Hauntings are frightening enough as it is. Forces beyond our control or understanding invade homes and stir up terror and mysteries for which no one has answers. In some cases, these accounts can be decidedly even more ominous, going so far as to lead to violence and the threat of physical harm. Perhaps the most terrifying type of haunting is when ghosts graduate from pushing, pulling, tapping, or other mischief, and delve into the world of the truly dangerous. Poltergeist activity has long plagued mankind, and one rather unsettling phenomenon is the fact that many of these apparitions seem to really, really like fire. Indeed, some of the more notorious cases of poltergeist hauntings involve some sort of obsession with fire on the part of the alleged spirit, to the point that it all warrants a separate categorization unto itself. Here we will examine some of the many cases of poltergeists and ghosts that just could not stop lighting things on fire.
Perhaps the most infamous case of a poltergeist linked with fiery destruction is the case of what allegedly happened in Odon, Indiana, in April of 1941. On this fine day, William Hackler had just finished enjoying breakfast with his family when he left his house and smelled the unmistakeable stench of smoke. Alarmed, the man looked to the second story of his humble home and noticed that thick, black smoke was belching out of one of the upper windows. This is particularly odd as the family had not lit any fires and the house was completely without electricity. When Hackler arrived at the scene of the apparent fire, he noticed that a blaze had erupted in the room seemingly from the wall itself. The local volunteer fire department was called in and the blaze was put out, after which they departed the premises.
This would not be the end of the mystery, since as soon as the fire department left yet another fire broke out in the upstairs guest room, and when this blaze was investigated in seemed to be emanating from inside the room's mattress. The fire in this case was insatiably fast-acting, soon encompassing the entire room, and the family once again contacted authorities. The firefighters put out the fire, but over the coming days more seemed to well up from within the house itself, often right before the startled eyes of witnesses, and in just a few days there had been nearly 30 small fires that had inexplicably erupted around the home. In some cases, the flames seemed to spew spontaneously from random objects around the home, such as one blaze that coughed forth from the pages of a book. A dishwasher, mattress, bedspread, blinds, medicine cabinet, and desk drawer all likewise bizarrely erupted into flames, often without warning in front of many startled witnesses. In one case, the innards of a book burnt to a crisp while the covers remained unscathed. In every case there was no discernible cause for the fires.
The fires continued unabated, with one day producing over 28 separate fires in a single day that authorities were unable to ascertain the cause of. A lot of theories were put forth at the time, such as the idea that it was all a malicious prank perpetuated by the children, or that the phenomenon was caused by strange magnetic fields or natural gasses, but nothing really explained the particular brand of weirdness going on here. The phenomenon did not stop until the house was demolished, and it remains a profound mystery of the paranormal.
Another infamous case occurred in 1932, in the town of Bladenboro, North Carolina, where an elderly couple by the names of Council H. Williamson and his wife Lydia were terrorized by an outbreak of persistent, mysterious fires around their home. The first such incident was when a curtain and window shade in the dining room suddenly and inexplicably burst into flame, despite no source of fire being in the vicinity. Oddly, the flames were reported as having a bluish hue, and were reportedly unable to be put out by any normal means. They simply burned away until the curtains were ash, and then flickered out on their own.
This would not be the first such mysterious fire at the home. The following day, a set of bedclothes and a stack of papers stored in the bedroom closet ignited with the same unusual blue flames, and again went out on their own after burning the clothes and papers to a crisp. Bizarrely, it was alleged that nothing else in the closet received any fire damage at all. Numerous other fires broke out around the house on the same day, including a pair of trousers hanging up and even a bed that reportedly was suddenly engulfed in flame in full view of several witnesses. In total, 20 such fires supposedly occurred over a three day period.
Perhaps the most frightening such incident was when Mrs. Williamson’s cotton dress suddenly caught fire for no discernable reason, as she was wearing it, before her daughter and husband managed to rip the flaming clothes from her. Weirdly, none of those involved suffered any burns or indeed felt much heat, as if the fire had been specifically targeting just the dress. Since Mrs. Williamson had not been standing near a flame and was not a smoker, no one could figure out just how the fire could have possibly started, and this was a puzzle that plagued the other mysterious fires around the home as well. Electricians, fire fighters, and police were unable to find any logical or rational cause for the fires, as there was no sign of faulty wiring or arson, and in every case there had been no open flame in the vicinity of the odd blue tinged flames. With no known cause and no end in sight, the Williamsons simply moved out, after which the fires stopped as abruptly as they had started.
