Mar 15, 2019 I Robbie Graham

Spontaneous Human Combustion, Poltergeists, and Anomalous Lights: An Interview with Louis Proud

Louis Proud is a writer and researcher specialising in anomalous phenomena. His articles have appeared in Fortean TimesNew Dawn, FATE and Nexus magazines, and he has been interviewed on numerous podcasts and radio shows. The author of Dark Intrusions (2009), The Secret Influence of the Moon (2013) and Strange Electromagnetic Dimensions (2015). He currently resides in Tasmania, Australia.

In his new book, Borderland Phenomena: Volume One, Proud approaches the paranormal not as something foreign or magical but as occupying a realm on the margins of this reality, in what he refers to as the “borderland.” In an investigation spanning topics such as earth lights, strange rains, mysterious fires, and jinn, Proud adopts a refreshing and innovative approach to looking at the paranormal, and so too the natural world. Here, Proud talks to me about the core topics if his new book --spontaneous human combustion, poltergeists, and anomalous lights-- and how these phenomena interweave and overlap...

RG: In your new book, Borderland Phenomena, you suggest that there is no such thing as "the supernatural," only natural phenomena that are not currently fully understood by science. Could you elaborate on this?

LP: The term supernatural means “beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature,” and since, in my view, nothing is beyond scientific understanding, or indeed the laws of nature, it’s a term I specifically avoid in my work and thinking. The late Edgar D. Mitchell, the Apollo 14 astronaut and sixth man to walk on the Moon, expressed it well when he said, “There are no unnatural or supernatural phenomena, only very large gaps in our knowledge of what is natural.” In Borderland Phenomena, I encourage the reader to conceive of nature as a circle, with certain, well-understood phenomena existing towards the middle, and other, less-understood phenomena existing towards the periphery. This “periphery” is the borderland. Borderland phenomena, then, are things which lie on the border, or edge, of this reality, being neither here nor there but somewhere in between, occupying a realm that could best be termed liminal (from the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold”). It is in the borderland – that strange, shadowy, liminal zone within which other possible worlds overlap and interact with our own – that the paranormal, I believe, has its origin.

RG: What connection, if any, do you see between Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC), poltergeist phenomena, and anomalous lights (or UFOs)?

LP: Many remarkable connections and patterns exist between SHC, poltergeistry and anomalous lights. With respect to SHC and poltergeistry, it could be argued that the two represent opposites sides of the same coin. First it should be noted that, as per the leading model for poltergeistry, the RSPK theory – which stands for “recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis” – the phenomena originate from the subconscious mind of a psychologically disturbed individual, often an adolescent undergoing puberty, called the focus or agent, with the throwing of objects and so forth being a way for the agent to externalise, in dramatic fashion, any pent up anger or frustration they’ve been harbouring. Poltergeist effects undoubtedly require energy, and it’s no secret that the human body is a highly sophisticated electromagnetic (more correctly, electrochemical) machine.

With SHC, it would appear that the human subconscious is also to blame, but that the energy in question is internalised rather than externalised, resulting in the victim being almost entirely reduced to ash. This is the subconscious suicide theory, which states that SHC is triggered by negative, suicidal thoughts on the part of the victim. But the connection is deeper still. It’s been observed, for example, that SHC fires are very similar in nature to those that sometimes erupt, spontaneously and inexplicably, in poltergeist cases. As for the anomalous lights connection, allow me to simply point out as an example that small balls of light, sometimes referred to as orbs, feature now and then in poltergeist cases, and often in such cases outbreaks of fire are also reported. One would need to read my book to fully appreciate the remarkable extent to which these three areas overlap.

RG: How rare are cases of SHC worldwide, and is SHC officially recognised as a real medical phenomenon?

LP: All the available evidence suggests that SHC is extremely rare. That being said, exactly how rare it is remains unknown, and it would be a virtually impossible task to determine approximately how many incidents of SHC occur per year on a worldwide basis. When we use the term SHC to refer to the death of an individual, it means, simply put, that somehow their body has undergone combustion, to some degree or another, minus an apparent source of ignition. The body has been burned, in other words, although nobody quite knows how it happened.

Now of course, whenever someone dies in a manner that cannot be immediately explained, such as violently, suddenly, or inexplicably, it is the job of a coroner to determine cause of death. There are many spectacular cases of SHC on record that, though highly unusual, were effectively whitewashed by the coroners who investigated them, with the victim’s death certificates stating, for example, “death by fire” to explain – or explain away – cause of death. Infrequent though SHC is, there are probably many cases that go unrecognised or unreported, receiving absolutely no mention at all in the media and so never reach the public.

