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Voices Fall-Winter 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Good Spirits column, “The Scent of a Ghost” by Libby Tucker
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Volume 33

The Scent of a Ghost by Libby Tucker

In English literature and oral tradition, ghosts usually announce their presence through sight, sound, and touch. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, for example, has a rich array of sensory cues heralding the appearance of spirits, including bells ringing, chains clanking, and apparitions coming through the door. Other ghost stories, such as “The Golden Arm,” involve a ghost grabbing or touching the shoulder of a witness. Such physical signals of supernatural intrusion have become so familiar as to seem clichéd.

More intriguing signs of a ghost’s presence come through olfactory cues. Smell, our most primitive sense, has a strong linkage to memory. Years ago, I visited my old kindergarten classroom and found that a whiff of white paste made me remember how it felt to be five years old. Since smell has the power to bring back old memories, it makes sense that visitations from the dead may begin with an unusual odor.

In her book Alas, Poor Ghost!, Gillian Bennett adds up the ways that elderly women in Manchester, England, became aware of ghostly visitors: twelve times by sight, four times by touch, three times by sound, and only once by smell. My own collection of New York State ghost stories includes a larger number of ghosts that make themselves known through a particular smell.

Last year a young woman from the New York City area told me a story about her sister Maria’s visit to a psychic. This sister, who was expecting her first baby, wanted to learn whether any relatives who had passed on had messages for her or for her unborn child. After several minutes of reflection, the psychic asked Maria, “Can you smell the scent of roses?” This scent, the psychic said, showed that a deceased relative was trying to send Maria a message. Although Maria could not smell the roses herself, she immediately knew that the message originated with her grandmother, whose most valued possession had been a rosary made of rosewood, which Maria’s older sister had inherited. After visiting the psychic, Maria decided that her grandmother wanted to give her the rosary for the duration of her pregnancy. She took the rosary, with her sister’s permission, and felt comforted by its faint smell of roses. After giving birth to a healthy girl, she returned the rosary to her sister.

Female ghosts are not the only ones that make themselves known by pleasant smells. Recently I heard what happened to two middle-aged sisters the night their father passed away in a nursing home. Lying in bed late at night, trying to sleep, the older sister smelled Old Spice, her father’s favorite shaving cream. Early the next morning, a nurse called to deliver the sad news of her father’s death. Later that day, the older sister told the younger one about smelling Old Spice shaving cream during the night. “I smelled Old Spice last night, too!” the younger sister exclaimed. Although the sisters did not remember what time they had smelled the shaving cream, they felt comforted by evidence that their father had visited both of them soon after his death.

Strangely, some ghostly smells seem evident only to family members. Two years ago a young man told me that his grandfather had suffered from a long illness that necessitated many blood transfusions. During the transfusions and for some time afterward, an unpleasant smell would linger in the grandfather’s room. After the man’s death, several family members continued to perceive what they called “Grandpa’s smell.” Other visitors seemed to notice nothing, but the pungent, unpleasant smell continued to bother members of the family. By the time the smell faded, several family members had decided that it must have a connection to their grandfather’s ghost.

In other stories beyond New York State, ghostly smells bring back memories of deceased former residents of a house or apartment. A friend of my sister Sarah once rented an apartment in the French quarter of New Orleans that had odd smells. Some hot summer days when she got home from work, Sarah’s friend found that her apartment smelled like stale beer and cheap lilac perfume. Each time she encountered these smells, Sarah’s friend would open all the windows and air the apartment out. Finally she asked her landlord if he could help solve her odor problem. “I don’t think so,” her landlord said. “Many years ago a sailor visited the woman he loved here in this apartment. His girlfriend always wore lilac perfume. One day, after he’d been drinking beer, the sailor found his girlfriend with another man. He killed both of them on the spot, then killed himself. The smell of stale beer is the sailor’s ghost, and the smell of cheap lilac perfume is his girlfriend’s. There’s no way you can get rid of those smells.” Soon after hearing this story, Sarah’s friend moved to a new place with no spectral roommates.

Stories like the one about the ghostly lovers in New Orleans remind us that smells associated with sudden death may seem impossible to remove. Jan H. Brunvand and other scholars have studied the legend of the “death car,” which reeks of decomposition no matter how many times people scrub its upholstery with cleaning fluid. Usually the car gets its smell from the body of a young person who committed suicide. Similarly, the legend of Joe Brown Hall at the University of Georgia, documented by Charles Greg Kelley, describes an everlasting death smell that lingers after a male student’s accidental suicide. These two legends remind us that suicide leaves a tragic legacy.

Fortunately, most ghostly smells evoke happy memories. Rosewood, Old Spice, and other familiar odors blend memory with spectrality, giving bereaved relatives brief but meaningful reunions with their lost loved ones.
Good Spirits


Photo of Libby Tucker Libby Tucker teaches folklore at Binghamton University. She is the author of Campus Legends: A Handbook (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005). Her next book, Haunted Halls, will investigate college ghost stories.

Since smell has the power to bring back old memories, it makes sense that visitations from the dead may begin with an unusual odor.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Fall-Winter 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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