Although the story is well circulated in the realm of the paranormal, there has been some amount of criticism aimed at the case of the Bladenboro Fire Poltergeist over the years. One of the main problems is that some of the articles written at the time of the incidents are of questionable veracity, attempting to play up the mystery and strangeness and subsequently obscuring where facts end and exaggerations begin, with one such report being written by a Vincent H. Gaddis, who was notorious for this sort of thing. This particular account is often used as a popular source for the case, yet the author was not only known for sensationalizing things, but the piece was also written long after the events had happened and has been accused of having numerous factual errors peppered throughout. Skeptics have claimed that the fires were probably not as mysterious as they have been made out to be, and were likely caused by the couple’s rebellious 21-year-old daughter, who seems to have been present for each fire that started, and that other details that make the case seem more enigmatic were exaggerated over the years. Whatever really was going on, it is one of the most famous cases of fire poltergeist activity.
A similarly notorious case revolves around a Calvin Tuck, his wife Willie Bell, and their six young children, who all lived in a four-room log tenant house near Talladega, Alabama. In August of 1958, the poverty-stricken, African American family was suddenly plagued by small fires which seemed to erupt all over the house for no reason, and which seemed to target some unusual items, such as one instance in which a loaf of bread in the kitchen exploded into flame or specific items of clothing. The flames themselves were in this case notable in that witnesses claimed that they were a reddish blue color and left the smell of sulfur permeating the air.
The rate of fires was intense, with at least 52 blazes spontaneously breaking out over a short amount of time. At one point, a contractor who came to inspect the house claimed that one fire broke out every 15 minutes while he had been on the property, often right in front of his eyes. Authorities were at a loss for what could be behind these insidious fires. In each case the oddly colored fires were found to have started at the ceiling, with none of them starting from the floor except for one case when a bed burst into flame. Adding to the mystery was the fact that the humble house had a metal roof and had no electricity, ruling out the idea that faulty wiring could be the cause. The Fire Department had no idea as to what was causing so many fires in such rapid succession, and locals began to gather outside the house at all hours with buckets of water in an attempt to help out.
The mysterious fires continued unabated until they culminated with one day in which an intense series of 22 relentless fires gutted the home, ruined furniture, and put the family’s lives in severe danger. Terrified and with no insurance, the distraught family was forced to vacate their devastated home and move into a similar structure not far away, hoping that the fires would cease now that their old house was gone. They were wrong. Almost immediately upon moving into their new abode, four fires allegedly started around the house in quick succession, prompting a very disturbed Tuck to pile his family’s belongings in the yard and set them on fire, in a moment of seeming temporary insanity, possibly thinking that the fires, which he increasingly believed to be supernatural in nature, would stop if there was nothing left to burn. Once again, the family fled for a new home, and the second house is said to have burned to the ground as soon as they left it behind.
This time the family found themselves at the home of Tuck’s brother-in-law, a Darnell Suttle. Whatever had been terrorizing the family seemed to have followed them to this third residence, as five new fires quickly sprung up at the Suttle home as well. Two police officers who went to investigate were surprised to see a quilt hanging on a tree in the yard suddenly engulf itself in flames right before their eyes, after which it put itself out to hang there charred and surrounded with wisps of smoke. One of the officers, a Lieutenant Ben Cooley, claimed that he had tried to light the unburned part of the quilt out of curiosity and found that it would not burn no matter what he did, prompting the astonished policeman to marvel, “I saw it, but I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen it.”
Although Tuck himself wasn’t home at the time, the terrified and visibly upset wife told the officers that several articles of clothing and some newspapers around the house had spontaneously burned up not long before they had arrived. The intrigued officers found evidence of charred items throughout the house, as well as numerous buckets of water that had been left in every room in the event that one of the mysterious blazes decided to break out. Indeed, right after the police officers left yet another fire spread through some curtains in the living room.
The Tucks were eventually told to leave when Suttle decided he’d had enough of all of the fires. The destitute, harried family then moved to yet another home, this time moving in with Tuck’s own father. Running out of ideas on what to do about the plague of fires that seemingly stalked his family, a desperate Tuck went to a Voodoo witch doctor, who told him that a “fire curse” had been placed on them. The witch doctor suggested a special mix of herbs the family was to chew on for three days, as well as some medicine that was to be placed in a bottle and buried upside down in the yard of the afflicted home, which he was certain would break the hex. Thinking that he had nothing to lose, Tuck purchased the cure and followed the instructions to a tee.
