A fire or explosion occurs from within a person's body without a direct external cause for ignition. There's often no warning and not much in the way of an explanation.
A classic Urban Legend, hundreds of allegedly true accounts of this phenomenon have been reported for over centuries, the oldest known stories dating from as far back as the the mid 1600's, and thanks to the aura of mystery and strangeness surrounding these incidents, Spontaneous Human Combustion is an anomaly that some canít help but try and find a valid explanation for.
As such, works of fiction tend to explore this subject in a few ways. Comedic works, more often than not, tend to let such occurrences happen without a clear explanation of how it happened being given. On the other hand, more serious stories—especially Speculative Fiction works or strange tales about the paranormal—may try to provide some kind of explanation and may even reveal an external cause (likely one that is pseudoscientific and even more bizarre than Spontaneous Human Combustion already is on its own—possibly involving anything from aliens or ghosts causing it, an uncontrolled Pyrokinetic ability, or something even weirder).
See Also: Made of Explodium, Man on Fire.
Not to be confused with Wreathed in Flames.
Not actually the Inverse of the trope External Combustion.
Naturally, as this is a Death Trope, be prepared for some spoilers.
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Anime and Manga
In the original X/1999 manga, Kamui's mom Tohru spontaneously combusted in the Back Story. The reason for this, however, was made pretty clear: She made herself a shadow sacrifice of the entire planet Earth and, by burning to death, delayed its destruction by Global Warming. It Makes Sense in Context.
In The Movie, Tohru is seen bursting in flames in Kamui's dream at the beginning. We don't know if she truly died like that, however.
Rurouni Kenshin villain Makoto Shishio meets his end this way. The story indicates that after being badly burned, he lost all of his sweat glands and can only stay in the sun for limited periods. The guy also has a Flaming Sword supposedly powered by the fat of people he's killed, which probably contributed to his end. While that detail is also totally pseudoscience, if you go with the assumption that spontaneous human combustion is possible, it's not that hard to believe it would happen to a guy wrapped in bandages covered in oil.
In Mawaru-Penguindrum, this is what happens to Momoka after she changes Yuri's fate so Yuri can escape from her abusive father. In a subversion she actually survives the incident, though she's left with serious wounds and has to be hospitalized.
In Battle Angel Alita: Last Order it has become the leading cause of death. Much like cancer and heart disease in modern times, it's said to be something anybody can die from. It's explained that before medical technology became more advanced, most people just died of other things first.
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 failures.
In the Strikeforce: Morituri "Electric Undertow" limited series, this happens to random people due to psychic harvesting by the alien VXX199.
Ambassador Standish in Sherlock Holmes bursts into flames when he attempts to shoot Lord Blackwood. This is intended to be taken as a magical occurrence, displaying the dark powers Blackwood has protecting him from those who oppose him, but in the end a clear, external cause is revealed by Holmes that has nothing at all to do with magic. Standish was rained with oil without knowing.
Shown in the horror film Spontaneous Combustion, naturally. A couple who were involved in an atomic weapons test spontaneously bust into flames shortly after the birth of their son. When their son grows up, he discovers a pyrokinetic ability and begins setting people on fire when he gets angry.
In Bowfinger, spontaneous combustion is mentioned by Kit to be one of his biggest fears, along with aliens and a giant foot trying to squash him.
Invoked in Con Air; after Pinball intentionally sets fire to a fellow prisoner to create a distraction for the other more dangerous prisoners about to attempt to hijack the plane, in the middle of all the confusion Pinball humorously exclaims that this was an act of spontaneous combustion.
Krook in Charles Dickensí Bleak House dies like this and is possibly the Ur Example of this trope appearing in fiction, though "true stories" were already said to have existed at the time, and Dickens was known to have strongly believed that this was possible.
In Crime and Punishment, while Raskolnikov is reading the newspapers trying to find an article on the pawnbroker's murder, he relays the headlines of several terrible news stories, one of which involves the spontaneous combustion of a shopkeeper from alcohol. Nothing more is said on the matter.
The Doctor Who 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.
Tim Powers' novel Expiration Date reveals that ghosts sometimes burst into flames if they are suddenly alarmed. From this, it's suggested that human combustion happens when a person dies, but their ghost doesn't immediately notice and keeps walking around in their body for a while before suffering some kind of shock (such as, often, the shocking realization that they've been dead for a while and hadn't noticed).
The novel Fire Pattern by Bob Shaw is all about this: it turns out that combustion is the result of failed attempts by a dying alien species to implant their minds into humans.
Some "Drummers" in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age end up like this due to the heat generated by extensive computation done by nanosites in their bloodstreams. A major character almost suffers from this fate near the end of the book only to be saved in the last minute.
Reports of people bursting into flames circulate in a couple of the Garrett, P.I. novels, as a rumor going around the city. Garrett finally looks into the matter in Whispering Nickel Idols, and learns that Chodo Contague triggered some of them with the help of some pyrogenic rocks planted by his lawyer. Saucerhead also tracks down some cases that turn out to be ordinary accidental fires, under circumstances very similar to the Real Life mishaps that inspired the Spontaneous Human Combustion Urban Legend.
Written In Bone features a body for which this is considered. Then Dr Hunter explains how spontaneous combustion is not all that spontaneous.
