Fire has fascinated people and humans since the earliest of time. In ancient times it was often associated with magic and primal power, especially when nature decided to make itself known through lightning, wildland fire, and even volcanoes. However, in our modern world, fire is demoted to a chemical reaction when a material goes so hot it goes through a transformation from a solid or material to a gas through a release of energy. So why, then, is the fire still so fascinating to some, to the point that they want to see it burn destructively? How does a Pyromaniac exist?
The basic definition of a pyromaniac is someone who starts fires and can’t control their behavior. Folks generally associate this definition with an arsonist, but not every arsonist is a pyromaniac. For example, some seasonal firefighters have been convicted of being arsonists, but their motivation was to create more work to get hired and stay busy more often during the year. That intent had nothing to do with an uncontrolled urge to start fires; they wanted to create an environment where they would see a paycheck more often and used fire to generate the demand illegally.
On the other hand, many pyromaniacs did go on to become fully bona fide arsonists, excited and drawn to creating fire and watching it destroy in significant events. These folks are motivated by an internal urge to see fire burn, and the bigger the fire gets, the more excitement it generates in the person.
The American Psychiatric Association experts define pyromaniac as a mental disorder in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, otherwise known as the DSM-IV. In that technical, psychological definition, a pyromania condition is one in which:
- The individual purposefully and intentionally starts fires versus creating them by accident and does so in more than one instance.
- The individual gets visually excited and changes outward behavior before their actions ignite the fire.
- The individual is genuinely interested in how fires ignite and occur in all types of settings.
- The individual gains pleasure and stress relief from igniting a fire and then watching it burn.
- There are no other reasons or conditions why the individual is fixated on fire ignition and burning.
This definition is key in distinguishing other motivations from the true mental condition of pyromania. For example, multiple motivations can be why people start fires, like the seasonal firefighter example above. There can be a desire to trigger a financial gain, such as an insurance claim from the destroyed property.
The destruction may realize or forward a political or social motivation. During a protest march, people burning another country’s flag give them a sense that they have fought back against that country’s interests, but it doesn’t make the burner a pyromaniac.
People can also be motivated by negative emotions towards others, such as a desire for revenge and to cause pain from a previous injury. Anger can also be a big motivator for causing damage. Most commonly, fire is used to wipe out evidence of another crime because burning can seemingly destroy everything it touches. This is why firefighters often investigate “accidental fires” and frequently find signs of intentional causes or proof of something partially destroyed, like a body.
Other Reasons for Pyromania
Burning has also been used for agricultural purposes for centuries without the instigators being considered pyromaniacs. Fire is a very fast way to clear plant material and break it down into particles that are easy to till into the soil. Doing so can create new land for farming. The Amazon is currently suffering major encroachment from Brazilian farmers who burn the jungle to clear space and farmland. This process is a common way of improving living conditions and a personal means to create a better life in third-world countries.
Finally, some reasons are caused by mental conditions but do not equate to pyromania. Mental conditions can include reactions to hallucinations or delusions. Folks who suffer from limited judgment may also start fires, such as those on drugs, drunk, or with mental retardation limitations.
So when all the above is considered, pyromaniacs are not as common as people think. They don’t all become arsonists as if it’s a title one earns after going to pyromania school. There is no such thing.
Instead, medical experts use a process of elimination to narrow down a diagnosis of pyromania.
The follow-up question to the above is, how common or frequent is a diagnosis of pyromania, and how can one tell whether their teen is a candidate to define pyro tendencies? There is no easy answer. Pyromania has existed as a mental urge for centuries and has only been carefully studied in the last century the most. Before that point, fire bugs existed, but Who ignored them until the person caused damage and was caught in the act, in which case moral punishment could be pretty severe trying to exact some retribution and revenge for the victim.
However, with the modern prison system, arsonists are far easier to study psychologically because they are 1) identified by their criminal conviction and 2) restricted and easy to locate (i.e., jailed). So they become a captive population to study, survey, and research to get a better idea of motivations. Again, arsonists do not reflect all pyromaniacs, but some of them are suffering from the condition which was the motivation that caused their criminal activity.
In one Finnish study, researchers looked at the records of known arsonists over 20 years. The data found that a high majority of arsonists had verifiable mental disorders and mental retardation in some cases. Additionally, two-thirds of the individuals were under the influence of alcohol when they were starting fires. Yet when Who compared the clinical DSM-IV definition to the inmate’s studies, only 12 out of 600 individuals fully met the clinical criteria of a pyromaniac, not a common frequency rate at all.
After all the filtering and further comparative work to confirm findings, the researchers concluded only 2 percent of known arsonists were truly suffering from a pyromania condition, which is likely an even smaller population point in a regular community of all types of people. So, one can conclude from this data that pyromania is not an everyday occurrence, even among rambunctious and rebellious teens out to make a statement against society.
To understand if a teen is a pyromaniac, one must also determine if the causes are present. The condition is known as an impulse control disorder, and that pattern is proven case after case as well as from personal stories of patients. This is a condition similar to addictions such as gambling, drinking, drug use, or even stealing. The patient gains excitement and pleasure from the activity, so the urge to repeat the activity increases to maintain the pleasure level or repeat it. Ergo, one of the causes of pyromania tends to be internal excitement and addictive pleasure.
At the chemical level, normal addictions are associated with a release of serotonin in the brain, which creates a pleasure feeling. This is assumed to be the case in pyromania, so the condition is often addressed with a behavioral treatment to repeatedly break the pattern of seeking pleasure. In a few cases, researchers have assumed that blood loss to some parts of the brain may create pyromania impulses as well. So treatment was performed to reverse this condition with drugs and therapy; the results were positive but not conclusive. Yet, in the individual cases, the patient noted no longer wanting to start fires. But one patient doesn’t create a theory or rule of treatment.