BOSTON — Megan Dickerson always loved the rich colors and melodic scores of the film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” But she also longed to experience the sweet scents of chocolate and schnozberries.
A self-proclaimed multisensory artist, Dickerson is now trying to revive “Smellovision.”
She’s staged outdoor showings of “Willy Wonka” for hundreds of people and used oscillating fans and artificially scented oils to distribute aromas of blueberry pie and banana taffy during the film. With help from local art houses and the Boston Children’s Museum, she plans to bring other films for sniffing to theaters this fall.
“There’s been a crazy response to the movement,” Dickerson said. “I guess there just aren’t enough opportunities for wonder out there, but there’s something nostalgic about this art action that makes you feel like a kid again.”
Smellovision never quite caught on, though it dates back to the late 1950s, when a signal from a “smell track” on the film activated a tubing system to transmit odors to each seat. Aroma-Rama, a similar application, piped odors into the theater through the ventilator system.
In the 1980s, Odorama made a stale debut with scratch-and-sniff cards, which also briefly made their way into living rooms. Outside of theme parks, scent-themed flicks weren’t visited again until last year, when two movie theaters in Japan offered aroma wafts for back-row seats during the Hollywood adventure film “The New World.”
Dickerson isn’t the only one trying to bring the concept back. In March, Trisenx Holdings Inc. started a Web site (http://scenttv.tv/) where, for $17.95 a month, users can sniff out “scent-enabled content” that includes movies, music videos and news.
Equipment for Dickerson’s Smellovision projects is donated by the Coolidge Corner Theater and the Brattle Theater, both independent Boston area art-house cinemas where she plans to show movies this fall.
Dickerson, a manager of community programs for the Boston Children’s Museum, said she’s always been fascinated with the psychology associated with smell, and started to experiment with fragrances through a program with the Sense of Smell Institute at the museum.
She was especially struck by the idea of “scent memories.”
“This will inevitably give us a sense of comfort and draw us back to a playful place, and give us flashbacks of things we may have forgotten about,” she said, noting that a strawberry-lemon bottled scent in her collection triggers memories of her older brother’s hair gel.
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Besides the sweet smells of fruit and cotton candy, Dickerson’s boxes of bottled scents ordered through the Fragrance Foundation include dirt, condensed milk, fizzy lemonade, grass and sushi.
She sometimes mixes fragrances together for a certain stink, and if that doesn’t work, she has another trick.
“Sometimes, if you just tell someone that a smell is something it’s not, they will automatically perceive it to be that scent,” she said. “It’s all psychological.”
Dickerson hopes to organize a Smellovision film festival, and plans to work with movies like 1960’s film “Scent of Mystery” and John Waters’ “Polyester” (1981) — movies that “make no sense without the smells,” she said.
Squeezable scent bottles
Indoor Smellovision can pose problems with separating smells over the course of the show, according to Terry Molnar, executive director of the Sense of Smell Institute.
“The problem is that the scents are layered on top of one another, and people get sick from all of the smells mixed together,” Molnar said. “I’m sure there’s better technology out there now that could refresh the air in a theater, or could evacuate the air in the room before the next comes in.”
Dickerson said she may hand out small, squeezable “scent bottles” so that individuals can experience the fumes from their seats.
Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said Smellovision will always attract curiosity, but the payoff to adding scent to movies is not as great as it was for sound or color.
He said it’s doubtful Smellovision would ever survive outside of IMAX theaters and Disney World.
“I think it’s forever going to be a novelty,” Thompson said. “There are not terribly many occasions where we’re watching a movie or television show and thinking the technology is so inferior because it doesn’t bring us smell. It’s just not necessary, and there aren’t very many movies that would make us even care about smell.”
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