There have been 214 documented reports of spontaneous human combustion in the last three hundred years of human history. Charles Brockden Brown, Charles Dickens, Nicolai Gogol, and Jules Verne all wrote about it in their novels and it has appeared as the subject of or used as a plot twist in film. And though there is little or no scientific evidence to suggest a cause for this phenomenon, it does happen - apparently at a rate of less than one documented case per year for the last three centuries. The lack of science in these cases has led to all manner of theories designed to explain the sudden conversion of human tissue into ash. Sifting through the evidence of the reported cases, it was found, that there were many attributes common to all. Firstly, the body, almost always is burned completely away. A significant number of cases reported that only the extremities remained behind. In all cases there was no form of outside combustion or ignition present. In many cases, the victims, were aged or obese which leads many to assume that they had somehow caught fire and were unable to flee from it. But these theorists stop there. They still can not explain the fire. No matches, cigarettes, flammable fuels or materials are burned in the process. Bed sheets, chairs, floors, the ground are relatively untouched by the flame.
Gogol wrote that it was the final extuingishing of the soul. Brockden Brown offered no theory at all, rather, he suggested in Wieland that it was spiritual - of course he was writing in the age of Spiritism movement. Could Brown have postulated, though, that his main character had an obsession, or a passion, for the music he played and taught? Could it have been his recent conversion to Christianity and the "flame" that so often accompanies the change?
In This Is Spinal Tap, the phenomenon was written off by the band as just another thing that suddenly happens to the drummers of mega-successful hard rock bands. In the film, the band's drummer spontaneously combusts, in dramatic fashion, in the middle of a concert. Could these events be linked to something else these fictional characters possessed?
The spritists believe that there is something inside us all, the human spirit or some such that becomes inflamed and burns out in one last fell swoop - this is Gogol's premise in Dead Souls. He presents a picture of the soul being extinguished but he gives no reason for the flames. This is odd, in that, would not a quiet death more accurately portray a tired, weak, and expiring life force being gently put out? Or perhaps Gogol had something else in mind. Something like the last flare of a candle being blown out by the wind.
Dickens leads one to believe, in Bleak House, that high levels of alcohol in the bloodstream may contribute, and Dickens was into Spiritism. Dickens' character, Mr. Krook, is described, quite graphically, combusting while sitting on the floor in his shop, amidst the numerous volumes of his books and ledgers; his prized possessions. Mr. Krook obsessed over these items. He was also quite a heavy drinker. But perhaps Dickens was not pointing to alcohol as a cause. Perhaps it was something else?
Not surprisingly, the world went about its business, buying and selling, cheating and lying, collecting its stuff, and struggling against all odds to preserve its comfort. And while, literally, the human race began to burn up around them, they ignored it in their vast and wide awake deep dreaming sleep.