“Human Torch” Baby: SHC or Abuse?

August 15, 2013

According to news reports (e.g., timesofindia.india-times.com, August 13, 2013), a baby boy from a village in Tamil Nadu, India, “caught fire” on four occasions. Since so many incidents were unlikely to be accidents, some persons were suggesting the case might be one of “spontaneous human combustion” (SHC). I received a request to “please help this child” from a young Indian man (who sent me the link to the story) and also a request for an interview by a reporter from MSN.com, Dustin Seibert. I told the latter I was concerned about the child’s safety—though not from SHC. (Interview online at news.msn.com/rumors/rumor-baby-suffer-from-spontaneous-combustion; August 14, 2013.)

Indeed, facts given in news accounts make clear that the case is not one of SHC. That alleged phenomenon has been thoroughly discredited by science (see my Secrets of the Supernatural, 1988; The Science of Miracles, 2013). Besides, the case is clearly one of exterior threats to the baby, not combustion erupting from within. (Unsurprisingly, tests so far showed no abnormalities in internal structures.) Therefore, this is not a case for doctors, but for detectives, as some villagers suspected. “People thought I set him on fire deliberately,” said the mother, Rajeswari, although other villagers attributed the incidents to evil spirits. (See dailymail.co.uk/news/articles, August 12, 2013.)

The four burning incidents began when the baby was just nine days old. While the family was staying with the mother’s parents, the baby allegedly caught fire twice. The family then apparently moved to the father’s parents’ home when, said the baby’s paternal grandfather, V. Perumal, 75, “One night, within three days of their visit we heard the baby scream and we found a sheet near the baby on fire. Fire soon engulfed the baby’s head and neck. We doused it with water.” Note that the fire reportedly began with the sheet and progressed to the child. Perumal’s hut later caught fire and the thatched roof was destroyed. If the fire had began within the infant and progressed to such destruction in the vicinity, it is difficult to imagine how the three-month-old survived—let alone suffered only surface burns.

The case somewhat resembles instances of so-called poltergeist fires, outbreaks that the superstitious attribute to a troublesome spirit but that are typically found to be the work of disturbed persons. One Alabama boy, for example, set “mysterious” fires in an attempt to drive his family back to their previous home, because he missed his playmates there. (See my The Science of Ghosts, 2012, 325.)

In the Indian case, however, the fires were not just acts of vandalism but attacks on a defenseless child. Sibling rivalry seems unlikely, since the parents’ only other child is a two-year-old girl. Because incidents happened at homes of both pairs of grandparents, that would seem to make them improbable suspects.

Another possibility would be attacks by a parent—motivated perhaps by postpartum depression of the mother, or resentment of the child by the father (for personal or economic reasons, say), or even Munchausen syndrome by proxy (i.e., the intentional causing of someone else’s illness in order to gain attention). In any event, I am confident that if the child is placed in protective custody—away from persons who might wish to harm the child—the fire attacks will cease.