The Scent of a Ghost: Smelling a Specter

Updated on October 30, 2018
David Halk profile image

A person of science and logic, I enjoy setting aside my skepticism and delving into the lore of horror and the paranormal.

What’s That Smell? A Ghost!

Ghosts are commonly known by their appearance or sound. When most people think of a ghost, they imagine a shadowy apparition, or perhaps the sound of disembodied footsteps, or rapping on doors and walls. Sometimes people will report having been touched by a ghost – the chilling wisp of air blowing through them, or the cold touch of an unseen hand. But do people ever smell a ghost? Do ghosts smell? Yes, sometimes they do. It’s not a matter of bad ethereal hygiene (although there is actually at least one case of that!), but usually the scent of a ghost will indicate the nature and intentions of the entity exuding it.

The rocks at Devil's Den
The rocks at Devil's Den

Smelling My First Ghost

My interest in the scents of ghosts began a few years ago when I was walking through the national military park of Gettysburg. A small town in south central Pennsylvania, Gettysburg was the site of some of the most brutal fighting in the American Civil War. In just three days’ time, from July 1–3, 1863, fifty-one thousand soldiers were killed in the town and its immediate surroundings. The day I walked through the battlefield it was warm and sunny. I had just hiked through the rocky escarpment of Devil’s Den, a site of vicious fighting on the Gettysburg battlefields, and took a trail through an adjoining section of woods. At one point I smelled the distinct sweet odor of cherry pipe tobacco. It was so strong that I stopped and looked around to find the source. The trail was straight and I could see a long distance in front of and behind me. There was no one else on the trail. I looked to my right and there was no one in the woods. To my left the trees gave way to a shallow ridge. I walked to the top of the ridge which gave a view to a vast clear field. Not a person in sight. It was quite baffling – there was no one around smoking and there was no smoke to be seen in the air. But the tobacco scent was certainly there, and only present in the one small area of the trail.

Later that evening when I returned home, I searched online for the smell of tobacco smoke at Gettysburg and was surprised to see many accounts of people smelling tobacco smoke at the battlefield without any visible source. And many of those accounts occurred right where I had been, at Devil’s Den! At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, pipe smoking was a popular pastime, and many soldiers and officers smoked pipes. Is it possible that a soldier had smoked a pipe on that trail to Devil’s Den when he was killed? Considering it would probably be bad practice to smoke while engaging in battle or marching to it, perhaps it was what got him killed as the enemy spied his pipe’s glow or caught a whiff of its scent. Or he might have been encamped there, smoking before the fighting began. It’s also possible that whether he had been smoking or not when he died, the scent of his favorite tobacco’s smoke still hangs in the air as an ethereal odor to remind us of one person’s life and demise in the ordeal of the battlefield.

The approximate spot on the trail from Devil's Den where I smelled the mystery cherry pipe tobacco smoke.
The approximate spot on the trail from Devil's Den where I smelled the mystery cherry pipe tobacco smoke.
Pipe smoking was a favorite pastime during the Civil War.
Pipe smoking was a favorite pastime during the Civil War.
Sachs Covered Bridge in Gettysburg, PA
Sachs Covered Bridge in Gettysburg, PA

More Ghostly Smells in Gettysburg

In Gettysburg, of the four ways to experience ghosts (sight, sound, touch, smell), smell actually ranks as second. In addition to the scents of perfume, flowers, and gunpowder, cigar and pipe smoke are also prevalent. Interestingly, experiencing ghosts by sight is the least common method in Gettysburg.

Another location in Gettysburg, Sachs Covered Bridge, was the site of three hangings of army deserters. Visitors to the bridge report seeing apparitions, hearing voices, feeling invisible touches, and smelling cigar smoke – perhaps the residual scent of the three hanged men’s last smoke before execution?

Mark Nesbitt, a prolific paranormal researcher of phenomena in Gettysburg, said in an interview that just like sightings, ghostly scents can be smelled by some people and not by others. He makes the point that when giving a tour, one person could smell pipe tobacco or cigar smoke and the other does not. This is a good sign of supernatural odor, since when someone is smoking an actual pipe or cigar, everyone present will smell it. He also recounts a story of an investigation he performed at Cashtown Inn in Gettysburg. The three women present all smelled cigarette smoke and when they mentioned it, the three men present said they could smell nothing. The entity they ended up contacting was a man named “Sarge”. He had been a veteran from Korea and Vietnam and a biker who used to visit The Cashtown Inn when it was a biker bar in the 1960’s and 70’s. He was likely trying to impress the women, letting them know he might now be a ghost, but he’s still cool!

