As histrionic and unpredictable Rosalyn Rosenfeld in David O. Russell’s film “American Hustle”, the actor Jennifer Lawrence delivers a short monologue on the allure of a repulsive scent. “There’s something… the top coat… it’s like, perfume-y but there’s also something rotten? And I know that sounds crazy, but I can’t get enough of it. Smell it, it’s true!” she says, thrusting her blood red-painted nails at an acquaintance during cocktail hour. “Historically, the best perfumes in the world, they’re all laced with something nasty and foul.”
In 1986, psychologist Paul Rozin and his two colleagues concluded in their landmark paper that an object need only momentarily touch something that a person finds disgusting for them to be repelled. “Laundered shirts previously worn by a disliked person were less desirable than those previously worn by a liked or neutral person,” the study found. The rise in popularity of fresh, clean and aquatic fragrances in ensuing decades – an extension of millennia of religious ceremonies that seek purification through water – might indicate a desire for that which is clean, is pure.
It is bizarre, then, that we could be drawn to ingredients that engender feelings of repulsion or disgust. The organic compound indole, for example, which emanates a scent most commonly encountered in human faecal matter, is considered by some to be irresistible. The aromatic compound is present in white florals such as jasmine. The flower’s frequent inclusion into the perfume formulations that decorate our vanities could be a biproduct of scent memory. After all, of the five senses, only smell has a direct link to our limbic system – the part of our brain responsible for emotions and our memory – bypassing other pathways necessary for sight, touch, taste and hearing.
“Preferences and sensitivities, or likes and dislikes, are often based on what experiences create the olfactory memory,” says Erica Moore, a Sydney-based fragrance evaluator whose expertise extends to fragrance history, trends, composition, and aroma chemicals. “Therefore, a positive memory linked to a certain smell, will generally lead to a preference.” For those who have never encountered jasmine, tuberose or orange blossom, fragrances laden with indole and its animalistic, slightly faecal characteristic might be repellent. Whereas those with positive emotional associations to certain white florals – perhaps raised in a home where jasmine blooms in abundance each spring – may find themselves inexplicably drawn to them.
The strength of this phenomenon is evident in the list of most popular fragrances of 2022, and those in the century preceding. Research conducted by HeyDiscount places jasmine-laden Maison Francis Kurkdjian Baccarat Rouge 540 Eau de Parfum as this year’s most popular fragrance, with over 100 million video views centred around the fragrance on TikTok, just under six million Google searches and over 200,000 Instagram posts. The 101-year-old Chanel No. 5 Parfum, one of the most recognisable fragrances in the world, contains 1,000 jasmine flowers in each 30ml bottle (a bottle of the landmark fragrance is reportedly still sold every 30 seconds).
Other ingredients that should also offend, but instead tantalise, include animal-derived musk, civet and ambergris. Madame du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV, was rumoured to have been drenched in the latter – a substance produced in the digestive tract of sperm whales and usually found floating around in the ocean or washed up on a beach – to make herself irresistible to the French monarch. “Ambroxide is the naturally occurring compound in ambergris, and is credited for the unique odour properties of this unusual perfumery material,” says Moore. “It is now synthesised, and its use is widespread in perfumery today.” Molecule 02, formulated by chemistry-centred Escentric Molecules, consists solely of the ambroxide scent that doesn’t sanitise, but rather reveals our baseness.
“We could speculate that these notes, which also naturally occur in human body odour, have primal appeal,” says Moore. “That we have a subconscious response to them for purposes of reproduction and survival of the species.” This connection between scents and the carnal desire for sex and food is portrayed in the concluding act of “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”. In the critically-acclaimed novel by Patrick Suskind, gifted but abominable anti-hero Guillaume is born without a personal scent to indicate his humanity. He formulates ‘the human-being odour’: a scent distilled from the murdered bodies of adolescent girls and, at the last, the outcast perfumer douses himself with the fragrance.
“They lunged at the angel, pounced on him, threw him to the ground. Each of them wanted to touch him, wanted to have a piece of him, a feather, a bit of plumage, a spark from that wonderful fire,” Suskind writes, intertwining flesh and nakedness with food, which becomes faecal matter; an animalistic act driven by the force of scent. “They tore away his clothes, his hair, his skin from his body, they plucked him, they drove their claws and teeth into his flesh, they attacked him like hyenas.”