Mark Twain, in one of his books, discusses the fate of someone he knew:
Jimmy Finn did not die in the caboose, but instead died a natural death in a tanning vat from a combination of delirium tremens and spontaneous combustion. When I say a natural death, I mean it was a natural death for Jimmy Finn to die.
A Season One episode 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.
Later, in Season Four, a fringe incident is initially believed to involve several people spontaneously combusting after their bodies exerted too much energy (with others in the affected area needing to stand perfectly still to avoid meeting the same fate), but it is revealed to have been spurned by nanotechnology entering the affected persons' bloodstream.
The X-Files suggested this as an explanation several times but it was subverted in each case. In the first-season episode "Fire", 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. The "Trevor" reference to this trope is funny, since it is Scully that offers it as an initial cause:
Scully: Spontaneous human combustion.
Mulder: [grinning] Scully!
Scully: Well, isn't that where you were going with this?
Scully: Mulder, there are one or two somewhat well-documented cases.
[Mulder nods, grinning]
Scully: Mulder, shut up.
In the Bones episode "The Foot in the Foreclosure" they find ashes of a pair of loafers; 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 burnout was the final blow to the character.
One episode of Dead Like Me sees an untalented stand-up comedian, literally, die on stage by inexplicably exploding after one of his bad jokes.
In Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, Rick Dagless's old college buddy spontaneously explodes (though his head survives long enough to ask Rick to finish him off); in the commentary, Dean Learner mentions that while filming the scene it was clear to everyone that "someone close to Garth had exploded" in real life.
"It's funny, isn't it, how... how your best friend can just... blow up like that. I mean, you wouldn't think it was medically possible, would you?"
In one of the first episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Giles initially attributes this as the cause for a cheerleader bursting into flames; it's later revealed to have been caused by a witch's spell.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had an episode with a subplot dedicated to SHC. After finding a charred corpse with all the hallmarks of Real Life SHC cases, the characters conducted an experiment: They wrapped a pig's corpse in the woman's clothing, put the corpse on an identical lounger to the victim, doused the pig with liquor, and lit it up, thereby replicating the scene that they found. Grissom, who already knew about the Wick Effect, congratulated the experimenters on a successful experiment, and then told them that this was coming out of their paycheck since it was unnecessary.
On The Sean Cullen Show, an episode revolved around a talisman which granted Sean's every wish in exchange for famous figure skaters spontaneously combusting.
Reporter: "Reports are coming in from all over that television news reporters are blowing up! These unlikely rumors have—" Boom!
Red Dwarf: Lister catches a mutated form of pneumonia and begins to hallucinate. His dreams turn into matter. It rains fish in his bunk, and the Mayor of Warsaw appears and then spontaneously combusts in front of Rimmer.
In the Haven episode "Survivors", a man unknowingly had the ability to recreate events he feels guilty about. He was guilty about his friend dying in a fire, so people around him would burn up.
The a capella group The Bobs have a song about this, called "Spontaneous Human Combustion.Ē
This is the subject of the Incubus song "Pardon Me."
They Might Be Giants' song "The Statue Got Me High" makes reference to spontaneous human combustion supernaturally induced by a humanoid statue.
They do it again in "You're On Fire".
Oh damn, you musta got one of them
Combustible heads, I read an article all about them
In Guitar Hero II, the drummer is shown exploding and leaving behind a puff of smoke after performances of "Tonight Iím Gonna Rock You Tonight" as a Shout-Out to the band that wrote the song, Spinal Tap.
This is a pretty common occurrence in Parasite Eve. Eve does this by making the mitochondria of a victim generate an energy over-charge, which causes the body of a victim to burst into flames. Using this, she massacres the cast, staff and most of the audience of an opera, the staff at the Central Park Zoo, the skeleton crew at a hospital, numerous NYPD officers and Aya's partner. Twice. She even manages to use it as a means to start a carriage, by setting the horses on fire. In fact, one of the central plot elements is the fact that Aya's own mutated mitochondria prevent her from going up like a Roman candle whenever she gets within a thousand feet of Eve, which makes her the only one able to defeat her.
In the original The Sims, it was possible for sims to catch fire spontaneously. Also in earlier versions, the flames would be invisible causing them to thrash around for no apparent reason, then turn into an ash pile. In the Seasons expansions for the later two games, sims can also spontaneously combust in hot weather; in the second game, they could be swimming, in which case they'd get out of the water, take a few steps, then catch on fire.
Unexpectedly and unceremoniously happens to Tory near the beginning of Not Included, leaving behind a pair of Smoldering Shoes and a message from the narrator, "And then Tory burst into flames and died."
The brief 3-frame animation graphic that plays before any of the site's animated shorts depicts a man handing a lighted stick of dynamite to a friend, covering his ears, and spontaneously combusting.
Caitlin Evans dies this way in Survival of the Fittest v2, abruptly exploding due to a chemical reaction in her digestive tract.
In one episode of South Park Kenny is shown dying via Spontaneous Combustion; itís later explained that Kenny had a new girlfriend and was holding in all his farts. Other South Park citizens get killed the same way.
In Celebrity Deathmatch, it appears that referee Mills Lane is about to suffer from this, but it turns out it's just gas. Later, interviewer Stacy Cornbred starts showing signs of it, and Nick Diamond and Johnny Gomez think it's just gas... until she suddenly explodes.