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Vintage photo of the Whaley House
Vintage photo of the Whaley House

Paranormal Perfume in The Whaley House

The Whaley House in San Diego, California is an estate built by Thomas Whaley in 1857. Apparently with a certain lack of reasonableness, he built his family’s house on the site of the former public gallows. One would figure with the atrocious death and suffering associated with the grounds, no one would care to live there. But he did. And consequently he and his family suffered the ill effects that such a place harbors. They were first visited by the ghastly presence of “Yankee” Jim Robinson, a drifter and a thief who was hung at the site four years before Whaley built the house there. A towering apparition at 6 feet 4 inches, he would have been a horrible sight to behold. As if the morose stalking of such a letch were not bad enough, the Whaley family experienced a run of untimely deaths and suicides.

Today, children who approach the Whaley House may be greeted with an unpleasant surprise. In one account, two boys rang the lever-operated bell at the front door. There was the sound of quick, light footsteps crossing the floor inside, then the door opened just a crack and the strong scent of perfume came wafting out. A diminutive woman peering out through the little window in the door croaked out, “There are scares here with big eyes!” The children, understandably, ran away in utter terror.

What the hapless boys encountered was unmistakably the ghost of old Mrs. Whaley, who long ago would terrorize the children who would sneak up to her house at sunset in hopes of catching a glimpse of that nasty specter of Jim Robinson. Mrs. Whaley would usually scare them right off the porch, but sometimes she would bring them inside and chill them to the bone with tales of the grisly soul of the miscreant that inhabited her house. And no doubt, she assaulted their noses with the heavy reek of her French perfume.

Stull Cemetery prominently featuring the roofless ruins of the church where the witches met long ago.
Stull Cemetery prominently featuring the roofless ruins of the church where the witches met long ago.

Ariana Grande Smells Hell at Stull Cemetery

In a Complex Magazine interview, Ariana Grande, who is supposed to be the "normal" teeny bopper star, revealed a horrifying encounter with the supernatural. According to Ariana, she and her friends were staying in Kansas City one day when they decided they wanted to go to Stull Cemetery, located in the small town of Stull forty miles west of the city. They arrived there the next night. As they approached the cemetery in their car, the tombstones and remains of the old stone church etched stark silhouettes against the dusk’s last light. Before they even disembarked from the car, they could feel negative energy all around them and the smell of sulfur choked the air. Ariana knew the smell of sulfur is the sign of a demon, as was the fly which had suddenly appeared in the car with them. Terrified, they never left the car. Ariana rolled the window down, apologized to the dead for having disturbed their rest, and quickly drove out of there.

Perhaps she was lucky that she and her friends did not dare to venture into the accursed cemetery, for it is rumored to be one of the seven gateways to Hell. Legend says that a set of steps lay in the cemetery, covered by a hidden seal. If they had found these steps and descended them, they would have never returned, for they are the stairway to the underworld! Other evil landmarks in the cemetery are the church and tree. The ruins of the church lacks a roof, yet one can remain entirely dry standing within its walls during a rain storm due to the darkness infused into it by the witches and occultists who had once worshipped there. The pine tree is no longer there. It was cut down to protect the curious from harm, as the tree had been used long ago to hang witches, although the stump of its trunk still splits a gravestone in half where it had once grown.

There are reports of people being chased away from the cemetery by pickup trucks, sometimes being pursued out of Stull as far as twenty miles. Perhaps they are concerned citizens protecting thrill seekers from harm by the accursed grounds, or maybe they are protecting an additional powerful secret unknown to anyone but themselves. Considering the consequences of seeking out the curses of vanquished witches and stairs to the netherworld, trust your nose; sulfur smells bad and so does Hell and the stairs that go there. Tread lightly in such places.

A young soldier of the Civil War wearing a kepi hat.
A young soldier of the Civil War wearing a kepi hat.

The Big Stink in Martinsburg

Martinsburg, WV was the second largest town in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, and it was a major strategic location. It was variously occupied by both the Union and Confederate forces, switching ownership between the two armies 37 times. One park in Martinsburg was the site of a particularly bloody battle. There are many reports by people visiting the park of catching whiff of a very awful smell. Upon looking around, the source is always identified as a teenaged boy leaning against a nearby tree. The youth stands 5 feet tall, wears tattered brown pants, a dirty red checked shirt, suspenders, no shoes, has filthy feet, and a floppy weird cap with a small brim. The smell he gives off is horrible, and has been described as rotten garbage, horse sweat or rancid meat. When people have called to him, he gives no response and simply disappears before their eyes.

