What’s pyromania?

While abundant in pop-culture references, media, and stories of sociopaths, pyromania is actually a rare disorder. There haven’t been many true cases of pyromania, and the studies done on the disorder have been few and far between.

Distinctly different than arson, pyromania revolves around impulse and compulsion, not any specific desire to make a point. Although setting fire to buildings or clinics is not unheard of, it would be incorrect to assume that a pyromaniac is behind the crimes. People with pyromania only care about the relief, pleasure, or gratification behind setting the fires, not the message behind destroying property or sending a message.

Social, political, and economic gain are not the purpose of these fires, nor the desire to kill or maim in the process. Many pyromaniacs may attempt to keep their fires isolated, and avoid harming others in the process. The mania may intensify to the point of apathy, but most only focus on the fire, not on the act of harming others with it. While some pyromaniacs do move on to take enjoyment out of harming others with fire, this adds a sadistic component to the obsession, which is not inherent to pyromania.

A number of pyromaniacal criminals report feeling “˜exhilarated’ or “˜empowered’ by the fire. Their first large fire may have brought on a sexual or emotional release, granting them instant gratification after they dropped the match or lighter. Setting the fires gave them a sense of purpose that they could not get elsewhere, which caused them to set more in order to recapture the high of their first large fire. This may cause them to accelerate and become hyper-focused on setting more.

Chasing the rush of this first high can result in millions of property damage, agricultural loss, or even murder. While not all pyromaniacs are inherently criminal, they are likely to become obsessive and engage in criminal acts if they are left untreated.

Men are more likely to be pyromaniacs, and usually have histories wrought with abuse, bullying, or psychological turmoil. While these factors are not inherent to pyromania– there are exceptions to every rule– the trends must be taken into account when considering a pyromaniac.

Symptoms of pyromania

Pyromania is characterized by one symptom: the compulsive urge to set fires for self-gratification. This excludes anyone setting fires for any sort of personal gain or revenge, or arsonists seeking to destroy property in the fastest way they know how. Regular arsonists take no pleasure in the fire itself, and may just be looking to prove themselves or their beliefs.

Pyromaniacs may experience a variety of symptoms associated with their compulsion, including:

  • A sexual arousal or release upon setting fires.
  • Feeling exhilarated by every aspect of the fire, whether it’s the sight, sound, smell, or even the heat of the flame.
  • A way to relive the experience. They may keep mementos, or even keep journals detailing the fires so that they can revisit the experience later.
  • Use setting fires as a way to relieve stress or frustration, or may resort to fire-starting when they feel angry.
  • A “˜lone wolf’ personality, including a disdain for others. This can be rooted in a history of abuse or bullying, or they may just be extremely antisocial and narcissistic by nature.
  • May be obsessed with matches, candles, fireplaces, and will put themselves close to fire as often as possible.
  • Claim the fire empowers them, or that they can “˜see’ things within the flame.
  • A fixation on firefighters. They may be obsessed with the idea of being a firefighter, and may even succeed in that goal later in life.

Pyromaniacs, while not inherently meaning harm, may actually escalate to a point where they hurt others with their compulsions. They may even obsess over fire every moment of their lives, and this can harm their personal and social lives. They may even have a hard time holding down a job, may drop out of school, or hyper focus on having a career in firefighting. If they do not become firefighters by career, they may become volunteer firefighters or seek attention from firemen with false alarms, small fires, or by seeking out places where they are called.

Pyromaniacs may also have a history of sadism, and therefore their pyromania may later become sadistic in nature. An extreme lack of empathy or a history of hurting siblings or animals should be noted, and if they show signs of pyromania in addition to symptoms of a sadistic personality, it may be a sign that they need serious help before they escalate.

Pyromania causes

Pyromania can be rooted in a number of things, including childhood abuse and trauma, to a genetic predisposition to psychopathy. While these factors obviously do not always lead to a pyromaniac, many pyromaniacs had unstable parents or a history of trauma. Bullying and isolation from other children can also stunt their mental and emotional growth, and lead to pyromantic tendencies when they grow older.

Neglect can also lead to pyromania, since the victims of the neglect might obsessively seek attention. This may factor in with their obsessive idolization of firefighters, and they may subconsciously attempt to get their idols’ attention in any way possible, no matter how destructive.

While genes are rarely wholly responsible for the development of mental disorders, the secret to a pyromaniac’s psyche may lie in their genetic predisposition to the disorder. Parents with serious histories of mental illnesses such as personality disorders, impulse control disorders, and psychopathy may pass those genes onto their children and spur the development of a pyromaniac.

