The UFO Ex­pe­ri­ence

Fortean Times - - Contents -

There is cer­tainly a touch of mad­ness about the late Michael Har­ri­son’s Fire from Heaven (1976), the first full-length treat­ment of the sub­ject. Har­ri­son was con­vinced that spon­ta­neous hu­man com­bus­tion (SHC) is real, and is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of “the para­nor­mal”; and that all para­nor­mal phe­nom­ena are some­how con­nected, as­pects of one an­other. This led him to ad­duce such het­ero­ge­neous mat­ters as the Egryn Lights of 1905, cat­tle mu­ti­la­tions, the ‘slow vault­ing’ of dancerVaslav Ni­jin­sky, dows­ing, the séance-room ex­ploits of Nina Ku­lag­ina, Florence Cook and Eusapia Pal­ladino, the 1908 Tun­guska fire­ball, the prophets Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Eli­jah, poltergeists, telekine­sis and psy­choki­ne­sis, id­iot sa­vants, the ‘etheric body’, and the hu­man aura as de­tected by Kir­lian pho­tog­ra­phy. He even man­ages to squeeze in a pass­ing men­tion of UFOs and an­other of as­trol­ogy. A cer­tain “Mr Robert Rickard” is se­verely ticked off for “un­sci­en­tific ar­ro­gance” for hav­ing ques­tioned Har­ri­son’s claim that cer­tain SHC sites are linked by the sound of the first syl­la­ble of their names. Har­ri­son con­tin­u­ally rails, even rages, against the ar­ro­gance, closed­mind­ed­ness and blind­ness of sci­ence through­out, by the way, and it gets old real fast. Devo­tees of ‘ley lines’ should be pissed off that ‘earth en­er­gies’ don’t get a look in.

Chakras and kun­dalini en­ergy are like­wise ig­nored, though yoga fea­tures briefly.

We first read this strange book some decades ago in its orig­i­nal edi­tion, and be­fore re-read­ing the 1990 re­vi­sion for this piece had for­got­ten al­most ev­ery­thing about it ex­cept the de­scrip­tion of Ni­jin­sky’s ‘slow vault­ing’. Ap­par­ently, the dancer would (as bal­let dancers do) leap high into the air – but then float slow and stately down. Whether il­lu­sion or re­al­ity (Har­ri­son has a long foot­note as­crib­ing the feat to oth­ers as well), the phe­nom­e­non is in­du­bitably in­trigu­ing, and it’s left un­ex­plained – as is its con­nec­tion to SHC. Any­one know more?

The scat­ter-brained, pro­lix mish­mash that is Fire from Heaven is cer­tainly en­ter­tain­ing – grip­ping, even, if you buy his pre­misses – and has a good sam­ple of the usual sus­pects among SHC vic­tims. But it’s not what we’d call au­thor­i­ta­tive. Nor is an­other full-length book on SHC, Larry Arnold’s Ablaze! (1995). While this in­tro­duces us to some new al­leged cases, Arnold rather lets him­self down by in­vent­ing – he might call it de­duc­ing – a hith­erto (and since) un­heard-of sub­atomic par­ti­cle, the ‘py­rotron’, that va­por­ises peo­ple through a sub-atomic chain re­ac­tion. Jenny Ran­dles’s and Peter Hough’s ear­lier Spon­ta­neous Hu­man

Com­bus­tion (1992) in­dulges too in half a dozen chap­ters of the­o­ris­ing. These – not al­ways best fo­cused – cover body chem­istry, body elec­tric­ity, light­ning strikes, balls of fire (which per­haps in­evitably veers into UFOs, in­clud­ing the Cash-Lan­drum case), force fields (which lures them into the well-de­bunked Philadel­phia ex­per­i­ment) and kun­dalini en­ergy. The rel­e­vance of some of this isn’t al­ways ob­vi­ous, and they ap­ply the term SHC to cows and rab­bits – which is con­fus­ing, to say the least. But wisely they re­frain from plumping for any par­tic­u­lar mech­a­nism be­hind SHC. The book’s great virtues are that it’s packed with case his­to­ries, many the re­sult of the au­thors’ orig­i­nal and in­dus­tri­ous re­search, and they are – avail­able in­for­ma­tion per­mit­ting – scrupu­lously an­a­lysed. A prime ex­am­ple is their treat­ment of the ap­par­ent sur­vivor of SHC, Jack An­gel; a case which, on ex­am­i­na­tion, turns out to be more than some­what am­bigu­ous.