To answer the second part of your question, no, science does not recognise SHC as a real medical phenomenon. From an official perspective, there is no way that the human body can catch fire spontaneously – it cannot, and does not, happen. There must be some source of ignition present – for example, a dropped cigarette or an ember from a fire. When confronted with apparent cases of SHC, scientists rely on the wick effect theory, which compares the human body to a candle, only inside out, with the victim’s clothing representing the wick and the fat of the body the fuel or wax. The theory states that once the victim’s clothing has been set on fire from some external source, the fat melts and is drawn into the clothing, resulting in a gradual burning of the body. I won’t point out the many flaws in this theory. Suffice it to say that, from a scientific and medical perspective, SHC (in the proper sense of the term) is a myth.

RG: What do you consider to be the single most compelling case of SHC on record, and why?

LP: There are many compelling cases of SHC on record, but by far the most compelling, in my opinion, is that of Mary Hardy Reeser. Her bizarre and unusual death was widely covered in the press at the time and it remains a topic of discussion and debate to this day.

Mrs Reeser, the 67-year-old widow of a doctor, resided in Columbia, Pennsylvania, before choosing, somewhat reluctantly, to move to St. Petersburg, Florida, in order to be closer to her son and his family. It was while living in St. Petersburg, in an apartment she’d been renting for only five weeks, when, on the night of July 1-2, 1951, she met her fiery demise. All 170 pounds of her body, save for her (purportedly shrunken) skull, part of her left foot (still clad in its slipper) and a chunk of backbone was entirely reduced to fine ash, along with the easychair on which she’d been seated. Just as strange, the apartment itself suffered very little damage. Paint on nearby walls was neither cracked nor singed, and a pile of newspapers located within arm’s length of where the easychair had stood were not even scorched, while sheets on a daybed just three feet away were completely unmarked. Ceilings and walls were smoke-blackened and covered in moist soot, but only from a height of four feet above the ground.

What makes the Reeser case so persuasive and captivating is the fact that, at the time it occurred, it was investigated in great depth, with the help of experts from various fields, yet the mystery was never solved and still isn’t, prompting many to question the official explanation – that she caught fire to herself after dozing off in her chair while smoking. Among those who weighed in on the matter was Dr. Wilton M. Krogman, a professor of physical anthropology and world leading expert on what happens to the human body when exposed to fire, who admitted complete bafflement with regards to the widow’s death, commenting that he’d “never heard of anything like it.”

RG: “Poltergeist” essentially means “noisy ghost,” but is this a misnomer? We typically associate the word “ghost” with spirits of the dead, but many researchers have suggested that poltergeist activities are more likely psychic manifestations of the frustrated subconscious mind than the discarnate spirits of the deceased. Do you see poltergeist phenomena as distinct from the notion of a more typically “supernatural” haunting?

LP: There is little evidence to support the theory that poltergeistry is caused by the spirits of the deceased, even though, as you so rightly point out, the term translates as “noisy ghost.” And, yes, you are correct that most researchers, in this day and age, view the activity as originating from the subconscious mind of a disturbed individual, as per the RSPK theory. Your question is not an easy one to answer. Certainly a distinction can be made between hauntings, which are generally place oriented, and poltergeist outbreaks, which are generally people oriented, although the line between the two can be somewhat blurry at times. Although I won’t comment further on hauntings as the topic is outside my area of expertise, I will admit that the spirit theory with respect to poltergeistry is not without some merit. Poltergeists have been known to behave in a highly independent manner, as though possessed of a will and intelligence of their own, quite apart from that of any living person, and even Colin Wilson and Guy Lyon Playfair, both great intellects who understood the paranormal deeply, subscribed to the spirit theory.

RG: What do you consider to be the most intriguing poltergeist case on record, and why?

LP: Picking a single case is no easy task, as there are many that I consider highly intriguing. However, one case that certainly ranks high on my list is the Great Amherst Mystery, which took place in Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada, beginning in 1878, and focused around a 19-year-old woman named Esther Cox. It lends its name from a book by Walter Hubbel, an actor with an interest in the paranormal, which he wrote after staying with Esther and her extended family in their rather cramped cottage while the activity was underway. Hubbel’s original intention was to defraud the mystery, but, having witnessed some of the remarkable incidents first-hand, he ended up a believer in the case.

