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Victims Of The Paranormal

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and the other begins?
Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial

Victims of the paranormal in a just world would recieve their just desserts. But that isn't always the case. Sure some supernatural experiences are victimless, scientists don’t have any theories about why they occur. One of the most common and widespread unexplained phenomena in the United States, while victimless, is the appearance of ghost or spook lights.

These mysterious illuminations are most often seen along railroad tracks, and consequently, many have given rise to tales of apparitions of dead lantern-waving railway workers. Other spook lights are seen dancing around farm fields or hovering on a distant horizon. Many think these beguiling orbs are more extraterrestrial than spectral in nature. Unlike most ghost sightings, ghost light stories actually offer a site where you can go to witness the phenomenon for yourself! For years these mysterious lights have drawn generations of curiosity-seekers like beacons. They flocked to reported spook light hot spots around the country, hoping to catch a glimpse. There will probably never be a satisfactory answer to the question of whether such lights are of a scientific or metaphysical nature.

The supernatural frogs falling from the sky, mysterious airships, spontaneous human combustion... it all fascinated Charles Fort, whose appetite for the paranormal lives on today in sci-fi, conspiracy theories and that quirky chronicle of the unknown, the Fortean Times. Charles Fort is sometimes referred to as "the father of strange phenomena." This complex and odd fellow would scour newspapers and magazines looking for stories of extraordinary events, often spending hours at the Public Library in New York City collecting notes about weird observations. He and his wife, Anna, traveled to seek out strange stories, and he published several articles and books on his findings.

In New York in 1929 he met up with Tiffany Thayer, a young novelist with whom he'd been corresponding. Fort's massive collection of shoeboxes filled with scribbled notes and newspaper clippings inspired Thayer to form the Fortean Society, dedicated to chronicling Fort's work and research.

Today, more than seventy years after Fort's death, numerous societies and publications are dedicated to Forteana, the contemporary term for anything that is classified as unexplained. These groups attract scientists and scholars, deranged crackpots, and the occasional visitor from Mars. But keep an open mind and anything is possible. There is unexplained phenomena in every locale.

Stage magicians will tell you that things are not always what they appear to be and that the public allows itself to be fooled. This is not to say that people are idiots or that spontaneous human combustion is a trick of some kind. But human beings love marvels and wonders and would rather embrace the highly improbable than settle for the boring old facts.

Under the right conditions, hay, oily rags, and other highly flammable materials can sometimes ignite without an external flame source. When bacteria begin to break down hay, for example, heat gradually builds up. If there is no way for the heat to escape, the temperature can climb high enough to start the hay burning. People, though, are another story.

Two hundred years ago, some people believed that the intestines produced flammable gases that could somehow erupt into flame. This is not true. Then it was theorized that a combination of alcohol and body fat could cause spontaneous combustion. But the human body is mostly salt water. Although the skin burns fairly easily, the body does not. How do we know this? People have tried it.

When a woman gets on the bus to go to the hospital in the Fringe episode "The Road Not Taken," things get hot—literally. Her breath steams up windows and a newspaper on the seat in front of her starts to smoke. Frantic, she runs off the bus and bursts into flame, then explodes. Walter Bishop, the mad scientist in Fringe’s motley crew of researchers and FBI agents, pinpoints a legendary phenomenon as the cause: Spontaneous Human Combustion. Dr. Steven Novella, Yale neurologist and founder of the New England Skeptic Society, separates the fact from the fiction.

Worldwide, there are allegedly about 200 cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC), a phenomenon where, according to believers, human tissue spontaneously heats to the point of combustion, leaving the surrounding area virtually untouched by fire. "Alleged victims burst into flames and are burned alive," Novella says. "Cases that are promoted by believers in spontaneous human combustion typically involve individuals found after the fire has taken place. Often they were alone, infirmed, and elderly. Believers point to unusual aspects of the pattern of burning to argue for a spontaneous cause." According to Novella, believers say spontaneous human combustion is caused by a vague unknown energy in the body. Larry Arnold, who wrote Ablaze, even went to the trouble of inventing a new particle of physics called the pyrotron—Bishop name drops the particle during his investigation—which he says is responsible for the energy. But, Novella says, there’s no scientific proof that the pyrotron, or even spontaneous human combustion, actually exists.

Most cases, Novella says, are easily explained because external sources of fire were present. Novella’s favorite example is Mrs. Hammersmith, who was found in 1958 with her head inside her fireplace. Though she is presented as a classic case of spontaneous human combustion, "she obviously fell, hit her head, was knocked out and caught fire in the fireplace," Novella says.

One theory that could explain alleged cases of spontaneous human combustion, according to Novella, is the Wick Effect. In this phenomenon, the victim’s clothing is lit on fire by an outside source, such as a cigarette. As the fire heats the body, the body fat begins to melt and is drawn out of the body onto the clothing, like the wick of a candle, sustaining the flame until the body fat is gone. It also explains why the room at large isn’t burnt. "A slow simmering fire can nearly consume the body without burning the room to the ground," Novella says. Experiments using the bodies of pigs on at least one occasion have shown remains identical to those seen in spontaneous human combustion.

What about Bishop’s claim that the average adult has enough matter to explode with the force of five very large hydrogen bombs? First, Novella points out, bodies don’t explode from being on fire. But energy and matter are related—remember Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC^2. "The mass of a person, if entirely converted to energy, would be much more than a few hydrogen bombs," Novella says. "But there is no known or even theoretical process by which matter in a human body can spontaneously and rapidly convert enough mass into heat energy to create combustion. It doesn’t happen."

