Updated September 30, 2015
A corpse flower smells like a heady mix of rotten fish, sewage, and dead bodies. It’s a stench meant to draw flies, but just as surely, it draws tourists. Braving a blustery Chicago night, thousands of people lined up Tuesday for a whiff of a corpse flower named Alice at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
In fact, the demand to see and smell a corpse flower is so great that botanical gardens now vie to own one. Gardeners lavish them with care, hoping to force more stinky blooms from a plant whose scent is so rare (up to a decade between flowerings) and so fleeting (eight to 12 hours) that visitors are often disappointed to miss peak stench.
But why do people want to smell the thing? The reaction is usually the same: the anticipation, the tentative sniff, then the classic scrunched-up face of disgust. And yet everyone seems happy to be there.
It turns out there’s a name for this: benign masochism.
Psychologist Paul Rozin described the effect in 2013 in a paper titled “Glad to be sad, and other examples of benign masochism.” His team found 29 examples of activities that some people enjoyed even though, by all logic, they shouldn’t. Many were common pleasures: the fear of a scary movie, the burn of chili pepper, the pain of a firm massage. And some were disgusting, like popping pimples or looking at a gross medical exhibit.
The key is for the experience to be a “safe threat.”
“A roller coaster is the best example,” Rozin told me. “You are in fact fine and you know it, but your body doesn’t, and that’s the pleasure.” Smelling a corpse flower is exactly the same kind of thrill, he says.
It’s a bit like kids playing war games, says disgust researcher Valerie Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “The ‘play’ motive leads humans (and most mammals, especially young ones) to try out experiences in relative safety, so as to be better equipped to deal with them when they meet them for real,” she says.
So by smelling a corpse flower, she says, we’re taking our emotions for a test ride. “We are motivated to find out what a corpse smells like and see how we’d react if we met one.”
Our sense of disgust, after all, serves a purpose. According Curtis’ theory of disgust, outlined in her insightful book “Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, Don’t Eat,” the things most universally found disgusting are those that can make us sick. You know, things like a rotting corpse.
Yet our sense of disgust can be particular. People, it seems, are basically fine with the smell of their own farts (but not someone else’s). Disgust tends to protect us from the threat of others, while we feel fine about our own grossness.
Then there are variations in how we perceive odors. Some smells are good only in small doses, as perfumers know. Musk, for instance, is the base note of many perfumes but is considered foul in high concentrations. Likewise for indole, a molecule that adds lovely floral notes to perfumes but is described as “somewhat fecal and repulsive to people at higher concentrations.”
No one has yet, to my knowledge, tried out a low dose of corpse flower in a perfume (though you can try on an indole brew in “Charogne,” which translates to “Carrion,” by Etat Libre d’Orange). But someone could. There’s an entire field of perfumery—called headspace technology, it was pioneered by fragrance chemist Roman Kaiser in the 1970s—that’s dedicated to capturing a flower’s fragrance in a glass vial and then re-creating the molecular mix chemically. I would love to see someone give eau de corpse flower a whirl, if only they can find a headspace vial large enough.
The stench of a corpse flower, after all, is a mix of compounds, including indole and sweet-smelling benzyl alcohol in addition to nasties like trimethylamine, found in rotting fish. So I’d be very curious to know if a small amount of corpse flower would be a smell we would hate, or maybe love to hate.
I’ll leave you with my favorite example of a “love to hate” smell, from my childhood in the 1980s. At a time when I loved Strawberry Shortcake dolls and scratch-and-sniff stickers, the boys in my class were playing with He-Man dolls. Excuse me, action figures. And among the coolest, and grossest, of them was Stinkor. He was black and white like a skunk, and his sole superpower was to reek so badly that his enemies would flee, gagging.
To give Stinkor his signature stink, Mattel added patchouli oil to the plastic he was molded from. (This confirms the feelings of patchouli-haters everywhere.) It meant that you couldn’t wash Stinkor’s smell away, and it wouldn’t fade like my Strawberry Shortcakes did. The smell was one with Stinkor. And of course, children loved him.
Writer Liz Upton describes the Stinkor figure that she and her brother adored (their mother did not). The kids would pull Stinkor out and scratch at his chest, smelling him again and again. “Something odd was going on here,” Upton writes. “Stinkor smelled dreadful, but his musky tang was strangely addictive.”