Nose Horror! An Olfactory Tour of Haunted Hollywood

The nose is one of the most sensitive protuberances on the human body. That can be scary.

The word phantosmia sounds like it might conjure ghostly images of ethereal specters from the great beyond, but its true definition means something else entirely. It's actually the medical term for an olfactory hallucination—a phantom smell or imaginary odor that is perceived by the brain, but isn’t actually there. Phantosmia can be fleeting or the sign of a serious problem. Either way, the person who smells the scent (which ranges from pleasing to grotesque) believes it is real.

Many people who have had so-called encounters with the paranormal report unusual smells, and depending on one’s belief system, those scents may or may not actually be there. Phantosmia: A Historic Guide to Aromatic Hauntings in L.A. is a tour of haunted hotspots in the City of Angels that uses one of our strongest sensory faculties to sniff out the spirit world. In a way, phantosmia is the perfect word for such an immersive adventure; the tour hopes to evoke phantasms through aromas processed by the delicate organs of the nose. Basically, Phantosmia seeks to physically recreate the elusive ghostly scents through the art of perfumery, coupling individual perfume blends with supposedly haunted sites across L.A.

The quirky self-guided tour is the brainchild of a trio of unconventional Los Angeles organizations: Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles (GHOULA), the Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO), and the Smelly Vials Perfume Club (SVPC).

GHOULA is a social club that aims to study and preserve the haunted history of Los Angeles. Its cofounder and club president, Richard Carradine, is a ghost hunter who’s investigated paranormal phenomena across the world and has been to more than 200 haunted locations in the L.A. area alone. He’s the author of The Park After Dark: An Unauthorized Guide to the Happiest (Haunted) Place on Earth and the de facto local expert on haunted Los Angeles. GHOULA hosts events such as an annual film festival of Haunted Films at Haunted Places, as well as haunted neighborhood tours.

The Smelly Vials Perfume club began as an informal gathering of creatives who regularly attended open sessions. 

The IAO, meanwhile, is a nonprofit founded by artist Saskia Wilson-Brown that promotes the art and science of DIY scent-making, encouraging experimentation and exploration of perfumery as an art form. It holds ongoing workshops, art projects, lectures and events such the Annual Art and Olfaction Awards.

According to Wilson-Brown, the Smelly Vials Perfume club began as an informal gathering of creatives who regularly attended IAO’s open sessions. Eventually, the group began to meet for a more advanced blending night. “Now, as it stands, the Smelly Vials Perfume Club is the IAO’s in-house punk rock perfume collective,” says Wilson-Brown. “We work on special projects as a group, or co-work on individual projects in an environment devoted to sharing information and irreverent, gonzo approaches to perfumery.”

In other words, the Smelly Vials Perfume Club is a loose consortium of members who are professional administrators, stylists, writers, designers, and artists, in addition to amateur perfumers. The group’s chief organizer is marketing and branding consultant Kendra Gaeta, who developed the idea for Phantosmia with Wilson-Brown, along with arts administrator Julianne Lee, hair and makeup artist Jeffrey Paul, and writer Maxwell Williams, who introduced the team to GHOULA’s Richard Carradine, which spawned the idea for a tour that merged the study of scents and spirits.

So how does the tour work, exactly?

“Participants pick up a kit at IAO and head off on the tour, solo style,” says Gaeta. “Since we are a punk rock perfume club, our project is specifically for non-joiners, which means you do this thing on your own. Nobody’s holding your hand, okay? You go with your own crew, whenever you want.”

The tour itself features 13 different sites across Los Angeles, from the Valley, Pacific Palisades and Beverly Hills, to Hollywood, Downtown and Highland Park. Considering distance and traffic, most people won’t hit all the auspiciously numbered sites in one day, but it’s not a race. Instead, the project involves rubbing markers from site-specific dog-tags onto a specially marked card with crayons, inspired by the Victorian practice of rubbing gravestones in England. Those who score all the rubbings earn a free open session of perfume-making at the IAO.

Besides a map, crayons, and spaces for rubbing markers, each kit (which costs $60) includes a detailed description of each site, researched and written by GHOULA’s leader, Carradine. The Smelly Vials Perfume Club developed the exclusive correlating scents that participants spray onto provided scent strips at each location.

Some haunted sites are still in their original state and open to the public. Others have been torn down to make way for new businesses. Still others are private residences (obviously, occupants shouldn’t be disturbed). Each site, however, has a rich and storied past based on different long-departed characters, from the famous to the unknown.

Famed actor/writer/director Orson Welles used to puff on his cigar at Ma Maison Restaurant in West Hollywood, which is now Sweet Lady Jane Bakery. In addition to the smells of vanilla and chocolate, some folks swear they can still sense the heady aroma of cigar smoke wafting above the cupcakes. Thus, the accompanying scent for the particular destination is cigar smoke. Then there’s Leonis Adobe, the former mansion of the eponymous 19th century real estate mogul Miguel Leonis, a rumored tyrant who nonetheless kept himself immaculately clean. His signature odor is strong soap, with notes of lavender and musk. And who could ever forget the tragic tale of Peg Entwistle, a disillusioned starlet who jumped to her death from the H in the Hollywoodland sign in 1932? Her smell features notes of floral gardenia, owing to the fact that she wore a distinctive gardenia-scented perfume.

Then there are the nameless few, whose spirits are believed to haunt other historic locations, based on multiple reports from those who have allegedly encountered them. At the former Palace Theater (now the Avalon), an unknown dead chorus girl is believed to be milling about the second floor, her eerie presence made known by high heels clicking and a cheap perfume, with notes of sweet florals, musk, and fruit. To the northeast at Heritage Square Museum in Highland Park, a phantom handyman clad in overalls is still hard at work hammering and sawing inside the Victorian-style Perry Mansion, usually when the building is locked, even though no restoration is taking place. His smell is, unsurprisingly, sawdust and wood.

The notes of burnt wood, leather, and melting plastic that go with the Old Plaza Firehouse are at once sad and repulsive.

Not all markers for the rubbings are easy to find, especially at night. Ferreting them out only gives the experience an added sense of adventure. Easy or difficult, smelling each scent at the site of the corresponding "haunted" happening produces a range of emotions. The notes of burnt wood, leather, and melting plastic that go with the Old Plaza Firehouse of 1884 bring to mind all those who died fighting fires back in the day, and are at once sad and repulsive. By contrast, the notes of musk and rose that go with Harriet Nelson's former home, a colonial revival estate in the Hollywood Hills, recall the restrictive midcentury notion of the nuclear family, famously immortalized in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

So while you may not see, hear, or even feel any actual phantoms on this tour, just smelling their custom-blended fragrances encourages you to pause and absorb the story behind each destination.

Others ghosts include Thelma Todd, whose scent of car exhaust with notes of gasoline, vinyl, and burning rubber is due to the fact that she committed suicide in her automobile. There’s also the premier Hollywood heartthrob Rudolph Valentino and his scent of citrus cologne, with a woody base. Even Valentino’s horse is supposedly still haunting us; his smell is that of a horse stable, with notes of hay, animals, and leather. And those are just a few of the characters from the afterlife that visitors encounter on this tour, thanks to extensive research, an interest in the paranormal, and the powerful sense of smell.

“I will say that, having driven to each of the places to put up the markers, it was a totally L.A. experience, and not just because of the driving,” says Gaeta. “Many of the sites are historic, and as such, are very well-preserved and reflect the old vibe of a glamorous L.A. It’s a potent reminder that all the places we go have stories; they mayn’t be as dramatic (or they might be), but it connects us to the history and people.”

And their smells.