Spontaneous human combustion is a favorite subject of both the fans and debunkers of unexplained phenomena. These cases tap into the most dreaded of human fears - a deadly fire that you can do nothing to prevent. Victims of this phenomenon are often reduced to ashes, with the torso completely missing and only a leg or arm left intact. The site of the fire is usually contained - most cases spread no more than a few feet from the body, leaving furnishings, paper, and other combustible materials unscathed. It looks as if the victims suddenly grew unbelievably hot and, as their bodies vaporized, cooled down again before a real fire could take hold. It's possible that smokers' falling ashes could ignite clothes and cause a very local fire. But experienced firefighters sometimes find this so-called rational explanation inadequate. If pyro-professionals are willing to consider the possibility of spontaneous human combustion . . . why shouldn't the rest of us?

It was December 5, 1966, in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. Don Gosnell came to the house of retired Dr. John Irving Bentley to read his meter. Because the ninety-two-year-old physician had limited mobility, part-time firefighter Gosnell had permission to enter by himself, so he made his way down to the basement to take his reading. He noticed a strange sweet smell, but thought nothing of it until he found a cloud of light blue smoke and a pile of ashes on the dirt floor of the basement. Looking up, he saw a hole in the ceiling, revealing the ground-floor bathroom.

He ran upstairs to investigate and found Dr. Bentley's bedroom filled with smoke. In the bathroom, beside a hole measuring two and a half by four feet burned into the floor, lay the walker that the good doctor needed to move around. The walker's rubber feet were still intact, and beside it lay all that remained of Dr. Bentley - the lower half of his right leg, its intact foot wearing an undamaged slipper.

What could have caused this gruesome scene? Gosnell thought at first that the frail old man might have had a pipe accident - his robe was typically dotted with tiny burn marks from hot tobacco ash. But the doctor's pipe was still on its stand in the bedroom. Perhaps some mighty surge of energy had exploded from within the old physician, consuming his body in a brief and horrific burst of flame Or perhaps there's a more scientific explanation for the event.

There were remnants of a broken water pitcher lying in the toilet at the scene of the conflagration. Perhaps the doctor had gone to the bathroom to douse a small clothir g fire that started in his room, but he simply had not made it in time. Perhaps as the fire took hold, he resorted to a stop-drop-and-roll in a last-ditch attempt to quell the flames. At that point, his burning clothing could have ignited the linoleum on the bathroom floor, spreading to the hardwood flooring and wooden beams of the basement ceiling.

Such arguments don't win over the true believers, however. Their rebuttal pokes a neat hole in the rational explanation. If the linoleum and floorboards were as combustible as this explanation argues, why did the fire not consume it all? The hole in the floor was small, and there was plenty of combustible material elsewhere in the small bathroom. Why was that unscathed by the fire?

The case of Helen Conway's death by fire in 1964 is so intriguing that it even became the focus of a television documentary filmed by the British Broadcasting Corporation. But this resident of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, does not look like a poster child for the spontaneous human combustion cause. At first glance, she looks like a classic case of death by misadventure. Mrs. Conway was a firefighter's worst enemy. She was a heavy smoker whose room was dotted with cigarette burns. She was elderly and somewhat careless. And shortly before her death, her granddaughter had brought her a new book of matches. So. . . case closed, right?

Not necessarily. When firefighters, summoned by a 911 call, made their way through the thick smoke on that November morning, they found very little of Mrs. Conway. All that remained was a pile of melted flesh and her two legs intact from below the knee, as if she had been sitting down when consumed by the flames. The fire chief who attended the scene, Paul Haggarty, has gone on record as saying he believed that this was a case of spontaneous combustion. And his opinion is shared by one of the first volunteer firemen on the scene, Robert Meslin, who later became fire marshal. The key factor in their conclusion is the speed at which the fire took hold.

Larry Arnold's book Ablaze quotes Meslin's reasoning. Meslin estimates that Mrs. Conway's granddaughter made the call to the fire department within a few minutes of talking to her grandmother; it came in around eight forty a.m., and firemen were on the scene within ten minutes. This would mean that the fire lasted no more than twenty minutes; some estimates go as low as six minutes. The idea that a match fire could consume a body so completely and so quickly does not sit well with fire-fighting professionals. The most likely type of fire that a seated woman would experience from natural causes would be a "wick effect" fire, in which flames melt the body fat, which fuels the fire. According to experiments made by the makers of the BBC documentary, such a fire would take at least seven hours to consume a human body.

Skeptical Inquirer magazine takes another tack, which pooh-poohs the BBC's results. If the fire started at the base of Mrs. Conway's seated body, they reason, it would have been more intense and consumed the body faster. Perhaps so, but are they seriously suggesting that Mrs. Conway accidentally sat on a lighted match to precipitate that fatal fire? That seems to us less likely than the existence of a subatomic particle that spontaneously bursts into flames. Whose side do we take in these mysterious cases? We're inclined to sit on the fence - and nowhere near any lighted matches or burning pipe tobacco.

Mark Moran, Mark Sceurman and Matt Lake. Weird U.S. The ODDyssey Continues: Your Travel Guide to America's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets . Sterling Publishing. 2008.

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