Spoofs & Satire

Photography by Alan Fishleder

Don’t Be a Statistic

While H1N1 dominates the headlines, other equally worrisome conditions get lost in the panic. Tips to survive spontaneous human combustion.

The upcoming cold and flu season is the most dreaded in recent times. As health officials and an increasingly paranoid public brace themselves for the inevitable H1N1 epidemic, it’s perhaps a good time to learn more about and grow more fearful of that often-ignored condition known as spontaneous human combustion. Although there is currently no vaccine available for SHC, there are plenty of things you can do to lower your chances of suddenly and inexplicably erupting into flames.

Is SHC Contagious?

Very little is understood about SHC, but it’s in everyone’s best interest to assume it’s communicable. SHC germs, if they exist, could contaminate many of the surfaces you regularly come in contact with, including doorknobs, keyboards, and your neighbor’s mail. In addition, the same germs can be passed through the air when another person coughs or sneezes or yells at you for reading their mail. So yes, we must believe SHC is highly contagious and that these germs that may or may not exist undoubtedly exist.

What Can I Do to Prevent SHC?

One important way to protect yourself is to avoid close contact with questionable individuals. Is the man next to you flushed? Is smoke emanating from his body? Contrary to its name, SHC need not occur in an instant, and these are believed to be the first signs of imminent combustion. Are the whites of his eyes presently a deep crimson? Get away fast. Even if it turns out that SHC is not in fact communicable (don’t count on it), you don’t want to take any chances, or have that guy’s eyeballs explode on your good shirt.

If you find your bath water suddenly starting to steam and bubble, it’s because your internal temperature is rising dangerously high. Do your best to stay away from crowded areas such as public transportation. Should you notice that someone sitting across from you on the subway has spontaneously combusted, get off as soon as possible to avoid contamination. If, however, the next stop is still several minutes away, it would not be entirely out of the question to check if a fire extinguisher is handy and put the victim out. Spray yourself with it, too, purely as a preventative measure.

Of course as a rule you should wash your hands frequently throughout the day, especially if you notice your fingers are on fire. Rinse them in cold water and splash some on your face, too. Obviously you should eat healthfully and exercise regularly, as well, but try not to get overheated. Better, probably, to just skip the exercise and spend most of your free time in a nice, cool bath. If you find your bath water suddenly starting to steam and bubble, it’s because your internal temperature is rising dangerously high. Have a family member pour ice cubes into the tub and then have him or her make sure the gas stove is off, so you don’t end up losing the entire house.

Get plenty of rest. Preferably sleep in front of a fan set on high. Set it on low or even medium, and you might as well be sleeping on a stick of dynamite. If you wake up in the middle of the night and smell smoke, don’t panic. There’s always a chance it’s an electrical fire. Should you happen to survive long enough to hear your alarm clock go off in the morning, don’t just automatically assume everything is fine. Take the time to run a thorough inventory of your body parts. Are they all present and accounted for? Congratulations.

If you wake in the morning and feel like you’re coming down with something, however, do the right thing and call in sick. Do you really want to put your co-workers through the trauma of watching you burn to a cinder? Also, victims of SHC occasionally survive, so just imagine the embarrassment of it all. Stay home until you feel there is little to no chance that an incomprehensible firestorm could at any moment consume you from within. (Typically this will take three or four days.)

Am I More Likely to Experience SHC in the Summer?

This is an old wives’ tale on par with the belief, in the 19th century, that SHC was often caused by excessive alcohol consumption. Unlike colds and the flu, SHC is not more likely to occur in any particular season. It can strike at any time, at any second—a fact that’s hard to stop thinking about without the aid of excessive alcohol consumption. There’s no harm in being safe, though, and it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to cut out the booze and camp in front of an industrial-strength air conditioner from June to September, inclusive.

Are There Different Types of SHC?

There are three distinct varieties of SHC:

Type A is the most common and involves total engulfment. Strangely enough, a victim’s immediate surroundings are left completely unscathed and it’s possible to be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with someone in the cramped back seat of a car and feel only a slight sensation of warmth as that person goes up in flames and finally gives you a little elbow room.

Type B is less serious in that some small remnant of the victim remains intact following the conflagration. If you walk into a room and discover a perfectly preserved hand or foot or wallet lying there on the floor in the middle of a pile of ashes, then someone has experienced combustion of the Type B variety and no one will blame you for lifting the wallet.

Type C is the worst of all and involves a whole group of people igniting together. It’s unknown whether this is due to sympathy combustions (a form of hysteria in which victims go off one after the other like a string of fireworks), or if they’re doing it intentionally in an attempt to draw attention to some fashionable cause, or if it’s simply peer pressure.


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As eye-opening and disturbing as this information has been, if you take adequate precautions, there’s every reason to believe you won’t become a statistic. It’s estimated that SHC is responsible for the worldwide deaths of nearly 2.7 people per century, but you don’t have to be one of them.

Ralph Gamelli has been published in The Big Jewel, McSweeney’s, Monkeybicycle, and Yankee Pot Roast. This is the part where he’s supposed to put down some little joke, but as always he refuses to bow to societal expectations. More by Ralph Gamelli