But Aroma-Scope isn't Hollywood's first attempt to bring the unique pleasure of smelling things to the big screen. In the never-ending quest for a
bigger cut of the box office, enterprising executives have always looked for ways to make films more immersive. And tickling audiences' noses has been
a regular and elusive goal.
The first major use of odor technology in film actually came more than 50 years ago with the near-simultaneous release of two competing formats: AromaRama
(which relied on a theater's existing air-conditioning system) and Smell-O-Vision (which required theaters to be expensively custom-outfitted with a
small odor vent under every seat). Though no film was specifically designed with AromaRama in mind, the new technology was hastily attached to a 1959
documentary on China called Behind the Great Wall. Smell-O-Vision debuted just weeks later, attached to a Denholm Elliott-starring Scent of Mystery. Unlike Behind the Great Wall, Scent of Mystery was designed
with the new technology in mind; viewers were tipped off to the film's killer before he appeared onscreen by the smoky scent of his pipe.
Unfortunately—as with most new technologies—there were countless glitches. Scents made loud, distracting noises when sprayed, lasted far longer than
intended, and were often released off-cue, which resulted in bizarre dissonance between what audiences smelled and what they saw. Critics were
generally scathing; a New York Times review of Behind the Great Wall called AromaRama a "stunt" with an artistic value of "nil." After Smell-O-Vision failed to catch on, Scent of Mystery was rereleased theatrically-without the smells-under the title Holiday in Spain.
The twin failures of AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision killed smelly cinema for more than two decades. It wasn't until 1981 that filmmaker John Waters
revived the concept for an offbeat, low-budget satire called Polyester. Polyester
starred cross-dresser Divine as Francine Fishpaw, a housewife with a philandering husband and an overactive sense of smell.
It was Waters who invented a far more manageable and far less expensive solution to the odor distribution problems that plagued both AromaRama and
Smell-O-Vision: Each Polyester ticket came with a scratch 'n sniff "Odorama" card, and a corresponding number flashed in the corner of the
screen when the audience was supposed to smell something. Never one for restraint, Waters included flatulence, dirty sneakers, and glue among the
film's 10 odor cues. (For the morbidly curious, the Polyester DVD comes with an
Though Waters's experiment was generally successful, it was more than two decades before another filmmaker followed his example. In 2003, Nickelodeon
resurrected the Odorama concept for a film that combined two of its most popular series: Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys. Unlike Waters'
offbeat film, Rugrats Go Wild was a marketer's dream: The "Odorama" cards that
accompanied the film were obtained at Blockbuster and Burger King (Rugrats Go Wild did follow the example of Polyester in its gross-out
appeal: Two of the film's Odorama scents were fish and feet).