Anger management also plays a part on pyromania. An inability to cope with strong emotions such as anger, grief, or frustration may cause a pyromaniac to set fires, and anger management therapy may be needed to teach proper coping methods.

Nearly 90% of pyromaniacs are men, making them more susceptible to pyromania. While it is not impossible for a woman to become a pyromaniac, women are less likely to develop destructive psychopathies in response to trauma or neglect.

That being said, not all neglected, abused, or bullied male children are bound to become pyromaniacs. With the proper support and therapy, almost all troubled children can find healthy ways to express themselves and find places in modern society. In the same vein, it is not impossible for a woman or a well-raised child to become a pyromaniac. The disorder is random and does not exclude any subset of people.

Pyromania can also be associated with religious mania. An obsession with mentions of fire in religious texts, and blaming their desire to set fires on a higher power, may justify their urges, and a pyromaniac may consider their compulsions “˜holy’ or “˜justified’ by religious standards. They may also worship fire itself, and consider it the higher power they answer to.

Pyromania treatments

The treatment for pyromania is similar to the treatment method used to treat most patients troubled by psychopathy. Antipsychotics, antidepressants such as SSRIs, and mood stabilizers can be prescribed and taken to prevent mood swings, serious manic or depressive episodes, and any psychotic episodes or compulsions.

Therapy can be helpful in working through trauma, and therapists and psychologists can help patients learn and acquire new coping methods to use outside of sessions. These skills can help them find healthier ways to find release and relieve stress. Hospitalization can be helpful during periods of serious instability, and they can receive the stability, schedule, and direct assistance they need to recover.

Children and adolescents have a high rate of recovery and stabilization after the proper dosing and therapy, while adults tend to be more resistant to treatment. They may be set in their ways and may react to changes with outbursts, distress, or depression. These cases may take longer to solve, and may require closer surveillance to prevent any relapses into previous habits or behaviors.

With the right cocktail of medication and therapy, a person experiencing pyromania can achieve mental stability and mental health. Support from family, peers, and caseworkers or other professionals can encourage a healthier mentality. New coping methods can be used to stem the urges to set fires, and the affected person can learn to sort out their personal turmoils and focus their energies elsewhere.

Their obsessions can be replaced with productive activities, and they can begin learning new social skills and begin building a proper life for themselves. While impulse-control disorders can be controlled and “˜helped’, there is no definitive cure, and recovery is subjective for each person. They are chronic, and while symptoms may begin dropping off around age 40-50, they might likely suffer from the effects of their mental illness for the rest of their life.

However, with the proper medication, they can get rid of serious symptoms, and use their counseling and coping methods to handle the mental illness and become productive members of society.

Pyromania prevention

Since pyromania is a mental disorder, there is no definite way to prevent pyromania. However, since pyromania usually develops in adolescence, preventing trauma in childhood can play a large part in preventing the impulse-control disorder from forming. Promoting fire awareness and recognizing symptoms of pyromania earlier can also help the sufferer find help before it escalates into a serious issue or a criminal situation.

Having a strong, cohesive family unit and proper communication within a household can prevent any instability, and socialization with peers can be healthy during development. Bullying should be nipped in the bud, whether the child is being bullied or doing the bullying. Support and communication are paramount, and healthy outlets should be made available if the child becomes stressed, upset, or angry.

Fire awareness should be important in any child’s life. Tell your children to avoid matches, and only light candles or gas stovetops when adults are around. Adults and older children should take care to never set fires for stress relief in front of children, and cigarettes should be put out properly before being dropped in the trash. The risk for fires aside, teaching a child the proper way to avoid uncontrollable fires can help prevent triggering a fascination with them.

If your family has a history of mental health issues, it would be best to watch for any signs of depression, anxiety, or psychopathy in the children. Catching the early warning signs and finding professional help and therapy can prevent the issue from growing into something larger, and can likely prevent a pyromaniac from becoming uncontrollable in their later years. A child with a fire-based fascination should be educated early in the dangers of fire and should seek out other interests.

There is no guarantee that someone you know or love is fully protected from their own compulsions. If the psychopathy is strong enough, it can manipulate anyone– which is why seeking help early can be the most important step in preventing lawsuits, accidents, damages, and even loss of life.

Last Reviewed:
September 13, 2017
Last Updated:
September 13, 2017