When Humans Compulsively Set Themselves On Fire

“[I]t is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” —Jorge Luis Borges, “A New Refutation of Time”

In A Nutshell

In 1978, an Australian woman named Lynette Phillips set herself on fire in Geneva. She was protesting the Indian government outlawing her religious sect. Over the next 12 months, 82 people set themselves on fire in the UK, compared to the yearly average of 23. The acts weren’t intended as a protest: People were simply copying. The epidemic lasted about a year. This isn’t an isolated thing. When a man burned himself to death in France in 2013, there were two further attempts at self-immolation within a week. Some people can be simply inspired to burn to death.

The Whole Bushel

Setting oneself on fire in public has been used as a form of protest for thousands of years. It’s effective, and it’s easy to understand why. The thought of being set alight is horrifying, and that gets attention. People will want to find out what could possibly have driven someone to such measures. It was self-immolation that started the Arab Spring, after all.

It’s probably not too surprising that other people supporting the same cause will choose to follow. If one person setting themselves on fire in public doesn’t grab people, then a spate of several doing it will make it harder to ignore. Yet there’s an even more insidious and surprising type of copycat immolation hidden in human psychology. Some people will simply set themselves on fire for its own sake, in private, after seeing someone else do so.

After Lynette Phillips’ immolation was widely reported, 10 people in the United Kingdom immolated themselves within a month. Within a year it was 82 people. The youngest was 14 years old, the oldest 89. A study of the epidemic found that 94 percent of the immolators had a history of mental health problems, most commonly depression. Yet the range of triggers was diverse and unusual.

There were two pacts during the year. In one, a married couple both died when they set themselves on fire due to a family disagreement. In another case, a man made a pact with his girlfriend to commit suicide because her parents didn’t approve of their relationship. While he set himself on fire, she didn’t complete her side of the pact.

In France in 2013, an unemployed man killed himself with fire outside of a job center in protest of being refused benefits. Two days later, a 16-year-old student doused himself in flammable liquid before setting himself on fire in front of his classmates at school. Those around were able to smother the flames before the student was too badly hurt. The same day another man tried to burn himself to death outside of his house, but survived thanks to passersby.

Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of the epidemic is summarized in the conclusion of the report: “it is particularly unfortunate that the impression should be given that self immolation results in instant death when, in fact, a large proportion of the victims survive for days or weeks with great pain and distress.”

Show Me The Proof

Psychological Medicine: Suicide by burning as an epidemic phenomenon
The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines, by Loren Coleman
The Local: Self-immolation attempts spark copycat fears

  • Theo Devine

    Holy crap ima stock me up some fire extinguishers

  • TheMadHatter

    So that guy in fantastic four… He’s just suicidal???

    • Jack

      He just wants benefits

    • The Ou7law

      How painful

      • Joseph

        The human torch wasn’t burned by his own fire so, he’d be ok to “fap”.

  • Scott

    Well thank goodness I’m not one of those loonies. I can’t imagine getting into a fight with my wife and thinking, “Well, I’ll show that bitch!” while dousing myself in gasoline. Not only is that really going to hurt but it pretty much kills the chance of having make-up sex.

    • Joseph

      On the plus side, she wouldn’t be able to collect life insurance…

    • Asian007

      Some people are into that kind of thing .

    • Cover her with your sizzling lava in the heat of the night, right after a verbal flame war or an overheated ‘discussion’, her sulfurous and blistering insults still glowing in your ears, but wtf, she’s looking red hot, fires burning in her eyes, reaching for you, sparks flying from the hot spot, well, … sounds smoking to me.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTvbXMRMnHo

  • Clyde Barrow

    Oh, boy. I think it’s a safe bet to say Jim Morrison wasn’t thinking about self immolation when he sang “Come on baby, light my fire.”

  • oouchan

    Sad how people would choose such a horrible way to go. Having been burnt on my arm once was enough to convince me to stay away from flames.

    Depressing.

    • Joseph

      I’m assuming gasoline would at least make it quicker. If the fire is large enough and not directly applied then carbon monoxide would probably be the cause of death and that would be better for the victim. When people were executed like that I’ve read that in some cases they strapped gun powder to the person’s chest to lessen the suffering, but I’m not sure if that was common and it certainly wouldn’t be the case for people if suffering was part of the goal. It’s interesting what people will do to themselves for no apparent reason or for reasons that don’t seem that bad. I don’t personally care how I die because it has to happen eventually, but I don’t think I’d ever do anything to harm myself especially not something that would hurt so much.

  • gillybean

    That must be unbearably painful for the survivors! Can’t even imagine how screwed up a person would have to be before even contemplating something so drastic! And although it draws attention to people/causes/situations, I also think that with actions such as these, rather than learning about the cause, I tend to write them off as lunatics.

    • Joseph

      Most of the people that do that probably don’t understand what could actually happen. I’m guessing they think it’ll be over in a few minutes when actually it could even take weeks or more if the vital organs aren’t damaged and there’s an insignificant amount of smoke inhalation. I think you’re right about it distracting more from their cause though. Not only are they generally perceived as being crazy, but people only focus on the event and not the reason behind it.

  • daathsurfer

    Dammit, not again! I had been studying Thich Quang Duc for, like, a week when I went to Listverse about two weeks ago after a long absence; there he was, calm as a clam, burning to a crisp. I guess self immolation has a long history among Buddhist monks in Vietnam; I wonder if they all were as graceful as Thich. I saw a video of a recent monk self-immolation (not Vietnamese), and it was horrible. I think Thich Quang Duc was an enlightened being, and his demonstration was a testament to the power of Buddhist practice to free us from suffering. I believe Jesus was a similar figure with the same message, though his message has been misunderstood.

  • Valdez

    Difficult to think of a more disgusting way of going… I really can’t understand the copycat mentality.

  • Nicole Johnson

    Well my 41 year old sister just did this to herself and died September 1st 2016. She laid in the hospital for four days with burns on 90% of her body. Her reasons for this were wrapped up in a lifetime of depression and traumas that occured in her lifetime. Then drugs came into the picture on top of everything else. I believe that her drug use sent her over the edge with no hope at all left in her life. Its a very painful thing for the survivor’s of the loved one who left us behind. Its been almost two months now and i wake up with a gapping hole in my heart because ill never see my sister again. To some people this type of person to do this maybe looney, but in fact just a human being like all of us that lost their way thru this hard and harsh world. Don’t get me wrong she was my sister and they way she left this world will haunt me the rest of my life.