The out­stand­ing book on SHC is John E Heymer’s The En­tranc­ing Flame (1996). Heymer was, as he says, the first au­thor on the sub­ject who “had the dou­ble ad­van­tage of hav­ing wit­nessed the af­ter­math of such an oc­cur­rence while also be­ing a foren­si­cally trained in­ves­ti­ga­tor.” He was also an au­to­di­dact of en­cy­clopædic eru­di­tion. With some ve­he­mence he trun­dles out the stan­dard SHC au­thor’s de­nun­ci­a­tions of the wil­ful ob­tuse­ness of coroners, and the in­com­pe­tence or cow­ardice of sci­en­tists. But he bal­ances that by ex­plain­ing ex­actly where coroners have dis­hon­estly ig­nored awk­ward ev­i­dence and lim­its his crit­i­cism of sci­ence to the sci­en­tists who re­ject the no­tion of SHC out of hand, and who’ve tried, and gen­er­ally failed, to demon­strate their beloved ‘wick ef­fect’. And he re­jects (you can al­most hear his eyes rolling) para­nor­mal and ‘su­per­nat­u­ral’ ap­proaches to SHC, in­sist­ing that any even­tual ex­pla­na­tion for it will be en­tirely with the bounds of nat­u­ral laws. He ar­rived at this out­look by an idio­syn­cratic route: he says that in his early teens he read the Bi­ble

right through, didn’t be­lieve a word of it, and be­came an athe­ist. From that po­si­tion he re­jects all things su­per­nat­u­ral and, one sus­pects, im­ma­te­rial. Not sure Aris­to­tle would ap­prove the logic of this, but it saves Heymer’s read­ers from Michael-Har­rison­style panoplies of quasi-mys­ti­cal re­la­tions among ev­ery­thing and noth­ing.

Heymer spent a quar­ter-cen­tury in the Gwent (Wales) po­lice, and a fair pro­por­tion of those years as a scenes-of-crime of­fi­cer. In 1980, he con­cluded he’d seen his first case of SHC af­ter he was called to look over the corpse of Henry Thomas, or what was left of it. The salient points of the scene were that the room was vir­tu­ally air­tight, some plas­tic fit­tings were melted, and only the chair in which Thomas had sat was burned. Henry Thomas him­self was es­sen­tially a mass of ash – in­clud­ing the bones, which had turned to white pow­der. His skull was a shrunken, black­ened mass. And: “Ly­ing on the car­pet be­tween the ashes and the shoes was a pair of male

hu­man feet clothed in socks [his em­pha­sis]. The un­dam­aged feet pro­truded from short lengths of trouser leg bottoms… The re­mains of the trouser legs had a thin, charred edge, as if cut by a laser beam. The tran­si­tion from un­dam­aged cloth to ash was im­me­di­ate…” Fresh kin­dling had been placed in the hearth, sug­gest­ing the fire hadn’t been lit when Thomas burst into flame – and he was any­way a cou­ple of feet from it. And Thomas didn’t smoke. There was a greasy, gluti­nous de­posit all over the room. It was a clas­sic SHC scene.

There was one hu­mor­ous as­pect: foren­sic sci­en­tists found a bit of skin on the grate, which they reck­oned had been scraped off Thomas’s fore­head when he fell into the fire and caught light. It turned out, on anal­y­sis, to be bovine skin. Hear­ing this, Heymer’s su­per­in­ten­dent re­marked wryly: “So, it seems, John, that there was this pass­ing cow…” Adding to the gen­eral be­muse­ment was the dis­cov­ery on post­mortem ex­am­i­na­tion that the state of some of his tis­sues showed that Henry Thomas was still alive when he started to burn. Which raises the ques­tion: why didn’t he do some­thing about it? Heymer’s con­clu­sion, af­ter ex­am­in­ing the lit­er­a­ture, is that SHC vic­tims fall into a trance be­fore the fire takes hold – hence the ti­tle of his book. The clas­sic ex­pla­na­tion was that SHC favoured per­sons who were not ex­actly strangers to the grape (Dick­ens uses the trope in Bleak House), and were con­se­quently too be­sot­ted to know what was hap­pen­ing to them. Heymer de­bunks this one along the way, as well as the oft-re­peated claim that SHC vic­tims are al­ways fat, el­derly fe­males.

