On December 10 2019, a Facebook user shared the following photographs of a vehicle on fire — one of which includes an apparent image of a figure in the flames:
Alongside the two photographs, the user wrote:
Caught a picture of this vehicle on fire this morning can you guys see what I see?? Let me know what you see
Thousands of Facebook users apparently saw what the user saw, sharing it on to their own pages; one user shared it on publicly to The Jinn Group. In the comments one person asked if the accident involved any fatalities, and the user’s friends described an “evil spirit” in the second of the two photographs:
“It’s standing perfect”
“Evil spirit at it’s finest!”
“It’s a evil spirit”
“Yeah I see it …”
“By The Car Door?”
The Basic Facts
Based on the poster’s supposed location and visible landmarks in one of the images, the photograph shows an “Aberdeen Road” in or around Detroit, Michigan and outlying towns. We were unable to locate any news articles about a vehicle fire in those areas on or around December 10 2019.
As for the photographs, the first of two showed a large plume of black smoke visible behind an intersection with one street sign visible (“Aberdeen Rd.”) The second was clearly taken from a vehicle, and primarily showed a separate vehicle — a beige SUV — engulfed in flames in front of a Dollar General store.
In that photograph, the primary focus was part of the inferno. In the center of the image, as if exiting the flaming driver’s side of the car, was what looked to be a humanoid figure made of fire. The figure was clearly not a person, but also quite clearly maintained a solid form.
So, what was it?
Commenters alternately described it as a “demon,” a “fire demon,” “the literal devil,” or asserted the figure was clearly the result of a “curse” on the vehicle’s owner or driver. Fans of the HBO vampire drama True Blood might have seen a passing similarity with the figure due to a character on the show and a plotline involving a vengeful spirit from Iraq. (American Gods has also referenced the same mythology.)
Alternative Titles: ʿifrīt, ʿifrītah, afreet, afrit, afrite, efreet
Ifrit, also spelled afreet, afrit, afrite, or efreet, Arabic (male) ʿifrīt or (female) ʿifrītah, in Islamic mythology and folklore, a class of powerful malevolent supernatural beings.
The exact meaning of the term ifrit in the earliest sources is difficult to determine. It does not occur in pre-Islamic poetry and is only used once in the Qurʾān, in the phrase “the ifrit of the jinn” (Qurʾān 27:39), where it seems to designate a rebellious member of the jinn (supernatural beings). The phrase recurs in the Hadith (narratives recounting Muhammad’s words, actions, or approbations) … Popular tales generally depict an enormous winged creature of smoke, either male or female, who lives underground and frequents ruins … As with the jinn, an ifrit may be either a believer or an unbeliever, good or evil, but is most often depicted as a wicked and ruthless being.
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, ifrits do not always have a threatening nature:
Pl. afarit. Rebellious and wicked spirit, although some afarit are believed to be helpful. Mentioned in the Quran and hadith in the context of jinn, particularly rebellious ones. The term was popularized in folklore such as Alf laylat wa’l-laylah (The thousand and one nights). Afarit are male and female and may be believers or nonbelievers; they may marry humans but usually marry among themselves. If the term is used to refer to animals and humans, it connotes shrewdness, strength, and resourcefulness.
Other commenters described the figure as an “elemental,” or more specifically, a “fire elemental.” The concept of elemental entities is prevalent in occult literature and across cultures in folklore, typically corresponding to four elements — earth, air, water, and fire.
Fans of the Travel Channel series Dead Files might recognize the concept from some episodes, where paranormal investigators regularly claim that such entities are supernaturally disturbing the show’s subjects.
According to Wikipedia’s summary of Dead Files episodes, one of the show’s two investigators (Amy Allan and Steve DiSchiavi) cited an “elemental” capable of harming subjects in at least two episodes — one in Belvedere, Illinois, and one in Grant Township, Michigan.
For Season 9, Episode 13 (“Easy Prey,” June 8 2018), a description reads:
A desperate couple claims paranormal activity is trying to kill them. During the disturbing investigation, Amy encounters a malicious dead man and an elemental capable of physically harming the living.
Incidentally, the specter of an elemental entity also factored into the episode one week prior, in Lake Shawnee, West Virginia. Travel Channel’s site hosts the entire episode “Easy Prey,” which you can view here.
