What does it take to inflame a pyromaniac?
There are things in my past that I'm not proud of. I was even a serial killer for a while. Hundreds of lives—perhaps thousands—ended at my hands. If only their deaths were painless. But the truth of the matter is that my modus operandi was unspeakably cruel, and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't take considerable pleasure in my victims' suffering. I lit those poor souls on fire. Why? Old Testament vengeance. It was punishment for the sins of one of their very own, a horrible figure who, one springtime day back in 1986, took it upon himself to rudely lodge his mandible into the top of my second toe with such fury that I, quite seriously, winced. Yes, it's true—I winced. As if that alone weren't just cause for retaliation, he then injected his venom, enough to make me really, really itchy for a good 30 minutes.
So each afternoon for the next month, I perched myself atop a bench on our suburban patio, matchbooks pilfered from my father's desk at the ready, and gleefully held a great wrathful flame against the thorax of whatever unfortunate fire ant, heir to my fury, dared to wander into my field of vision. Eventually, I saw the error of my ways. (Basically, I turned 11.) In retrospect, though, I really was playing with fire in incinerating those ants, which is no laughing matter. Perhaps a slight perturbation here or there in my development would have turned me into the character described by British psychiatrist Randolph Parks and his colleagues in a 2005 issue of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. Ants weren't sufficient kindling for the 20-year-old homeless fellow who was the focus of their case study. He enjoyed dowsing people with lighter fluid and setting them on fire. Although he was seriously depressed and presented to the clinicians with anhedonia (low mood), he really lit up when talking about his hobby of using people, quite literally, for fatwood. (He also asked one of the mental health aides if she could arrange for prostitutes to visit the inpatient ward disguised as staff nurses, but that's probably a separate issue.)
Now if a child psychiatrist happened to be observing me on my back porch way back when, she might have pulled my parents aside and given them a stern warning about my behavior, prognosticating about the sociopath incubating inside their little boy and on such clear display. But relax: My sadism was reserved entirely for Solenopsis invicta. (Around the same time, I wrote to Gillette threatening legal action over their use of animals in deodorant testing and had a falling-out with my best friend over his rough handling of his cat.) Still, there's no denying I had a curiosity about fire; I did like the smell of a struck match. So there was the question of pyromania. Derived from French physician Charles Chrétian Henry Marc's 1833 coinage monomanie incendiare ("insane incendiarism,"), pyromania is a slightly inaccurate English translation of a concept that has always eluded precise definitions—and posed major challenges for any scientist who wished to study it.
It may be a stretch to find evidence of a disorder in my Salem Ant Trials, but when does "normal" childhood experimentation with fire cross that hazy line into dangerous fire-setting pathology? Although we tend to use the term loosely, there remains considerable confusion among experts—let alone the public—as to what, exactly, pyromania might be. In fact, not so very long ago, the FBI organized an advanced fire investigation training session and, at the start of the meeting, asked over 600 participants (fire agency personnel, insurance investigators, law enforcement, and mental health professionals) to write down their definition of pyromania. Not a single one got it entirely right—at least, not according to the American Psychiatric Associations' formal diagnostic criteria. To be considered a full-fledged pyromaniac, one must set fires deliberately on more than one occasion, show tension or arousal before the act, be fascinated by or attracted to fire or its paraphernalia, and feel pleasure or relief when setting fires or witnessing their aftermath. Even that's not enough to earn the diagnosis, though. The arsonist in question must also set fires for fires' sake (i.e. not for monetary or other gain), and the act must not be due to inebriation, psychosis, or any other form of impaired cognition. That is to say, the qualifications are strict.
Only a handful of those arrested for setting fires on purpose would be considered certifiable pyromaniacs under official guidelines. At least, that's the case in Finland. University of Helsinki psychologist Nina Lindberg and her co-authors pored over the jailhouse records between the years of 1972 and 1993 and found that among Finnish men who'd been arrested for arson, 68 percent had been drunk at the time of the crime. Repeat offenders were mostly those with personality disorders or mental retardation—and a history of alcoholism. The scholars therefore concluded that "pyromania is an extremely rare phenomenon," at least when applying the APA's present diagnostic criteria to the arsonists who happened to get caught by the police. As psychologist Rebekah Doley points out in the British Journal of Criminology, "much that is known … is more pertinent to describing the incompetent fire-setter, as those who are more criminally skilled are presumably more successful in covering their tracks." She's right. In the U.S., only 3 percent of suspected arson fires lead to conviction. Maybe the true arson-prone pyromaniacs are still roaming the streets. (Some evidence suggests that arsonists tend to be nonassertive offenders who internalize their anger, with fires enabling them to avoid face-to-face confrontation; such evasiveness also makes them difficult to study.)
Jesse Bering is the author of the forthcoming book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. He is a frequent contributor to Slate and writes the "Bering in Mind" column for scientificamerican.com. Follow him at www.jessebering.com, on Twitter @JesseBering, or try adding him on Facebook.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.