Confederate soldiers wore caps with small brims called kepis. The soldiers were often ragged, with little or no soap to use for bathing. The fact that the apparition did not react to people calling to it suggests that it was a residual haunting, a manifestation that is simply a memory of the location replaying a vision of who was once there – the embodiment itself has no intelligence. In this case, not only did the sight of the boy manifest, but so did his scent. The bad body odor of this ghost, while being a deterrent to picnicking in the park, is also a testament to the horrible conditions suffered by the soldiers of the Civil War.

The Wendigo
The Wendigo

The Wendigo

The Wendigo, also known as the Windandingo, is a terrifying evil spirit in the lore of Native Americans of the Algonquian-speaking tribes of North America which include the Chippewa, Cree, Micmac, Montagnais and Naskapi, among others. The Wendigo manifests as a towering, wretched beast walking upon two legs with long arms, insanely long jagged teeth, two maniacally red glowing eyes, and covered in swamp detritus. It smells like rotting leaves or rotten meat. It is known for being cannibalistic and it eats humans whenever it spots them. This is perhaps the reason for its most foul odor, in addition to the evilness emanating from its damned being. It inhabits the loneliest places in the woods. When one smells such foulness in the forest, it is best to turn and run and thank God you only smelled it and did not see it, for if it sees you, you will certainly make a Wendigo very happy as its dinner.

A Scent For Your Thoughts

So where do all these ghostly smells come from? One way a ghost smell can originate is through its intention to convey something to the human witnessing it. Scent and memory are very closely connected. Scent is a very gentle way for a spirit of a person you once knew to communicate with you as opposed to scaring you with the sight of a full-body apparition or confusing you with a voice with no visible source.

Some varieties of ghost odors include floral scents: Rose, lilac, and jasmine, are attributed to the ghosts of those who have recently passed. Scents of everyday life such as cigar or pipe smoke, a special perfume or cologne, brewing coffee, and cooking foods were common to the ghost during its life and it now uses them to let loved ones know that they are near in times of joy or pain. Negative scents such mildew, rotten eggs, sulfur, and rotting foods infest areas where unfriendly or evil spirits reside.

Another way a ghost smell originates is simply through the innate characteristics of the entity itself. This is the smell of perfume or smoke or flowers because in life that is what the person was known for or liked. In the case of a demon or other evil spirit, it cannot help but to exude the foul stench of decomposing flesh or sulfur, as death and decay are core essences of its being.

Sage smudge
Sage smudge

Ghosts Can Smell Us Too

Smoke from burning plants (smudge) has been used since ancient times to impart protection from unseen spirits and thoughts. Smudge smoke is made either by spreading dry herbs on hot coals or igniting dry herbs in a bowl.

Sage in particular is commonly used by the Native Americans of the Plains Nations and its use is widespread today in paranormal investigations and house cleansings. It is traditionally used in ceremonies and included in medicine pouches and bundles. Sage is burned in smudging ceremonies to drive out bad spirits, feelings or influences. In the modern home, a slow-burning ceramic holder is carried from room to room, allowing the sage smoke to disperse throughout the premises. According to Indian lore: “Sage makes the bad spirits sick. They go away from it when it is burned. It does not make the good spirits sick. They will not leave when it is smoked.”

The Fleeting Aroma of the Other Side

While scents are a very important means by which to detect and interpret ghosts, they are very hard to analyze and document. With a visual sighting, the apparition can usually be caught on camera or video. In the case of auditory phenomena, there is the audio recorder. But for smells, there is no reliable instrument that can be used onsite to record and clarify the experience. This has to be almost completely based on the testimony of the observer, who many times may not be able to determine the location or source of the smell. The source and meaning of a ghostly scent is dependent on the intuition of the observer. Although an odor cannot be mechanically documented, a sensitive and introspective individual will sometimes be able to glean much more meaning from that lingering scent than just a passing whiff in the air.

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    • John E Bailor profile image

      John E Bailor 

      4 weeks ago

      Very interesting article. Thanks for including your personal experience with this subject. I will have to bone up on sage.

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