Everyone goes through a stage of pyromania (right?). Most of us have a few tender years during which we burn ants or notebook paper, then we get bored and move to something else (or almost accidentally burn the house down and decide fire is the wrong element to f*ck with). But a true fire-starter is only getting started in youth. The compulsion behind pyromania becomes an all-consuming desire capable of making you want to scorch the earth, or even make a lateral move to serial murder.
Whether you’re a secret pyromaniac or simply interested in what leads someone to set 18 fires in 10 days, there’s something to learn from this collection of things you didn’t know about pyromania.
According to psychologists, it’s nearly impossible to classify and count the number of true pyromaniacs in the world because extenuating circumstances must be taken into account. A true pyromaniac isn't someone setting random fires, but rather meets a very specific set of qualifications. This list addresses those qualifications, as well as theories concerning the compulsive need to set things on fire. Some researchers believe the need to burn is sexual, others think it has something to do with onset of frontal lobe damage. Read on to learn everything you need to know about pyromania.
If you know anything about Freud it's that he was obsessed with sex, and specifically how men were obsessed with penises. Once you know that, it's a no brainer he would correlate pyromania to male sexual urges. He connects fire to the origins of human progress, and the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind. Freud noted the phallic nature of tongues of flames, and suggested early men put out fires by peeing on them, which makes a man's interaction with fire inherently homoerotic or competitive.
Freud also hypothesized the urge to set fires represents a regression to a primitive desire to demonstrate power over nature. Adolescents setting fires may be a case of youth trying to gain superiority over adults.
Researchers have suggested pyromania is a gateway crime, theorizing that children and adolescents who set things on fire graduate to more serious crimes like rape and murder as adults. Multiple serial killers, including David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, and David Carpenter, the Trailside Killer of the San Francisco Bay area, were fire-setters in their adolescence. Berkowitz admitted having started more than 2,000 fires in Brooklyn and Queens in the early 1970s. Fire-setting is a component in the MacDonald triad, a set of three behaviors indicating whether or not a child is prone to murder. The other behaviors in the triangle are cruelty to animals and persistent bed wetting.
People throw the term "pyromaniac" around like confetti, but less than two percent of arson and fire-setting behavior is due to pyromania. As per a study of 600 arsonists conducted by Nina Lindberg, a psychiatrist in Finland, 68% of arsonists studied set things on fire when they were drunk, and did so due to a combination of inebriation personality disorders, psychosis, or mental retardation. Only 12 of the 600 people studied fit the DSM-IV criteria for pyromania, and of those 12, nine (75%) admitted to only setting fires when drunk. Taking alcohol out of the equation, Lindberg arrived at her "less than two percent" figure.
Some researchers believe pyromania is a condition affecting the frontal lobe of the brain, rather than a true obsession with fire. In 2006, psychiatrist Jon Grant examined the brain of a patient who exhibited pyromaniac behaviors with single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging and found a region in the left inferior frontal portion with low blood flow. After three weeks of daily behavioral therapy and a 12-month regimen of topiramate, an anticonvulsant used to treat seizures, the patient reported a decrease in the urge to set fires.