Horror is typically something we behold with our most obvious of sensory organs – our eyes. Jump scares and visual phenomena are what most spooky movies choose as their story-telling devices. You know, hands getting sawn off, girls getting skinned alive, a fleeting shadow dancing just out of sight.
This isn’t to say the other senses don’t get their share of spooky happenings. A phantom hand brushes our final girl, eliciting goosebumps on the back of her neck. She hears dismembered voices echoing from empty spaces…
There is, however, one biological input hole horror tends to overlook, and it is perhaps the foulest of them all. Thats right folks, today we’re going to talk about olfactory horror in all its stank-ass glory.
I probably started thinking about this because I’ve been reading the illustrious neurologist Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations. In this, Sacks discusses various hallucinatory disorders and experiences ranging from drug induced psychedelic experiences to hallucinatory symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. One I was unfamiliar with was phantosmia; scent hallucinations.
In written horror we find scent used as a vehicle for disturbances more often than in movies. I suppose that with film being a visual medium, scent is hard to portray. This is perhaps why all the films we’re about to talk about are based on novels.
Here are my smelliest examples:
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Grenouille, our protagonist, is expelled from his fish mongering mother’s womb onto a stinking, festering pile of Parisian fish guts. Left for dead he is promptly forgotten, until a police officer hears his mangled cries. Thus begins his entry into the world. While this story isn’t permeated by ‘bad’ smells, Grenouille’s entrance amid a putrid pile of shit serves as a metaphor for his despicable character.
We find out that Grenouille is gifted with an unnaturally potent sense of smell. This becomes his joie de vivre. He seeks out smells that deeply satisfy him, cataloging them in his perversely vivid scent museum of the mind. The obsession turns violent when he begins ‘capturing’ the aromas of beautiful women via murder murder kill kill.
The culminating ‘perfume de la femmes’ results in a frenzied orgy with hundreds of 19th century townsfolk.
The Exorcist, in my opinion, holds one of the most noxious scents on fictional record (The Bog of Eternal Stench is up there too.)
For those somehow still ignorant to the plot of The Exorcist after 40 years; a young girl (Regan) is possessed by a demon. Her friends and family try to sort this shit out through traditional medical avenues but eventually resort to a good old fashioned exorcism.
In the film version of The Exorcist, the suffocating odour of possession isn’t all that apparent. We see it most demonstrably in a scene where Regan is under hypnosis, after the authorities were finally convinced that Regan needs to see some sort of psychiatric council instead of strictly medicinal doctors. The group brings in a psychiatrist who, after some time, begins to address “the person inside of Regan,” who would also be under hypnosis. Here we see the characters in the room cover their noses and mouths in disgust as a demonic voice projects from the mouth of the young girl… along with what we are assuming is the eggiest, rottenest stink of all time.
The Exorcist was originally a novel by William Blatty (who also wrote the screenplay for the film) where ‘the stench’ is discussed in great detail throughout. Prior to her possession becoming obvious physically, Regan constantly complains about a strange odour only she can smell. In the hypnotism scene however, we do get more detail of the foul smell the characters in the movie reacted to:
“Regan’s breath was suddenly foul. It was thick, like a current. The psychiatrist smelled it from two feet away… Regan’s breathing came raspy as if from a rotted, putrid bellows.”
I assume William Blatty saw the olfactory aspect of possession as an essential component, thus he included it in the film. Perhaps he was hoping to have a smell-o-vision component played in theatres.
The Amityville Horror
The Amityville Horror is a tale of a 1970s family in a haunted house. Ed and Lorraine Warren get involved and spookiness ensues. There are several film versions, the 2005 version with Ryan reynolds being particularly shit-tastic. Lets not forget the ‘true story’ novella it was based on. Much like many ‘true’ paranormal happenings, the haunting is accompanied by grotesque odours.
It starts with a smell coming from the bathroom, where the toilet has blackened. This is followed by swarming black flies – which is a very recognizable element from the Amityville story.
After that there are several more olfactory delights to behold:
“A sour odor coming from a crucifix in the closet.”
“A choking fog of human excrement in the basement.”
The intervening priest even experiences a:
“unrelenting, disgusting odor that permeated his apartment.”
Apart from the films discussed, we see very little in the way of smelly horror. Personally, I would like to see more. One would think the scent of an approaching monster would be enough to send you travelling in the opposite direction. Hell, zombies must smell like shit – how do they manage to sneak up people all the time? Maybe these are questions to ponder over a nice stinky stilton and some wine. Grenouille would probably like that.
Smell you later.