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Spontaneous Human Combustion

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"You know, dozens of people spontaneously combust each year. It's just not really widely reported."
David St. Hubbins, This is Spın̈al Tap

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 can’t 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).

In Real Life, occurrences that look like this trope are usually explained by the "wick effect".

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.

See here for the film.

Naturally, as this is a Death Trope, be prepared for some spoilers.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • 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 fight for limited periods because of danger of overheating. 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 total 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 Hell Teacher Nube, a few documented cases of people just beginning to develop pyrokinesis end up consuming the person instead, because they have failed to develop the Required Secondary Powers to control their own flame. When Izuna suddenly starts to burst into flame at random times (reducing her clothes to ash, but leaving her otherwise unharmed) Nube worries that she could lose control and ignite herself. She manages to control these abilities at the last moment.
  • In 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.
  • In Fire Force, this has killed people for so many generations that those born in the Second generation and above gain the ability to control it instead of letting it kill them. Those in the First generation, however, experience this along with a Forced Transformation into a nigh-unstoppable fire beast. The deaths also seem to be extremely random, so it's impossible to tell who will combust next. The only people who you can be sure won't combust into a fire beast are those who already have 2nd or 3rd generation powers. The Fire Force's central goal is to discover the source of spontaneous human combustion and find a way to stop it from happening. The source of the combustion is found to be literally Hell, but still nobody knows how to stop it from happening in the future.
  • X/1999:
    • In the original 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.
  • This is how glycation (damage to red blood cells by being exposed to too much glucose, a symptom of diabetes) is depicted in Cells at Work! CODE BLACK. Once insulin production slows, the RBC's decide they can stand to eat more sugars, as it's just being thrown out otherwise. One swells up and explodes. Others are seen trying to work with their eyes boiled out of their heads and their skin covered in third-degree burns.

    Comic Books 
  • The Beauty: The first death in the comic is of someone combusting from inside their body. We later learn that this is what happens to anyone who has The Beauty, approximately 800 days after initial infection.
  • 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.
  • In All Superheroes Must Die, 90s causes people injected with it to explode in 90 seconds if they don't get the antidote in time.
  • In the final issue of Nth Man: The Ultimate Ninja , a character begins to combust soon after she arrives in the past. This is because she's being born at the same moment, and cannot exist in two places simultaneously.
  • In the Sam & Max comic book episode "Monkeys Violating the Heavenly Temple", the eponymous duo are saved from a volcano sacrifice when the high priest performing the ritual suddenly goes up in flames.
    Max: Spontaneous human combustion! What a stroke of luck!
    Sam: For those unfamiliar with the term, spontaneous human combustion is the unexplained phenomenon of extreme, increased body temperature.
    Max: Adapt your wardrobe accordingly — Preferably light cottons and knits!

    Comic Strips 
  • Discussed in one Calvin and Hobbes strip, which has Calvin ask his dad whether this ever happens. When he says no, Calvin bursts a blown-up paper bag around the corner, asking whether he was fooled.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Repo Man, a state trooper who unwisely looked in the trunk of the '64 Chevy Malibu gets reduced to a pair of Smoldering Shoes by the mystery device therein. Agent Rodgerz tries to brush it off as spontaneous combustion.
    Rodgerz: It happens sometimes, people just explode. Natural causes.
  • Multiple drummers in the title band in This is Spın̈al Tap die in this a fashion—one who is said to have gone up in "a flash of green light," leaving "a little green globule" on his drum seat, and two more who explode on the band's tour of Japan. In the DVD commentary, the band is happy Marty DiBergi caught it on film, for insurance money's sake.
  • 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.
  • Ambassador Standish in Sherlock Holmes (2009) 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 (it was genuinely raining at the time) and his gun was sabotaged to create the spark.
  • Spontaneous 2020 takes a High Concept Black Comedy approach, where the crisis affecting the students of a high school is random spontaneous combustion opposed to something more commonly reported on in reality, like a school shooting.
    "At least you can't say that things were worse in your time."