Esther was very much the black sheep among her siblings, and it’s likely she harboured feelings of jealousy towards her older, more attractive and popular sister, Jennie. The activity first broke out when, one night, as the sisters lay side by side, Esther complained of a “mouse” under the covers. The “mouse” returned the following night, again causing movement under the covers – though no actual mouse was ever seen – and from that point on the strangeness escalated. The family was plagued by loud noises as of someone repeatedly striking the cottage with a sledgehammer, objects were violently thrown about, and at one point the following ominous message was found scrawled on the wall: “Esther Cox, you are mine to kill.” More worrying still, the poltergeist, which began to communicate by means of rapping noises, threatened to burn down the house. It soon made good on its promise by lighting blazes here and there at unexpected moments, including one in a barrel of shavings in the cellar that became so intense that several men were required to extinguish it.

Although the poltergeist exhibited behaviour characteristic of that of an independent entity, it became apparent to all concerned, including Hubbel, that the activity was deeply connected to Esther, even varying in intensity in accordance with a 28 day cycle, possibly in line with her period and thus indicating a sexual component at work. It was also revealed that, just days before the poltergeist outbreak occurred, Esther suffered a tremendous shock when a young man she’d been dating at the time attempted to sexually assault her at gunpoint.

There are several reasons why the Great Amherst Mystery is such a fascinating case: (1) it featured a wide variety of intriguing phenomena, including the eruption of spontaneous fires – which has some bearing on SHC; (2) it hints at the very likely possibility of a sexual component at work in poltergeistry; and (3) it isn’t entirely explainable by means of RSPK, given, for example, that the poltergeist attacked and harassed not just her family but Esther also. If her subconscious mind was behind the activity why would she target herself? And how do we explain the highly autonomous nature of the poltergeist’s behaviour?

RG: There are many cases throughout history in which we see an apparent overlap between paranormal phenomena and anomalous lights, or UFOs. Do you think UFOlogists are right to link UFO phenomena so closely to the idea of alien visitation, or could it be they are barking up the wrong tree? What other theories do you find attractive?

LP: It’s an unfortunate fact that the term unidentified flying object (UFO), which was coined by the United States Air Force (USAF) in 1952 for purposes of national security, has, in the mind of the public, come to imply some kind of solid aerial craft, typically saucer-shaped and piloted by extraterrestrials. Unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) is a slight improvement but still quite limiting. I have therefore chosen to use the term “anomalous lights,” to refer not only to inexplicable objects or craft seen in the sky but to a wide variety of unusual luminous phenomena, ranging from the very large to the very small, including ball lightning, earth lights, earthquake lights, as well as strange balls of light, or “orbs,” that occasionally manifest during poltergeist incidents. These are all “lights” in the sense that there is some kind of luminosity present, even if only to a slight degree.

I don’t completely dismiss the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH), the theory that UFOs are explainable in terms of nuts-and-bolts alien craft. Rather, I see no firm evidence to support it, and to me it seems far more logical to suppose that the phenomena originate here on Earth, not from some distant planet. We’ve barely begun to appreciate the wonder and complexity of our own planet and its myriad of lifeforms, and who’s to say what remains to be discovered with respect to the latter – perhaps, in some instances, because we lack the perspicacity and wisdom to recognise life even when it’s right in front of our noses.

It’s not difficult to imagine that instances of ball lightning, especially when the object observed is large in size and seen to exhibit apparently intelligent behaviour, account for at least a small percentage of UFO sightings. Earth lights, another class of unusual luminous phenomenon produced by the earth, occupy an equally important place in the field of Ufology. Also known as ghost lights or spook lights, they tend to haunt specific locales, places that are geologically “special” in one or more respect, such as owing to the presence of a fault line. Locations in which earth lights appear with regularity exist all over the world. Such places include Marfa, Texas, United States; in the valley of Hessdalen, Norway; the Boulia region of western Queensland, Australia; and the Pennines of England. Witnesses have described, time and again, seeing the lights behave in a clearly intelligent, sentient manner, indicating that we’re dealing with an exotic, most likely plasma-based form of life that is indigenous to the earth and which manifests fleetingly under certain special conditions.

Considering all of the above, I’m convinced the field of Ufology would benefit considerably if researchers directed their gaze not to the stars but looked more closely and inquisitively at our very own planet.

RG: It’s been ten years since the publication of your first book, Dark Intrusions, an exploration of the sleep paralysis phenomenon. What compelled you to write this book, and what do you feel is the best theory to explain sleep paralysis?

