Odorama: meet the olfactory artist bringing smell back to the 80s film Polyester

When Erin Adams got the chance to recreate scents for the 1981 John Waters' film she knew it wasn't an opportunity to be sniffed at.

Erin Adams has worked with scent design for years and believes scratch n’ sniff has the potential to transform cinema, making her the perfect person to recreate the famous Odorama cards for a re-screening of the cult comedy Polyester.

Hi Erin, you’re an olfactory artist based in Footscray, Melbourne … what is an olfactory artist and how did you end up being one?

An olfactory artist is someone who works with scent as their medium. Scent can influence emotions, enhance our other senses and create a feeling of unity amongst strangers. It can stand alone, or complement other artistic disciplines – but it can’t be digitised, yet.

I design scents for live music, theatre performances, galleries and film screenings. I don’t make perfume (well, not what a regular person would consider as perfume). Sometimes the scents I use are fresh and invigorating like lemon-scented eucalyptus and sometimes they are downright revolting like scent #2 on the Odorama cards.

I sort of fell into scent design after becoming increasingly obsessed with smell and olfactory art when I saw a gig with live scents back in 2007. Ten years later, I did my first scent design for an event at a gig in Berlin. I’m self-taught and have attended many weird and wonderful workshops overseas and read a bunch of books about the science and culture of smell, but mostly I’ve learnt by just doing it. 

There’s a whole world of wonderfully smelly art out there for people who are interested. Some incredible olfactory artists that I am continuously inspired by include Sissel Tolaas, Maki Ueda, Saskia Wilson-Brown, Christophe Laudamiel, Peter de Cupere and Australia’s very own Ainslie Walker.

It’s still a very rare treat to get to see (or rather, smell) an olfactory art piece as it isn’t super common here in Melbourne. I’m hoping to change that, and so at the start of this year I made it official and started Smell Art.

You’re recreating the scratch ‘n sniff Odorama cards for the iconic 80s film Polyester, screening in June at the Astor Theatre in Melbourne. Can you walk us through the process of doing this?

The process actually involved quite a lot of research. Scents don’t last forever: odour comes from volatile compounds in the air. So while you can still purchase the original 80s Odorama cards from collectors online, they definitely don’t smell like they used to and sometimes they don’t smell at all. 


Polyester poster art (1981). New Line Cinema.

I managed to get hold of one of the most recent Odorama cards from the Criterion 2019 re-release of Polyester on DVD. I then got a huge stash of scratch ‘n sniff samples sent to me from the same printer and began the somewhat stinky process of curating the scents by creating my own mixes from their extensive scent library. I have the new Odorama cards at my place now and I can say I’m pretty happy with the result. They are ripe and ready to go!

In terms of the film, I’m a huge fan – it’s trashy, funny and still a relevant critique of society today. I hadn’t seen Polyester with Odorama until this year and it’s quite a smell journey. I’m planning to do some scratch ‘n sniff cards for other films in the future but there is something truly special about this film because it was originally made to be smelt.

Divine’s performance as Francine Fishpaw is fabulously over the top and I really feel that experiencing everything that she smells gives you a unique sense of empathy for her character.

Could you also tell us a bit about the history of Smell-O-Vision and scented films from the past?

The history of Smell-O-Vision isn’t a prosperous one, that’s for sure. Several fortunes have been lost trying to be the next big thing in cinema only to have it dismissed as a gimmick. Let’s just say I’m definitely not in it for the money!

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While researching how to recreate the Odorama cards I was super fortunate to connect with Jas Brooks in Chicago and Tammy Burnstock in Sydney who were working on Stink-O-Vision cards for the re-release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) and had a wealth of knowledge and advice about scratch ‘n sniff cinema.

If anyone wants to do a deep dive into the history of scratch ‘n sniff cinema I highly recommend checking out Brooks’ Timeless Smell Archive – a fabulous resource documenting scratch ‘n sniff cards from around the world. I also recommend Burnstock’s documentary In Glorious Smell-O-Vision, screening soon (with live scents!) in Melbourne. It’s the story of the unsung hero of scented cinema, osmologist and Swiss inventor Hans Laube, whose Smell-O-Vision technology was launched in 1960 with the film Scent of Mystery, a big-budget Hollywood feature film starring Elizabeth Taylor. It was a huge flop.

Scratch ‘n sniff technology was invented by Gale Matson, an organic chemist for the company 3M in 1965, while searching for a new type of carbonless copy paper. I watched an interview with John Waters’ about Polyester where he said that he had heard about the infamous failure of Smell-O-Vision in the 60s and wanted in. 

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Instead of filling the cinema with smells, he had the brilliant idea to use scratch ‘n sniff and trademark it as Odorama. He covertly had 3M print the stickers because at the time he still had a reputation for X-rated (or sometimes unrateable) movies and didn’t think the company would want to be associated with his work.

After the film was a big success, he also had trouble with the model airplane glue scent being censored as it was considered inappropriate to be encouraging teenagers to sniff glue. I’m proud to say that the glue smell is back for this version.

Given all the other innovations in cinema, is it time to bring back scratch ‘n sniff as part of the cinema experience?

Absolutely. Scratch ‘n sniff is a great way to incorporate smells into a film while still giving autonomy to the audience member – as opposed to pumping the cinema full of a scent that you can’t escape.

I think people love to smell things (especially bad things) – it helps cement moments into your memory and can make the group experience of going to the cinema super fun and interactive. If you talk to people who saw Rugrats Go Wild (2003) at the cinema they are very nostalgic and still remember smelling the stinky feet.

I don’t think it should be reserved for children’s films though. I’d really love to see an Aussie horror movie released with scratch ‘n sniff. Smell can cause a visceral reaction in your body much more readily than sight or sound. 

What does smell mean to you personally?

Smell is a wonderful way to connect with the world around us that is often overlooked. Personally, I find great joy in going for a walk, picking leaves off trees and bushes and scrunching them up to see what they smell like – sometimes things surprise you!

My personal favourite smells, as with most people, are from my childhood. I love those textas from the 80s that were made in Japan and probably aren’t allowed in schools anymore, sunscreen – specifically the green Hamilton one, citronella mosquito coils, and mangos fresh from the tree.

Of all our senses, smell has the most direct route to the brain. It’s processed in our limbic system along with our memories and emotions and so our experience of smell is first and foremost an emotional reaction, before we can put a label on it. 

Research has shown that we regularly use it to communicate with others subconsciously. And mindfully smelling things is also great for your general wellbeing.

As the cognitive neuroscientist Rachel Herz says: ‘a scent is worth a thousand pictures’.

Polyester with Odorama: John Waters’ cult classic returns to the Astor Theatre, St Kilda, Melbourne, on Saturday 24 June at 7:30pm. Book here. If you would like to win a double pass for this screening, email Erin Adams with the subject line Polyester.

Paul Dalgarno is author of the novels A Country of Eternal Light (2023) and Poly (2020); the memoir And You May Find Yourself (2015); and the creative non-fiction book Prudish Nation (2023). He was formerly Deputy Editor of The Conversation and joined ScreenHub as Managing Editor in 2022. X: @pauldalgarno. Insta: @dalgarnowrites