  • Krook in Charles DickensBleak 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. (He believed it to be due to people drinking excessive amounts of highly flammable alcohol.)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Conversational Troping in Johnny and the Bomb; it's mentioned that Johnny once read about the phenomenon and slept with a bucket of water by his bed for weeks.
  • In The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, the phenomenon is explained as the result of one over-exerting his/her aura.
  • In the Simon Ark short story "The Witch is Dead", Mother Fortune is found burned to death inside her locked trailer with nothing else touched. Spontaneous human combustion is suspected, but it is actually murder.
  • 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.
  • Written In Bone features a body for which this is considered. Then Dr Hunter explains how spontaneous combustion is not all that spontaneous.
  • Stephen King's Firestarter suggests that this is due to a form of Power Incontinence brought on to normal people in very occasional bursts of the same pyrokinetic abilities the novel's protagonist Charlene "Charlie" McGee obtains from her parents' involvement in an experiment with a psychoactive drug, and then ultimately learns to control.
  • Interesting variation with Fëanor from The Silmarillion whose corpse cremates itself after he gets killed apparently due to his sheer hot bloodedness — though it may also be related to the Curse of Mandos, which prevented him from being reincarnated in Arda. (Spontaneous Elven Combustion?) Note that this guy's name means "spirit of fire" in one of Tolkien's Constructed languages.
  • In the Warhammer 40,000 novel Eisenhorn: Xenos, the Chaos Space Marine Mandragore bursts into flame after being decapitated by Eisenhorn. It was more than likely a side-effect of the Neuroteuch, which he was holding at the time. Which also provided a convenient way for Eisenhorn to dispose of the heretical book.
  • The plot of the President's Vampire novella The Burning Men involves Cade and Zach chasing down a group of terrorists who've learned how to weaponise spontaneous human combustion to turn themselves into living bombs that can slip through any conventional security system.

    Live-Action TV 
  • This is suggested as an explanation several times in The X-Files, but it's subverted in each case. In "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 who offers it as an initial cause:
    Scully: Spontaneous human combustion.
    Mulder: [grinning] Scully!
    Scully: Well, isn't that where you were going with this?
    Mulder: "Dear Diary, today my heart leapt when Agent Scully suggested spontaneous human combustion."
    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.
  • 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.
  • Doctor Who: In "Deep Breath", this apparently happens to the T. rex that the Doctor accidentally brought to London at the beginning. Vastra discovers that London's been having a rash of cases of spontaneous combustion. Of course, it's not actually spontaneous: the villain has been killing people for their organs and burning the bodies to hide what was taken. The dinosaur was merely the most public victim.
  • Fringe:
    • 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.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
  • CSI 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.
  • In Garth Marenghis 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.
  • 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.
  • Mrs. Niggerbaiter in Monty Python's Flying Circus.
    Mrs. Shazam: 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?
  • Played for Laughs (of course) on The Muppet Show in a news segment:
    Reporter: Reports are coming in from all over that television news reporters are blowing up! These unlikely rumors have— Boom!
  • Mentioned in an episode of NCIS when a post-operation patient's body suddenly explodes. Turns out that the explosion was set up to destroy evidence of a botched surgery; the patient was already dead.
  • 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.
  • The Psi Factor episode "The Fire Within" focuses on a group of friends who are killed, one-by-one, by spontaneous combustion. The investigators discover that the victims are right-wing terrorists being killed by government nano-weapons.
  • Red Dwarf: In "Confidence and Paranoia", 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.
  • Rizzoli & Isles: Frankie is obsessed with spontaneous human combustion and keeps hoping that it will be the solution to one of the team's cases, despite Maura (and others) continually telling him there is no such thing. He thinks he has finally found it in "Dead Weight" when a cyclist seemingly explodes in the street, but there turns out to be another explanation: a bomb made from human fat.
  • SCTV had a "Farm Film Report" program where the two overall-clad rustic hosts rated reviewed movies on how much stuff "blowed up" — later they took to having celebrity guests for the sole purpose of watching them explode, which roused them to ecstatic cheers.
    "He blowed up good!"
    "Blowed up real good!"
  • 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.
  • Total Recall 2070: In the episode "Burning Desire", several people spontaneously burst into flames inside their private VR machines. This later turns out to be the result of a remote signal that causes some sort of chemical reaction inside the body that acts as the ignition. The guy responsible for this is eventually killed by his corporate masters in the same way to silence him.
  • Kolchak: The Night Stalker. In the episode "Firefall", an evil pyromaniac ghost kills several people by causing them to be instantly incinerated and reduced to ashes.
  • In the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition, it's mentioned that anti-drinking propaganda in some school textbooks included the claim that drinking could lead to this trope.
  • Barney Miller episode "Strip Joint" involved a nutjob arrested for bathing in a public fountain because he claims he's prone to this and could go up in flames at any moment. At least the detectives think he's a nutjob, but when a trash can in the squad room catches fire, Barney tells Levitt to get the man some ice.
  • Forever Knight. When a vampire friend of Nick Knight commits Suicide by Sunlight, a witness assumes this trope. It's not like Nick is going to tell them the truth, after all.

