Created By: shimaspawn on October 2, 2010 Last Edited By: SeanMurrayI on December 14, 2010
Troped

Spontaneous Combustion

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Page Type:
Trope
Do We Have This?, Needs More Examples

Sometimes things just set themselves on fire. There's no warning. No explanation. They're just suddenly on fire. In real life, this is normally caused by a slow build up of heat that eventually sparks and causes a fire. In fiction this occurs because sometimes things just need to be on fire.

This does not include people who create fire constantly, use their powers to set themselves or others on fire on purpose, or have an aura of flames that shows up as part of a battle mode. Those are all triggered and are not by definition spontaneous. Most of the origins of this trope are crouched in Urban Legends about spontaneous human combustion. Though there are no documented cases of people combusting, there are cases of buildings doing so if the conditions are right.

Examples:

Comic Books
  • A Judge Dredd story centered around a person who compulsively always had to one-up anyone around him who got more attention than him. One such person who got more attention than him was someone who spontaneously burst into flames at a dinner party, "and everyone figured that was about the coolest thing ever." The jealous main character of the piece did eventually do one better and went out with a nuclear bang... but he had to expose himself to radiation and get struck by lightning to do it, after vain attempts to will himself to explode were complete faliures.

Film

Literature
  • Krook in Bleak House, possibly the fictional Ur-Example though it was known of as "really" happening at the time, which is why Dickens used it.
  • The Doctor Who Virgin New Adventures novel All-Consuming Fire features what appears to be a case of spontaneous human combustion, but ultimately turns out to have been murder-by-pyrokinesis.

LiveActionTV
  • One episode of Fringe explored this. People who were used in experiments involving Pyrokinesis would burst into flames and explode if they couldn't focus their attention on other things around them when their power builds up inside of them.
  • The X-Files suggested this as an explanation in the first-season episode "Fire", although there turns out to be an external cause. Also suggested as an explanation in "Soft Light" and "Trevor", both of which turn out to be something weirder.
  • In the Bones episode "The Foot in the Foreclosure" they find ashes of a pair of lovers; Booth suspects SHC but Brennan says it's just an Urban Legend.
  • An episode of Picket Fences wrote the depressed, alcoholic mayor out of the plot by having him spontaneously combust within his own house. He already figured his political career was over, apparently making him a literal burn-out was the final blow to the character.

Music
  • The a capella group The Bobs have a song about this, called "Spontaneous Human Comubstion".

Western Animation
  • In one episode of South Park Kenny died via Spontaneous Combustion.
Community Feedback Replies: 30
  • September 29, 2010
    PaulA
    It's a bit hard to come up with examples when the description is so vague.
  • September 29, 2010
    randomsurfer
    There's a Subway commercial where the voiceover guy talks about a desert so hot the rattlesnakes spontaneously combust, in an ad for Jalepeno...something.
  • September 30, 2010
    Arivne
  • September 30, 2010
    Unknown Troper
    Happened to some of the drummers on Spinal Tap
  • September 30, 2010
    randomsurfer
    Krook in Bleak House, possibly the fictional Ur Example though it was known of as "really" happening at the time, which is why Dickens used it.
  • September 30, 2010
    SeanMurrayI
    ^^^Human spontaneous combustion is completely impossible and a total myth. There is not a single, definitive case on record to prove something like this could happen without an external ignition source. Even the Wikipedia article you want to claim proves this is Truth In Television points this out.

  • September 30, 2010
    SeanMurrayI
    One episode of Fringe explored this. People who were used in experiments involving Pyrokinesis would burst into flames and explode if they couldn't focus their attention on other things around them when their power builds up inside of them.

    A Judge Dredd story centered around a person who compulsively always had to one-up anyone around him who got more attention than him. One such person who got more attention than him was someone who spontaneously burst into flames at a dinner party, "and everyone figured that was about the coolest thing ever." The jealous main character of the piece did eventually do one better and went out with a nuclear bang... but he had to expose himself to radiation and get struck by lightning to do it, after vain attempts to will himself to explode were complete faliures.
  • September 30, 2010
    rjung
    The computer game Crush, Crumble, and Chomp! lets players play/create a monster that leaves a spontaneous flame trail in its wake.
  • September 30, 2010
    johnnye
    "Human spontaneous combustion is completely impossible and a total myth." Better not have a trope on it then. Can't go including pages about things that aren't real...
  • September 30, 2010
    SeanMurrayI
    ^I don't think you fully understand what I was saying. That or you weren't paying attention to the fact that I was responding to someone calling this Truth In Television when it's not.
  • September 30, 2010
    shimaspawn
    The computer game example isn't spontaneous. It's a product of the monster.
  • September 30, 2010
    NoirTheExecutioner
    Depending on the boundaries of "spontaneous" combustion, Shana's powers from Shakugan No Shana may count, as when she goes into "fight mode", flames will randomly engulf her.
  • September 30, 2010
    shimaspawn
    Spontaneous adj. arising from internal forces or causes; independent of external agencies; self-acting.

