That’s Hot Pyromaniac

What does it take to inflame a pyromaniac?

Jesse Bering

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.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.)

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