  • The a capella group The Bobs have a song about this, called "Spontaneous Human Combustion".
  • This is the subject of the Incubus song "Pardon Me".
  • They Might Be Giants:
    • The song "The Statue Got Me High" makes reference to spontaneous human combustion supernaturally induced by a mysterious statue.
      The statue made me fry
      The statue made me fry
      My coat contained a furnace
      Where there used to be a guy
    • 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
  • Die Ärzte's "Meine Ex(plodierte Freundin)" is about this, playing the supposed spontaneous explosion of the singer's latest girlfriend (after the first already suddenly burst into flames and two others suffered similarly implausible fates) entirely for comedy.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • Bioshock: This is one of the core powers you obtain. Who needs fireballs when you can instantly hit the "on_fire" button on anything in your line of sight with a snap of your fingers! It's as fast as your lightning spell and just as tactically usable!
  • In Guitar Hero II, the drummer is shown exploding and leaving behind a puff of smoke after performances of "Tonight I’m 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 their body 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.
  • Resident Evil – Code: Veronica's Alexia Ashford, who is an expy of Eve, gains pyrokinetic powers upon her viral mutation, though in her case, she's setting her own blood on fire.
  • 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.
  • This is the "Urban Legend" theme of Fujiwara no Mokou in Touhou Shinpiroku ~ Urban Legend in Limbo. Because Mokou exhibits Complete Immortality, Mokou uses this as a kind of Suicide Attack from which the character can resurrect. Amusingly, this kind of suicidal attack is pretty much her standard style (what with not having to worry about dying permanently), so she's not even aware she's using this Urban Legend, or that the Urban Legend Incident is a thing at all.
  • Players can do this to themselves in Team Fortress 2 by typing "explode" into the console.

  • 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 world of Girl Genius has a disease (probably engineered by some Mad Scientist), "Hogfarb's resplendent immolation", that causes this effect. The body is filled with an incendiary substance, and in the end the victim will "go up like a torch".
  • In El Goonish Shive, Aberrations do this upon death and are quickly reduced to ash.
  • In Men in Hats, Sam spontaneously bursts into flames after claiming that he's "just doing God's work"—twice in a row.
    Gamal: Why are you suddenly on fire?
    Sam: No reason.

    Web Original 
  • Ability No. X: In one episode, a man explodes in the club that Naru went to. Turns out that it's his special ability.
  • CollegeHumor:
    • The article "Things to Do Before Dying in a Freak Accident" ends with the main character of the piece suddenly blowing up.
    • 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.
  • The SCP Foundation describes SCP-081 as a virus that's said to be the cause of many instances of spontaneous human combustion throughout history.
    • SCP-5319 is a song that causes certain listeners to burst into flames if they hear it. Oddly, it only works on orangutans.
  • Caitlin Evans dies this way in Survival of the Fittest v2, abruptly exploding due to a chemical reaction in her digestive tract.

    Western Animation 
  • Camp Lazlo: In "Dosey Doe", Scoutmaster Lumpus is so overwhelmed by Jane Doe telling him that she was looking for him that he explodes.
  • In Celebrity Deathmatch, this is an established medical condition, referred to as "SHD" by Nick, who claims it's "been known to take out entire city blocks". In said episode, 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. (Later revealed to have been the result of stress from her contract negotiations.)
  • Played for Laughs in a Family Guy Cutaway Gag in the episode "A Fish Out of Water" when Stewie imagines how his family would look if they were more cultured. Cue the Griffin men sitting in the living room wearing formal clothes, drinking wine, talking with British accents... and Peter spontaneously bursting into flames.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Discussed in the episode "Feeling Pinkie Keen". When Pinkie Pie's Pinkie Sense predicts a "doozy" in Froggy Bottom Bog, where Fluttershy is working, Spike worries that it means something truly terrible and bizarre happened to Fluttershy, like exploding "for no reason".
    Pinkie Pie: What if she exploded, and then... and then exploded again?!
    Spike: Can you do that? Can you explode twice?!
  • In the South Park episode "Spontaneous Combustion", Kenny is shown dying via this; it’s later explained that Kenny was holding in all his farts because he had been spending a lot of time with his girlfriend Kelly. Other South Park citizens get killed the same way.
  • In one episode of The Simpsons, Mr. Burns claims one of his siblings died this way, although he was probably murdered.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Spontaneous Combustion


Peter spontaneously combusts

Peter has grown tired of living it seems

How well does it match the trope?

5 (8 votes)

Example of:

Main / DissonantSerenity

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