Look, Ma, flammable hands! (Photo: Library of Congress)

In 1938, the news photo agency Harris & Ewing visited the United States Bureau of Mines in Maryland. An employee of USBM, A. George Stern, had a new invention to test out: a volatile fluid that vaporized nearly instantaneously. So rapid was the process, in fact, that flames from the gases it released did not burn.

Stern originally claimed his formula would only be used “to produce weird effects in horror movies.” Upon closer inspection, though, the photo itself has some classic horror film characteristics: Stern sports a Dracula-like hairline and lapels, while the equipment he uses is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s lab. His own shadow appears dark and ominous.

These are intriguing details are only noticed after looking beyond Stern’s cheery smile–and beyond the fact that his hands are on fire.