Just after the 34:10 mark of the 43-minute long video, Allan tells the subjects of that episode that an “earth elemental” is present on their property, and can cause problems for “the living.” Allan describes the elemental:
So this is a being that was originally part of the Earth … but something caused this thing to separate itself from the Earth, and it became its own conscious entity. I think that this thing more than likely has affected every person who has lived here … what it likes to do is create hardships in people’s lives, and in very extreme cases, it can cause death.
In turn, DiSchiavi, a former New York City homicide investigator, produces a stack of death certificates of the property’s former residents and asks Allan if the elemental could have caused those deaths. Allan opines it may have caused “some,” and further states that its removal was not a matter as simple as destroying its purported habitat; the residents of the property then complain of declining health and unusually frequent misfortune.
Incidentally, four categories of elementals exist in this folklore: gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders. Salamanders are the elementals of fire. Viewers of cooking reality shows might recall the name “salamander” is also shared with a commercial broiler — also called a “salamander.”
For every explanation in supernatural or paranormal lore, there is almost always an attendant theory rooted in science.
Human recognition of a humanoid form in the vehicle’s flaming wreckage could also be explained as “pareidolia,” “the phenomenon of recognizing patterns, shapes, and familiar objects in a vague and sometimes random stimulus.” A common example is the tendency of people to see simple to highly elaborate shapes in cloud formations.
April 2014 research published in the journal Cortex, titled “Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia,” described in its abstract a strong positive demonstration of a human tendency to see faces where none are present:
Face pareidolia is the illusory perception of non-existent faces. The present study, for the first time, contrasted behavioral and neural responses of face pareidolia with those of letter pareidolia to explore face-specific behavioral and neural responses during illusory face processing. Participants were shown pure-noise images but were led to believe that 50% of them contained either faces or letters; they reported seeing faces or letters illusorily 34% and 38% of the time, respectively … Whole brain analyses revealed a network specialized in face pareidolia, including both the frontal and occipitotemporal regions. Our findings suggest that human face processing has a strong top-down component whereby sensory input with even the slightest suggestion of a face can result in the interpretation of a face.
A 2012 article in The Atlantic explained further:
Pareidolia was once thought of as a symptom of psychosis, but is now recognized as a normal, human tendency. Carl Sagan theorized that hyper facial perception stems from an evolutionary need to recognize — often quickly — faces. He wrote in his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World, “As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper.”
After a high-profile news story involving pareidolia in May 2013, BBC reported:
[In May 2013], US department store JC Penney sold out of a kettle thought to look like the leader of the Third Reich after the resemblance was noted on social news site Reddit.
A chicken nugget shaped like US President George Washington earned more than £5,000 ($8,100) on eBay last year.
A decade earlier, some 20,000 Christians travelled to Bangalore to pay homage to a chapatti with the image of Christ burnt on it. Some visitors even offered prayers to the glass-encased flatbread.
In 2011 a Tumblr site that specialises in finding things that look like Hitler posted a photo of a modest terraced house in Swansea. Its angled roof resembles a comb-over, and the moulding over the house’s door is said to evoke the dictator’s trademark moustache.
As the same news organization noted in July 2014, the phenomenon is not new, nor is it exclusive to faces:
Pareidolia, as this experience is known, is by no means a recent phenomenon. Leonardo da Vinci described seeing characters in natural markings on stone walls, which he believed could help inspire his artworks. In the 1950s, the Bank of Canada had to withdraw a series of banknotes because a grinning devil leapt from the random curls of the Queen’s hair (although I can’t, for the life of me, see the merest hint of a horn in Her Majesty’s locks).
Kang Lee, one of the authors of the Cortex study excerpted above, spoke to BBC about his research. Lee said the power of suggestion was a factor in subjects “seeing” figures or faces where they did not exist. And in the Facebook post, the user twice induced fellow users to “see what I see”:
Given some subtle priming, they reported seeing a person about 34% of the time. Any contours that appeared in the images would have been extremely fuzzy — yet somehow, the brain was conjuring the illusion that a person was staring back. “It turns out it’s pretty easy to induce this phenomenon,” says Lee.
On December 10 2019 a Facebook user shared photographs of what appeared to be a “fire demon,” a “fire elemental,” or a djinn known as an ifrit captured during an unspecified vehicle fire. More than 10,000 users shared the post, most of whom presumably “saw” something in the flames. Fire entities exist in culture-spanning folklore about elementals, as well as Islamic folklore about fire djinn. But an alternate, more scientifically palatable, and in our opinion no less fascinating explanation involves pareidolia, a documented tendency in humans to see faces and figures which do not exist.