    Going into fight mode is an external agency.
  • October 1, 2010
    Excelion
    This is the way Priors in Stargate SG 1 die, if they go against orders. It's appears to be automatically triggered. However, they don't actually burn to death, but rather just vanish into thin air.
  • October 1, 2010
    Vree
    I wouldn't be so fast to label the IRL version a "total myth" - it's in the realm of cryptids and other unexplained phenomena. We do not neccessarily dismiss unexplainable events that have been thoroughly documented, as it has happened in this case, just treat as possibly unknown for the moment. People used to think that ball lightning was a myth, too.
  • October 1, 2010
    Vree
    Wikipedia used to call these "anomalous phenomena" (currently merged into Fortean phenomena, after an avid collector of these, though that term Forteana is more correctly used for those that Fort has personally collected, and the list is greater than that), and most of them have clearly been documented by reliable witnesses, if not yet scientifically explained. They may turn out to be myths or hoaxes or an early observation of something later scientifically confirmed. The fact that urban myths and pseudoscience likes to pick up these up create a mythology around them is a sad fact, but has nothing to do with the credibility of the core observation. For example, UFO believers are likely nuts, but UFO sightings (as in "unidentified flying object", not "flying saucer") exist regardless.
  • October 1, 2010
    SeanMurrayI
    ^^But they're NOT thoroughly documented. At least, not thoroughly documented enough to prove it ever happened. Pulling this straight from the introductory paragraph on the Wikipedia article that everyone else wants to claim is a source of fact for some reason:

    "While there have been about 200 cited cases worldwide over a period of around 300 years, most of the alleged cases are characterized by the lack of a thorough investigation, or rely heavily on hearsay and oral testimony. In many of the more recent cases, where photographic evidence is available, it is alleged that there was an external source of heat present (often cigarettes), and nothing occurred 'spontaneously.'"

    There doesn't appear to be any substantial evidence apart from hearsay and oral testimony; those don't exactly carry much weight when you want to seriously study something like this.
  • October 1, 2010
    randomsurfer
    In one episode of South Park Kenny died via Spontaneous Combustion; but it was explained that it happened because he had a new girlfriend and was holding in his farts. Since it was explained, does it count?
  • October 1, 2010
    Vree
    ^^Well, maybe "Truth In Television" shouldn' have been the phrase used above, but they'll get categorized as "Real Life" anyway. I'm sure it can be pointed out there if it seems misleading.
  • October 1, 2010
    Taeraresh
    The a capella group The Bobs have a song about this, called "Spontaneous Human Comubstion".
  • October 1, 2010
    shimaspawn
    So, the Stargate example is neither spontaneous nor combustions. How is it an example then? As for Kenny, he probably counts at least once. If not that time then another.
  • October 1, 2010
    SeanMurrayI
    ^^^I say just explain in the description that the trope is based on an Urban Legend and leave it at that.
  • October 1, 2010
    Lavalyte
    Real Life : haystacks can do this if the circumstances are right.
  • October 2, 2010
    randomsurfer
    If The X Files didn't have an episode about this I'll eat my hat.
  • October 2, 2010
    PaulA
    ^ First-season episode "Fire", although there turns out to be an external cause. Also suggested as an explanation in "Soft Light" and "Trevor", both of which turn out to be something weirder.
  • October 2, 2010
    PaulA
    The Doctor Who Virgin New Adventures novel All-Consuming Fire features what appears to be a case of spontaneous human combustion, but ultimately turns out to have been murder-by-pyrokinesis.
  • October 2, 2010
    randomsurfer
    @Paul A: thanks. I like my hat, but not that much.

    In the Bones episode "The Foot in the Foreclosure" they find ashes of a pair of lovers; Booth suspects SHC but Brennan says it's just an Urban Legend.
  • October 2, 2010
    Umptyscope
    The Max Headroom pilot had this.
  • October 2, 2010
    SeanMurrayI
    ^Wasn't the pilot about subliminal TV advertisements that made viewers' heads explode?
  • October 3, 2010
    Speedball
    An episode of Picket Fences wrote the depressed, alcoholic mayor out of the plot by having him spontaneously combust within his own house. He already figured his political career was over, apparently making him a literal burn-out was the final blow to the character.
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