It would prove to be ineffective to say the least. Within that very same week, at least seven more fires would bloom at the residence, with one of the fires witnessed by firefighters on the scene, when it flared up around some of the children’s jackets. Again, no one had any idea of what the cause of the fires could be. It was not until authorities interviewing the family for their investigation that they found a clue in the form of a strange greenish residue that was left behind after a rag on a table burst into fire as the bewildered Fire Chief himself sat there. It was this strange substance that led him to believe that an arsonist might be somehow behind the blazes. However, there was no concrete evidence of this and meanwhile the fires continued, forcing the family to move yet again, this time to the house of a friend who lived 20 miles away.
Once again, the fires continued as frustrated authorities became more and more convinced that an arsonist must be responsible, despite the fact that no one had a clue as to who it could be or how they did it. Additionally, careful examination of the homes that had been targeted found no evidence of flammable substances such as gasoline, and no trace of arson activity, yet officials insisted it had to be caused by someone, refusing to believe that fires could possibly start by themselves despite extensive eyewitness testimony to that effect, including that of police officers and firemen, who claimed to have seen the fires clearly start for no reason when no one was there to start them. Nevertheless, the Fire Chief and State Fire Marshall, among others, suspected that some flammable chemical was being used.
Even after careful chemical analysis was done on the residue and the items of the homes, the only thing they could turn up was trace amounts of phosphorous in the wallpaper, but it could not be determined if this was naturally occurring or not. Phosphorous is also an extremely volatile, dangerous substance that is hard to store, and very difficult to control or use for anyone but a very knowledgeable person who doesn’t mind the risks associated with it. The unstable substance is also not easy to get, especially in the amount that was needed to cause so many fires. In the end, it was deemed that it would simply be too impractical and dangerous for someone to get a hold of that much phosphorous and then haul it around to so many homes, apply it, and then get it to ignite when they wanted it to, all without getting caught.
Perplexed, authorities nevertheless believed that someone had to be responsible, and the hunt for the culprit continued. Then, after so much investigation and authorities being stumped for months, the Tuck’s 9-year-old son Calvin Tuck, Jr. came forward and admitted to being the one who had started the fires, claiming he did it with matches or with rags that he would get to smolder before igniting in order to scare his family into move back to their hometown of Birmingham. Police jumped on this confession and started proclaiming that the mystery had been solved.
While the police considered this to be the end of the case, the public, the media, and even some local officials were not convinced. After all, how could a young boy meticulously and expertly start so many fires, usually when the boy was not present, which usually started from the ceiling or walls, and many of which were seen to spark up in right in front of startled witnesses, while all the while confounding the Fire Department, toxicology experts, and other authorities? It all seemed rather implausible, to the point that not even the Fire Marshall really believed that the confession had any weight, and considered the case very much open. There have been many who have pointed to the fact that this all occurred to a black family in 1950s Alabama, and that the confession was obviously coerced, if it ever happened at all. For many, this mysterious case is not as closed as authorities of the time would like to have us think.
Another rather well-known case comes to us from March of 1988, when a Karen Gallo and her family had a brush with the unknown at their home in the Chicago suburb of Orland Hills. One day, the family noticed a strange haze hanging in their home which stank of sulfur to the point that they notified the fire department to report a gas leak. When the fire department arrived, they found no sign of any such leak, and could not find any hint of what could be behind the mysterious fog.
When the firemen left, there was an immediate conflagration as curtains and furniture began to set themselves ablaze, prompting the authorities to return to put out the fire. Perplexed, the fire department noticed that the fires had seemed to have spectacularly erupted from the electrical outlets of the home like rocket jets for reasons unknown. It was also apparent that the fire had not damaged the walls or the floor of the home, nor the very sockets they had burst forth from. The flames continued to pop up around the home over the ensuing weeks, to the point that the home was completely rewired, yet the blazes continued, sometimes with objects catching fire that were nowhere near the outlets.
A full investigation ensued, during which time the air, soil, wallpaper, drywall, carpeting, and even blood samples of the family were analyzed looking for any clue of what was going on, but all tests turned up nothing unusual. The insurance company also suggested that the house be rewired, which it was, yet the fires continued to sprout up. This lack of results and the continuing fires and weird mist spurred rumors that the house was under siege by some supernatural force, and curious people made a habit of passing by the house to see if anything out of the ordinary was going on. In the meantime, the investigation continued, and a police officer had his own bizarre experience as he interviewed the family’s 14-year-old daughter.
