Dutch scientists use smell to recreate JFK, Diana and other famous deaths

December 26, 2014 by Nicolas Delaunay

Dutch scientists are recreating the deaths of some of the world's most famous personalities by reconstructing their last moments using scents and sounds.

From the sweet smell of Jacqueline Kennedy's perfume mingled with the scent of John F. Kennedy's blood to Whitney Houston's last drug-fuelled moments in a Beverly Hills bathtub, scientists at Breda university say they offer visitors a unique, if somewhat macabre, historical snapshot.

"We all have seen the images of JFK's assassination, but what did it smell like?" asks Frederik Duerinck, from the communication and multimedia design faculty of Breda's Avans university of applied sciences.

To find out, visitors with a sense of the morbid are invited to lie in a series of four silver metal boxes similar to those found in a morgue.

The boxes, which are pitch-dark inside, are rigged with pipes leading to bottles containing pressurised smells.

A soundtrack is played and on queue different scents are released into the box to recreate a specific "final moment."

For around five minutes, visitors can relive the smells and sounds believed to have surrounded four people whose deaths are etched into the world's collective memory: Kennedy (1963); Princess Diana (1997); Moamer Kadhafi (2011) and Whitney Houston (2012).

Strong chemical odour

For instance, those wanting to experience Houston's final moments are transported to a bathtub at the upmarket Beverly Hills hotel where the diva died in February 2012 at age 48.

A coroner ruled that the singing legend died of accidental drowning, with cocaine and heart disease listed as contributing factors.

To the sounds of splashing water and Houston's voice, a visitor first gets a whiff of generic cleaner, used in hotels around the world, followed by the olive oil the singer used in her tub.

Then a strong chemical odour, similar to that of cocaine fills the box, grabbing its occupant by the throat, followed by the sound of rushing water and then silence.

"Smell is rarely used in communication and we wanted to explore its uses," said Duerinck. "It's a very powerful means of communication."

Scientists have proved that smells are linked to the part of the brain that regulates emotion and memory.

Odours are often used in the retail industry to trigger a buying mood in customers.

"Who doesn't want to buy a loaf after catching a whiff of fresh bread?" said Duerinck, who together with other lecturers and students has put together an inventory of odours and is devising new ways of using smell: for instance in story-telling.

"It's quite surprising and spectacular," said Riks Soepenberg, 31, who experienced a recreation of Kadhafi's last moments as the former Libyan strongman was hunted and killed by rebels in October 2011.

"You can watch the pictures as many times as you want, it's just not the same thing," he said of the attack on Kadhafi's convoy, forcing the long-serving leader to hide in a drainage pipe before being murdered.

'I felt myself being hunted'

"I almost felt myself being hunted," said Soepenberg.

In the coming months the installation will be taken across Europe.

"We've conducted extensive research," said Wander Eikenboom, another lecturer at Avans about the authenticity of the experience.

"There's already a lot of information available on the Internet, such as what perfume Jackie Kennedy or JFK were wearing," said Eikenboom.

"Whitney Houston's autopsy report for instance, is also available," he added.

But the scientists admit battling to recreate the right scent for Jackie Kennedy's perfume, which is no longer made.

"We had to rebuild something that resembled it as closely as possible," said scientist Mark Meeuwenoord.

The inventors of the "final moments" smells said in any case, exact historical accuracy was not their aim.

Rather, they wanted to explore new ways of "smelling" old stories.

Explore further: Research sheds light on links between memory and smell

Related Stories

Whitney Houston fans to follow funeral on Internet

February 16, 2012

(AP) -- They won't be there in person, but singer Whitney Houston's millions of fans worldwide will be able to share in her homecoming service Saturday as they watch her private funeral on the Internet.

Lemurs match scent of a friend to sound of her voice

April 15, 2014

Humans aren't alone in their ability to match a voice to a face—animals such as dogs, horses, crows and monkeys are able to recognize familiar individuals this way too, a growing body of research shows.

Recommended for you

New paper answers causation conundrum

November 17, 2017

In a new paper published in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, SFI Professor Jessica Flack offers a practical answer to one of the most significant, and most confused questions in evolutionary ...

Chance discovery of forgotten 1960s 'preprint' experiment

November 16, 2017

For years, scientists have complained that it can take months or even years for a scientific discovery to be published, because of the slowness of peer review. To cut through this problem, researchers in physics and mathematics ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.