ODORAMA- John Waters’ “Polyester”

by Briana Phelps

In 1981, cult film director John Waters released Polyester, staring Divine as Francine Fishpaw. Polyester featured homage to Smell-O-Vision originally released in 1960 with the film Scent of Mystery.


This film time-released 30 different odors into the air of the theaters through a system of tubes, know as a “smell brain”.

Smell-O-Vision was the brainchild of osmologist, Hans Laube and Hollywood producer Michael Todd Jr. They promoted the movie as an innovation in cinema, stating, “First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!”


Hans Laube was a bit of an innovator, he developed a system that removed and circulated air in movie theaters, allowing the air to become clean and the viewer to experience new smells. For this initial invention, Laube developed a reverse system that injected scents into the theater. He first introduced this system at the 1940 World’s Fair in New York with a film called Mein Traum.

 Some theater patrons complained that Smell-O-Vision was not quite what it was cracked up to be. Smells reached the audience members at the wrong times, diminishing their full affect. Negative reviews of Scent of Mystery quickly ruined any chance that Smell-O-Vision had as a major player in the future of the cinematic experience.

However, in 1981, John Waters saw it fitting to pay homage to this short-lived attempt in his film Polyester. This film stars Divine, a campy drag queen and regular in Waters’ films, as Francine Fishpaw.

Francine’s seemingly happy suburban life is a point of turmoil, as her porn theater running husband is having an affair, her daughter is dating all the wrong boys, and her son is spiraling out of control with a foot fetish. Francine’s life seems to find some happiness when she meets her dream man, Todd Tomorrow.

Polyester was Water’s first real film with a budget, allowing him to experiment with enticing the other senses. (dreamland) He sight’s William Castle as one of his biggest influences when it comes to B-movie gimmicks.

Francine’s nose drives the narrative, and with the introduction of ODORAMA, we can now smell what Francine and others in the film smell. ODORAMA is experienced through individual scratch-n-sniff cards given out to audience members. A number pops up on screen, alerting the audience to the appropriate spot to scratch to get the olfactory experience correlated with the scene.


The scents in order are:



Model Building Glue




Natural Gas

New Car Smell

Smelly Shoes

Air Freshener

ODODRAMA cards are available with the DVD version of Polyester and through auction sites. Viewers experience the theatrical wonder of ODORAMA within the comfort of their own homes, what is better than a John Waters film with the smell of gasoline wafting under your noise and upon your fingertips?


In the mid-eighties, MTV released a special showing of Scent of Mystery, with none other than scratch-n-sniff cards available at retailers. It is my thought that MTV may have jumped on the bandwagon of Waters’ development, and paid homage to the original homage.

While on the topics to homages, in 2003, Nickolodian and Paramount Pictures released Rugrats Go Wild; with…you guessed it—ODORAMA. The scratch-n-sniff card for this film only featured six scents.

The problem though, lied in the fact that no one got John Waters’ permission to use ODODRAMA for the film. They did not even change the name and it is a registered trademark.

This incited a lawsuit; with Waters himself, commenting on the audacity of Rugrats Go Wild filmmakers, “They’re calling it `Odorama’? I’m stupefied! That’s a direct steal. New Line Cinema and I have a trademark on `Odorama.’ ”


As a defense, the executive producer said that the filmmakers where inspired by Waters developments in the B-movie genre, stating, “We loved that low-tech interactivity. That’s what inspired our `Odorama.’ ” As a result, Nickelodeon changed the name of their version to Aroma-Scope.


John Waters, among others, were pioneers of the trendy “participatory culture” revolution of today, perhaps this is why the makers of Rugrats Go Wild chose to appropriate and recirculate his developments.  While the low-tech approach of scratch-n-sniff cards was a flop, who knows what technology will allow next. Maybe developers will come up with a nasal implant that sends signals directly to the olfactory section of the brain. Audiences are demanding active spectatorship. Marketing strategies suggest that immersion within fictional world leads to the pleasure and fulfillment of the viewer. I can say for one, that when Polyester was rereleased on DVD, with the ODORAMA card, it was one of the few DVDs I have ever invested in. While it is gimmicky, it is perfectly John Waters, smelly sneakers and all.

Word Count: 778

Works Cited:







Jenkins, Henry. “Interactive Audiences?”, The New Media Book. (2002): 157-170.

4 responses to “ODORAMA- John Waters’ “Polyester”

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