Allegedly, as the officer questioned the girl, a smoke detector went off somewhere upstairs, which provoked a panicked response from the girl, who got up and made as if she was going to run away. The officer, thinking that a fire had broken out, rushed upstairs to investigate. What he allegedly found was unlike anything he had seen before. The girl’s room was supposedly pervaded by a thick fog of white mist, which oddly stopped at the doorway. Within the room itself, the officer reported that the wall socket had been spewing out a blue flame. Alarmed, he grabbed a fire extinguisher to put it out, but found it to be empty. As the fire began to spread out of control to engulf furniture and the bed, which was completely melted down by the unusually intense heat emanating from the flames, more people came to fight it. Luckily, the fire was put out before it was able to fan out to the rest of the house, yet oddly it was found that nowhere outside of the immediate room had been damaged.
In the aftermath of this frightening ordeal, authorities became suspicious of the daughter, thinking that perhaps she had intentionally set the fires, as she had been present in the house for every single one of them. However, no one could figure out how she could have arranged for flames to shoot from the wall sockets, and there was still the matter of the strange fog. At one point, the house was unplugged from the power grid for a time, but even then the flames continued to shoot from the wall sockets like blowtorches, ruling out that they could be electrical in nature. Strangely, the fires always seemed to be extremely localized, never burning anything except what they originally targeted, and never spreading throughout the house. The strange phenomenon baffled everyone.
For their part, the Gallo’s themselves stated that they did not believe that the fires were supernatural in origin, but due to the mysterious circumstances of the blazes, the mist, the lack of any evidence as to what caused them, and no real suspect for potential arson, local rumors continued to swirl about ghosts or demonic possession. In the end, the Gallos moved out and the afflicted house was demolished, meaning that we’ll probably never know what was really going on here. It remains a mystery.
There have been numerous other less well-known cases such as this. In 1948 another family called the Parsons was terrorized by a similarly inexplicable rash of fires at their home in Flatrock, Ohio. During the ordeal various objects around the house would go up in flames under odd circumstances, such as a dictionary in a wooden box that burnt to a crisp while leaving the box untouched, a bag of sugar in the kitchen, and a doll in one of their children’s bedrooms. In many cases it was reported that the fires would spontaneously go out if anyone tried to touch them, and all of them occurred far from electrical wiring or any obvious source for the flames.
As with the other cases, authorities and experts such as the fire department, police, the National Fire Underwriters Laboratory, and even the Air Force were unable to figure out what was going on. There was no evidence of tampering or arson, and no clear cause for any of the fires that kept springing up. Interestingly, the fires allegedly stopped when a priest blessed the house. The “Flatrock Poltergeist” case has never been satisfactorily explained.
Another case from 1948 is that of the Willey family, of Macomb, Illinois, who experienced hundreds of inexplicable fires on their farm over just two weeks. In this case, the fires were said to have begun as spreading brown spots on the wallpaper, which would then flare up into fires, despite the fact that the home was not wired for electricity. Again, no one could find any explanation, although the Air Force suspected that it was perhaps something to do with radiation or natural gas. In the end, the family was forced from their home when one of the fires razed it to the ground.
Tarpon Springs, in Florida, has also long been purportedly terrorized by a pyromaniac ghost. According to locals, every year one particular area of woodland erupts into flame, with one such conflagration in 1952 razing 2,000 acres of forest and sending people fleeing from their homes in large numbers. It took hundreds of firefighters and volunteers to stop the fire, and its cause has never been fully understood, although locals claimed it was the sinister work of an angry spirit.
While these may be perhaps the most well-known accounts, the United States certainly does not have the monopoly on such strange cases, and there are numerous such phenomena reported from all over the world. In February of 1990, a house in Northern Italy was plagued by mystery fires, which started when one of the fuse boxes of the residence exploded into flames, yet electricians could find nothing wrong with it. The fuse box was replaced, and immediately disintegrated into flames again. When the electricians returned with equipment to test the fuse box, the machine they brought with them began to inexplicably heat up to the point that its plastic components began to bubble and melt. From that point on other things began to catch fire, including furniture, books, and even cars that were parked outside. Other unusual phenomena were reported at the home as well, such as visitors being beset with terrible headaches, nausea, panic attacks, and hallucinations. The cause of the fires and other phenomena was never found, although it was suggested that a nearby US telecommunications base may have had something to do with it. Locals believed it was the work of evil spirits or demons.
Also from Italy is the case of the village of Canneto di Caronia, Sicily, where around 20 houses were held under siege by unexplained fires over a four month period in 2004. During the mysterious events, electrical appliances such as TVs, refrigerators, air conditioners, and even mobile phones reportedly burst into flame spontaneously and without warning. Even when concerned officials turned off power to the town the fires continued. Experts could find no reasonable explanation, and the case was allegedly put under review by the Vatican as a potential candidate for an exorcism.
