Sometimes, the cause of a fire is obvious: arson, bad wiring, a careless cigarette, a kid playing with matches. But occasionally, a fire’s origin is a mystery—perhaps supernatural, the result of an angry spirit or poltergeist tormenting the living. Hoax or haunting? You be the judge. Here are 10 instances where otherworldly powers took the blame for the burning.
10 The Hitchings Haunting (1954)
In Battersea, London, the Hitchings family were terrorized for four months by an outbreak of fires and other phenomena like tapping and phantom fingers tugging on their clothes. Most disturbingly, the haunting seemed to focus on their 15-year old daughter Shirley. In one instance, Shirley’s bed caught fire. In another, the spirit apparently dropped clothes on an electric cooker and turned it on, even though power to the appliance had been cut off. The poltergeist, named Donald, even followed Shirley to work and frightened her co-workers.
Finally, spiritualist Harry Hanks held a séance in the home and the supernatural activity ceased.
9 Sasha K., the Ukrainian Poltergeist Boy (1987)
The residents of the village of Yenakievo in the Ukraine became frightened of a young boy, identified only as Sasha K. Strange phenomena had begun occurring around him, including several spontaneous fires, exploding lightbulbs, and even a refrigerator turning itself upside-down.
When Sasha’s father suffered a nervous breakdown and panicking neighbors called the police, the boy was taken to Moscow and examined by a physicist. Dr. Adriankin had two possible explanations for the events: 1) under possession by a spirit, Sasha K. was emitting an energy that caused spontaneous fires to ignite gasses in the environment. Or 2) a poltergeist was responsible, period. Sasha K.’s ultimate fate remains unknown.
8 Ghost Fires of Tarpon Springs (1952)
Long time residents of Tarpon Springs—believed to be in one of the most haunted places of Florida—claimed every year that when the wind came from the south, fires would start in the same wooded area. Fires, they claimed, set by a ghost.
In 1952, the “ghost fire” destroyed 2,000 acres of woodland between the community and the Gulf of Mexico, and hundreds of citizens joined fire fighting volunteers to prevent the blaze from destroying their homes. Fire investigators preferred to place the blame on an arsonist, though no evidence was found and the fire’s origin remains unproved.
7 The Willow Hotel (1985)
In the Gold Rush days of the mid 19th century, Jamestown, California was known as the “Gateway to the Mother Lode” and the Willow Hotel held pride of place—even though it appears to be haunted. It’s believed that a malevolent poltergeist has set fire to the historic landmark five times. The most notable was in 1985, when a mysterious blaze burned the building and destroyed nearby shops.
Psychic investigators and those who’ve seen the apparition claim the poltergeist is the angry spirit of a miner who died in the collapsed gold mine below the hotel. The culprit may also be one of the people who died in 1896 when a fire broke out in the town and nine occupied buildings were dynamited to save the Willow Hotel.
6 Willey Farm (1948)
The Willey family in Macomb, Illinois, endured hundreds of fires in a two week ordeal which destroyed their home, two barns, and damaged the milk house. The inexplicable fires began as brown spots on the wallpaper which burst into flames. In the following week, they extinguished more than 200 fires in the home—which wasn’t wired for electricity, ruling out faulty wiring as a cause.
The Willeys moved into a makeshift tent just in time—the very next day, their house was destroyed in a blaze. The following day, their first barn burned to the ground. An investigation by the state fire marshal yielded no explanation, although US Air Force officials believed the fires might be caused by radio waves, radioactivity, natural gas, or “atomic energy.”
5 The Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills (1922)
The farm of Alexander McDonald in Caledonia Mills, Nova Scotia, became the setting for a series of unexplained fires and other poltergeist phenomena. The events were centered around the family’s adopted daughter, Mary Ellen—a disabled 16-year old with the mental capacity of a four-year old child.
The incidents investigated by Dr. Walter Prince of the American Psychical Association included livestock found locked in a barn with their tails braided together, a large number of fires of unknown origin in the farmhouse, and an unseen assailant slapping witnesses on their arms. Dr. Prince believed Mary Ellen did these things, but she wasn’t responsible, having been possessed by a “discarnate intelligence.”
4 The Mthembu Fires (2011)
In Hopewell, near Thornville, South Africa, the Mthembu family’s main home and their belongings were destroyed in the culmination of two weeks of terror inflicted by a mysterious entity. Incidents began when the mother, Mashoba, woke with her bed on fire and the mattress partially consumed. More destructive fires occurred in the other four bedrooms. Even a house across the street belonging to her daughter caught fire. A firefighter even witnessed a fire starting spontaneously.
None of the investigators could find an official cause. The final fire raged out of control, couldn’t be put out by volunteers, and burned down the main house, but fortunately, the family made it out in time.
3 Alabama Fire Poltergeist (1958)
Calvin Tuck, his wife, and six children suffered an ordeal by fire when their four-room house (not wired for electricity) became the target of an apparent poltergeist. In a short period, 52 fires were set. Some happened in front of eyewitnesses, who said the fires were reddish in color and smelled like sulfur. One of the strangest incidents was when a loaf of bread on a table spontaneously burst into flames.
When the house was gutted by an uncontrollable fire, the Tucks moved to a new residence, but the fires continued. They left to occupy a third house. Five fires broke out on the first day and more followed. When their fourth house was plagued by fires, authorities coerced a confession from one of the children, though the “confession” was doubted by the many witnesses including police officers, firefighters, and reporters.
2 Fire Haunted Malaysian Grandmother (2011)
In the village of Kota Baru, 78-year old Zainab Sulaiman, a grandmother, found herself under attack in her own home by a rash of strange, spontaneous fires. There were over 200 in a short period, which many believed were caused by a poltergeist or “djinn.” The fires targeted cloth items like clothing, prayer mats, and mattresses.
Her problem became so well known in the area, an American couple on a tour visited the house to offer their help in exorcising the spirit (Zainab refused). An Australian writer planned to visit Zainab and document the mysterious phenomena. At last, after efforts by a Thai medium and a group of local ghost-busters failed to get rid of the poltergeist, a spiritualist master visited to chase the entity away, and the fires ceased.
1 The Flatrock Poltergeist (1954)
Mike Parsons and his family’s ordeal began when his wife found a dictionary smoldering in the wood-box—while all the wood around it remained unburnt. Next, a sack of sugar in the kitchen burst into flames, but the fire went out as soon as Mike touched the sack. Subsequent incidents included a doll spontaneously consumed by fire while it sat in the middle of the floor, a box catching fire and burning a groove in a chest of drawers, and fires erupting in the corners of a bedroom without electricity or a fireplace.
An RCMP investigation ruled out deliberate arson, but failed to find a cause. After a priest visited the house and performed a blessing, the fires stopped. The phenomena have never been explained.