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'Spontaneous' Combustion: Can Bodies Burn From the Inside Out?

It might be urban legend, sheer magic or divine wrath, but even detectives and coroners are willing to take the idea seriously.

Can bodies burn from the inside out? When human beings are discovered burned to a crisp alone in their otherwise unscathed homes amidst no evidence of mayhem -- no telltale blowtorches, cigarettes or Butane -- rumors swirl: of mysteries and miracles in which bodies inexplicably burst into flames. It might be an urban legend, sheer magic or divine wrath (hey, it happens in Leviticus), but it is one of the most hotly debated (and  hot) causes of death.

The official name of this phenomenon -- at least, among those who believe it is a phenomenon -- is spontaneous human combustion. Super-supernaturalists -- Syfy viewers, say, and exorcists -- call it SHC for short. Theories abound. Is the perspiration of heavy smokers and drinkers some kind of natural lighter fluid? Can creosote collect in their lungs, igniting in the mere proximity of extreme heat? According to scientific studies and the kind of people who thought The Blair Witch Project was real, possible culprits include high alcohol blood content, ball lightning, gamma rays, the metabolic molecule acetyl-CoA (aka acetone) and God.

"Autopsy results are pending, but experts say it could be a case of spontaneous human combustion,"   TV station KSLA reported last week after 65-year-old Danny Vanzandt was found incinerated on the kitchen floor of his otherwise undamaged Oklahoma home where the alcoholic chainsmoker lived alone.

Other news agencies chimed in: "Sheriff Rules Out Homicide, But Not Spontaneous Combustion," blared Arkansas TV channel KFSM. "Police are investigating whether an Oklahoma man died from spontaneously bursting into flames," echoed Virginia TV channel WTVR. "Possible spontaneous human combustion victim is identified," announced the Tulsa World. "Danny Vanzandt May Have Died from Spontaneous Human Combustion," declared the Huffington Post.

Such stories surface periodically. Full disclosure: I want to believe them. I want to believe that the spirits of the dead are watching us, and that crows sometimes try to talk to me. I want certain things to defy explanation. Science usually comes along and says "tough nails" to that.

In December 2010, 76-year-old diabetic Michael Faherty was found burned to death in his Galway, Ireland home. Although the charred corpse lay alongside a fireplace, its head near an open fire, a coroner officially ruled Faherty's death a case of SHC: Score one for the super-supernaturalists.

The idea of SHC triggers some of our trip-wiriest fears: dying painfully. Dying alone. Dying. The body as its own worst enemy, slaying itself not with the premeditated surrender of suicide but sneaking up unnoticed on itself when no can hear you scream and flash! Surprise. The body as volcano, light show, torch, burning itself out. Saving your loved ones the cost of cremation.

"Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord," reads Leviticus 10:1-2. "And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord ... and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed them," Numbers 11:1 helpfully explains.

John DeHaan doesn't buy the damnation bit. The veteran fire researcher, who has taught forensic science at UC Davis, authored fire-investigation textbooks and spent 40-plus years aiding fire-related criminal investigations, says that the way human bodies are built -- with flammable fat sandwiched between very moist, thus flame-resistant, muscle and skin -- pretty much prevents their burning from the inside out.

Human bodies do not burn easily even from the outside, even when doused with gasoline, as many murderers have realized to their chagrin.

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