When Humans Compulsively Set Themselves On Fire

By Alan Boyle on Monday, March 31, 2014
480896219
“[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