suggesting that the other members had scavenged clothing off of those who had died first and essentially negating the suggestion of paradoxical undressing being the cause of the poorly dressed students.


Dyatlov and two others were found dead on the slope, heartbreakingly close to camp. They were facing it, implying they had been desperately trying to return to it when they fell due to hypothermia. While the first two men had died beside each other, the next three lay in the snow alone.


The final four bodies were not found for many months due to deep snow and bad weather. They were finally found at the bottom of a ravine, under many feet of snow, laying in a slushy creek. Due to this, their bodies were far more decomposed than the others. It was this decomposition that likely actually caused Lyudmila Dubinina’s tongue to rot, and not a supernatural force or violent murder.


Likewise, when initial reports concluded that three of the final four had died of trauma, speculation ran wild. However the broken ribs and cracked skulls were far more likely caused by the hikers falling into the ravine and landing on the rocks below. The four were found wrapped in the scavenged clothes in a last ditch futile attempt at survival, and two were even found frozen in a deaths embrace.

But while details of the state of the bodies were conflated into full blown conspiracy theory, the true mystery of the deaths went largely forgotten. The question was not “how did the hikers die” which was answered simply enough with hypothermia and fall trauma, but instead “what had made them flee?”.


Many theories were put forth, but none were satisfactory. Investigators tried to suggest that an avalanche had swept the students away, but the tent was found mostly intact, there were visible footprints in the snow leading from the camp, and there were no signs of an avalanche. Furthermore an avalanche has never been recorded in the area.

The next suggestion was a violent gale had swept one or more of the hikers away, and the others had gone to assist. Once they left the tent, it would be nearly impossible to find it again in the pitch black night. However, one of the hikers was found with a hat still on his head, the tent post was still upright, and winds that night were recorded at 40 mph, strong, but not as severe as a hurricane.

After another hiking group reported seeing “fireballs” in the February sky, new theories emerged such as a government coverup of nuclear testing and extraterrestrial murder. However though this theory still stubbornly persists, the fireballs reported were seen on February 17th, long after the hikers were dead. And though trace amounts of radiation were found on the hikers, it was not enough to suggest anything unusual.

Perhaps it was the discovery of a mock newspaper crafted by the jokester students which spoke of sightings of the “snowmen”, mixed with the trauma to the bodies, that gave rise to the theory that a yeti had attacked the group. However no injuries found were inconsistent with a nasty fall, and no tracks besides the hikers were found.

As of yet the most compelling theory comes from Donnie Eichar in his book “Dead Mountain”. He did research on infrasounds, sounds below the threshold of human hearing, but capable of effecting the human body. Eichar and several scientists he partnered with suggester that it is possible (if not very rare) that wind struck the dome of Holachtahl Mountain in just the right way to create a “Karman Vortex” effect. This would create two miniature tornados, known for causing infrasound in their roars. Had the hikers heard the roaring tornados nearby and been struck by the panic inducing effects of infrasound? Because no one survived that dark night on a frozen mountain, we may never know.

To this day the true cause of the groups demise is unknown. It was simply labelled by investigators as “an unknown, compelling force”.


For an in depth look at autopsies and more photos check out http://dyatlovincident.com/the-bodies/

And I highly recommend reading “Dead Mountain” by Donnie Eichar.