In June 1989, a young couple living in a humble cottage near Bury St Edmunds Suffolk UK began to have ghostly occurrences in their home such as objects dropping or moving on their own, as well as unexplained tapping on the walls. In one such incident, the wife came screaming out of the kitchen claiming that someone had pushed her although she had been alone. This paranormal activity escalated into a frightening incident in which their pet parrot was killed when a spontaneous fire broke out in a cupboard, after which a disembodied voice allegedly clearly said “That was fun, wasn’t it?” The desperate couple allegedly called in a priest to exorcise the home. It is unclear if this actually worked or not.
Moving over to London, England, we have the case of the Hitchings family, who in 1954 experienced a 4-month period during which an outbreak of fires held them in the grip of terror. In addition to the fires themselves, the family was also terrorized by other ghostly phenomena, such as being poked, tapped, or shoved by unseen hands and hearing disembodied voices. In one case, clothing was observed to levitate to an electric cooker to set itself on fire, despite the fact that it had been unplugged, and in another case the bed of the family’s 15-year-old daughter Shirley ignited while she slept on it. Apparently, the poltergeist seemed to follow the girl around, with most of the fires happening in her vicinity and the ghost even allegedly followed the girl too places outside of the home.
This detail of a spirit homing in on one particular person is common in cases of fire poltergeists. In 1983, a 12-year-old Nadine Calcine, of the Island of Reunion, seemed to be targeted in such a way. The girls clothes repeatedly caught fire without actually burning her skin, as did her mattresses and bedding. The fires ended up razing two different apartments she found herself living in, and no one could explain the cause. Nadine herself came to the conclusion that she had been cursed by someone with spells from an early 18th century tome on esoteric knowledge and magic called the “Little Albert Grimoire.” The case remains unresolved.
Another person allegedly singled out by malevolent entities in Mashoba Mthembu, of Hopewell, South Africa. In 2011, Mashoba was awoken by her smoking mattress, which proceeded to grow into a fire. From this incident, mysterious fires began popping up all over the house, always in Mashoba’s presence, as if they were following her around. Many of these fires were witnessed by others, including firefighters, who claimed to have seen several such fires spontaneously break out in the home. The phenomenon even resulted in a neighbor’s house being gutted by flames, and would ultimately claim the Mthembu home as well. No cause was ever found.
There is also the case of a 20-year-old nanny in Italy named Carole Compton, who seemed to bring strange fires wherever she went in 1982. In each of her three different jobs, mysterious fires broke out in her presence. This happened to the point where superstitious villagers accused her of witchcraft and people were terrified to be near her. Although Compton spent some time in jail and was put on trial for suspected arson, no solid evidence could be found against her and she was eventually released.
There are numerous theories about what lies at the heart of these fiery phenomena. One is simply that we are dealing with arson pure and simple, yet while this explanation may apply to some situations, it doesn’t really seem to fit in with all of the bizarre details and events that seem to orbit these cases. There is also the theory that the phenomena might be linked somehow to radiation, microwaves, radio waves, or some natural process we have yet to understand. Another idea is that the fires are similar to the phenomenon of human combustion, which itself has never really been explained. There is also of course the idea that the fires were indeed started by ghosts.
It has also been suggested that the mysterious fires could be the result of a manifestation of some latent affinity for pyrokenesis, which is the purported ability to start fires with one’s mind. In this scenario, the subject may not even be aware that they have this ability, and some sort of trauma, distress, or anger, or other turmoil might trigger it. As the victim would not be aware of this latent power and therefore be unable to control it, it would appear that the blazes were coming from some supernatural source. This fits into one already prevailing theory on poltergeist activity in general, which proposes that the incidents are caused by the projection of mental powers such as telekinesis when an individual, usually an adolescent, is under some form of emotional duress. According to this theory, this is why the poltergeist activity usually seems to be concentrated on one family or revolve around an individual, as it is being generated by a person. Is this all caused by the dormant psychic powers of an individual that we do not yet fully understand, and which are unwittingly unleashed through powerful emotions? No one knows for sure, and this has been a focus of various paranormal investigators over the years.
The phenomenon of fire poltergeists is likely to stir discussion and debate for quite some time to come. What causes this? Is this all explainable by rational or mundane reasons, or is there something truly mysterious beyond our current knowledge at work here? Can we solve this with current methodology or are we entering the domain of inscrutable forces of nature and beyond? For all of the numerous cases and intense speculation, these are questions for which we still strive for answers. Perhaps one day we will have them, but until then these ominous blazes and the factors beyond them remain just as wreathed in smoke as the damage they bring.