LP: I wrote Dark Intrusions as an attempt to make sense of my sleep paralysis (SP) episodes, which I first began having in my late-teens and which occurred on a regular basis until my early to mid-twenties. During SP, one’s body is asleep and paralysed (to prevent one from “acting out” one’s dreams), yet one feels completely awake and alert, and while in this liminal, hypnagogic/hypnopompic state of consciousness one can experience all sorts of odd phenomena, from sensing a presence in the room (generally malevolent in nature), to being touched, strangled or grabbed, to hearing unusual noises and voices, to seeing apparitions of various kinds. Sleep experts label these peculiar and often terrifying experiences “hallucinations,” and argue that SP is nothing but a neurological glitch, a mere dysfunction of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, in which one has accidentally emerged from slumber while still partially remaining in the REM state.

Although I accept the physiological aspects of SP and advise those who’ve undergone frightening episodes to maintain a sober view of what’s occurred and not get carried away with ideas of spirits, demons and sorcery, it would be erroneous to say that science can entirely explain the phenomenon. We need to allow for the possibility that at least some SP episodes are genuinely paranormal – meaning that what was seen, heard, and so on, has some basis in objective reality. Perhaps SP merely widens one’s perception, as altered states of consciousness are known to do, allowing a fleeting awareness of things to which one is, under normal conditions, blind – much like peering into another dimension or reality.

RG: Why is it important for us study so-called paranormal phenomena, and what does the field of anomalistics have to teach humanity?

LP: To disregard the paranormal, much less study it, is to ignore half of nature – or, rather, those aspects of nature that don’t quite seem to “add up.” Ignorance of anything can have perilous consequences. If one enjoyed surfing, for example, but had no awareness of the existence of sharks or simply didn’t believe in them – either because one had never seen a shark, or perhaps because one found the thought of large, man-eating fish with sharp teeth simply too disturbing and farfetched to contemplate – one would go surfing wherever they fancied, even in waters believed to be shark-infested, thus unintentionally putting one’s life at risk. To a surfer, knowing about sharks and how to avoid them is crucial. From the perspective of a marine biologist, sharks are an important part of the marine ecosystem, and to not know about them would be to possess an incomplete knowledge of that which inhabits the ocean. The paranormal is no different. We can ignore it if we choose, but it’s there regardless, and doing so will only limit our understanding of reality and what we’re capable of as human beings.

RG: What can we expect from you in Volume Two of Borderland Phenomena?

LP: I’m already in the process of doing research for Volume Two, and there may be a Volume Three as well – all depending, of course, on whether there’s a demand for the book and if I have the time and energy to complete it while taking care of other, more pressing commitments. Writing books on paranormal phenomena has few rewards, least of all financial, and I do it for no other reason than the fact that I find it enjoyable and the subject matter intriguing. I’m not on a mission to “expose the truth” or any such nonsense, and I don’t pretend to have any of the answers (anyone who does is either dishonest or deluded). My interest in the paranormal is, at its core, philosophical, in that I’d like to better understand who and what we are, both individually and as a species, and thus also shed light on our purpose and function on this planet.

This lack of awareness and insight into ourselves is the cause of much of the suffering and madness we see in the world. The problem, then, is one of ignorance. Among other things, we fail to recognise that we occupy a kind of cosmic hierarchy, and, more to the point, that our position within it is not the top rung. If there are other beings out there more intelligent and cunning than ourselves, inhabiting, for example, a universe or reality existing alongside our own, it figures that they would be exploitative towards us and oppose all efforts on our part to fix the problems of this world – in the same way a farmer would not want his sheep to become so aware as to realise that they can escape at any time. I intend to explore this intriguing hypothesis in Borderland Phenomena Volume Two, and one section of the book will focus on mysterious disappearances.

Borderland Phenomena Volume One is available now from all good online bookstores. To learn more about Louis Proud and his work, visit his website.

Robbie Graham

Robbie Graham has lectured around the world on the UFO subject and has been interviewed for the BBC, Coast to Coast AM, Canal+ TV, Channel 4, and Vanity Fair, among many others. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, New Statesman, Filmfax, and Fortean Times. He holds first class degrees in Film, Television and Radio Studies (BA hons) and Cinema Studies (MA) from Staffordshire University and the University of Bristol respectively. He is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies (White Crow Books, 2015) and the editor of UFOs: Reframing the Debate (White Crow Books, 2017). Visit

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