If ap­par­ent SHC vic­tims aren’t in a trance, or ha­bit­u­ally slewed, and the fa­mous ‘wick ef­fect’ is the true cause of their demise, this lack of re­ac­tion is pe­cu­liar. Brian Dun­ning (‘The Skep­toid’) ex­plains the wick ef­fect thus: “The flame on a can­dle’s wick is small, but its tem­per­a­ture is very hot; thus it has a pow­er­ful melt­ing ef­fect within its tiny sphere of in­flu­ence. This melts the wax into liq­uid, which is drawn up the wick, where it va­por­ises and burns. The wick it­self does not burn due to the cool­ing ef­fect of the va­por­i­sa­tion; but once the wax is gone, the wick burns away as well.” This as­sumes that the vic­tim’s cloth­ing is set on fire by an ex­ter­nal source, such as a hot coal (and the vic­tim snoozes on). The fire heats the body, the body fat melts and drips out of the body onto the cloth­ing, which then acts like the wick of a can­dle, un­til the body fat is con­sumed. This should also ex­plain why the sur­round­ings re­main un­burned, although the heat is in­tense enough to melt plas­tic fit­tings. And there is the whole prob­lem of how vic­tims’ bones are re­duced to white ash, which is more than cre­ma­to­ria can man­age. Even if one has a less than com­mit­ted view of the re­al­ity of SHC, de­bunkers ought to have ad­dressed these lit­tle lo­cal dif­fi­cul­ties with their blan­ket ex­pla­na­tions. And they haven’t. As Heymer takes some plea­sure in point­ing out, the demon­stra­tions of the wick ef­fect for var­i­ous tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries have been dis­mal fail­ures (he re­serves as much ex­as­per­ated ire for TV pro­duc­ers as he does for in­tran­si­gent coroners).

Per­haps the most com­pelling case Heymer makes for SHC is that of a char­ac­ter known only as “the tramp Bai­ley” (pic­tured above). Bai­ley was found at the bot­tom of the stairs in a derelict house in Lam­beth, south Lon­don, with a jet of blue flame is­su­ing “at force” from a 4in (10cm)-wide slit in his ab­domen. Bai­ley had re­acted to that: his jaws were sunk into the newel post from the pain. His right hand was burnt away. He was known to be a meths drinker, but no trace of any pos­si­ble source of ig­ni­tion was nearby – only grand houses have fire­places in the hall, and any­way gas and elec­tric­ity sup­plies had been cut off – or on his per­son; and he was known not to smoke. Floor, stairs, and newel post were scorched. It seems Bai­ley died from as­phyx­i­a­tion from his own fire fumes. As Heymer notes, scep­tics ded­i­cated to the ‘wick ef­fect’ are most care­ful to avoid this case.

Heymer pro­duces an hy­poth­e­sis that SHC – which by def­i­ni­tion starts within the body – is caused by mal­func­tion­ing mi­to­chon­dria. We’re not com­pe­tent to judge that, but it’s also no­tice­able that de­bunkers haven’t ei­ther. Not that de­bunkers are al­ways im­plau­si­ble, even if they can be snobs, for in­stance about Larry Arnold’s day-job as a bus driver. The Com­mit­tee for Skep­ti­cal In­quiry web­site (www.csi­ has plenty of their own ob­jec­tions to SHC. John Heymer’s book re­mains a fine mon­u­ment to the propo­si­tion that there’s some­thing – just some­thing very odd and un­ex­plained – to these grue­some con­fla­gra­tions. _____________________________

Michael Har­ri­son, Fire from Heaven, Sid­wick & Jack­son, 1976; Skoob Books, re­vised and ex­panded edi­tion, 1990.

Larry Arnold, Ablaze!, M Evans & Co, 1995.

Jenny Ran­dles and Peter Hough, Spon­ta­neous Hu­man Com­bus­tion, Robert Hale, 1992.

John E Heymer, The En­tranc­ing Flame, Lit­tle, Brown & Co, 1996.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.