Last week, I attended a “4D” screening of Batman v Superman at a brand new theater in New York City. It was not the immersive experience that it claimed it would be. And while its technology—including artificial wind and rain, moving seats, smoke, and smells—might seem new to many moviegoers, similar gimmicks have existed in theaters for a half-century.
Perhaps the most infamous of these gimmicks was “Smell-O-Vision,” first available to olfactory-intrigued cinema attendees in 1959. Since then, dozens of other sensory innovations (if you can call them that) have entered theaters. Most of them have not been successful, as audiences find that they prefer a more straightforward movie experience. But others undeniably made their marks on the history of film, and today we still see their effects on the industry.
Below is timeline of cinema’s most wacky sensory gimmicks, from old-world Smell-O-Vision to today’s 4DX.
Movie theater gimmicks, 1958-present
Following World War II, the film industry faced new competition from television, which was rapidly gaining popularity in the US and around the world. On top of that, a 1948 landmark US Supreme Court antitrust case, United States v. Paramount Pictures, led to higher theater costs and fewer movies being produced. Film directors and industry marketers decided to come up with some patently absurd gimmicks to lure audiences back to the theater.
1958: Pioneering horror director William Castle starts making a number of low-budget thrillers that each incorporate some kind of physical, in-theater gimmick.
- Macabre (1958): Attendees are guaranteed $1,000 in compensation if they literally die of fright during a screening. No one does.
- House on Haunted Hill (1959): A skeleton flies over the audience, mimicking the ending of the movie.
- The Tingler (1959): Audience members’ seats are rigged with electric buzzers.
1959: “AromaRama,” a technology that sends scents through a movie theater’s air conditioning system, is used for the first time for the film Behind the Great Wall. The New York Times gives the experiment a scathing review.
1959: Only a few weeks later, “Smell-O-Vision,” a similar technology, is used for the film Scent of Mystery. Instead of employing the theater’s AC system, Smell-O-Vision pumps smells out of a series of vents beneath the seats. It doesn’t work very well and soon fades into oblivion.
1959: A hypnotist tries to hypnotize moviegoers before a screening of Horrors of the Black Museum (video). It’s used only once.
1974: “Sensurround,” which added massive low-range speakers to movie theaters, debuts with the film Earthquake. The vibrations caused by the bass sound effects attempt to recreate the feeling of being in an earthquake. The film is a success, but Sensurround is only used in four more movies thereafter.
1981: Director John Waters releases Polyester, a black comedy featuring a new sensory experience he calls “Odorama,” inspired by Smell-O-Vision. Moviegoers are given scratch and sniff cards that correspond with moments in the film. On the film’s DVD commentary (released in 2004), Waters boasts that he “actually got the audience to pay to smell shit.”
1984: The “Sensorium” opens at a Six Flags theme park in Baltimore and is called the first true 4D movie theater. It’s complete with rumbling seats and various theater-filling scents.
1991: Muppet Vision 3D debuts at Disney World’s Hollywood Studios in Florida. The show features in-theater Muppet animatronics and soap bubbles.
1994: Honey, I Shrunk the Audience! opens at Epcot, also at Disney World. Based on the popular Disney film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the 4D movie “shrinks” the audience, who are on a moving platform.
2009: The first 4DX theater debuts in South Korea. In 2010, after the theater screens James Cameron’s Avatar in 4D, the technology expands throughout Asia, and later into Mexico and Brazil.
2011: D-Box vibrating, motion chairs are installed in several theaters around the world.
2011: Merlin Entertainments, the company behind Legoland theme parks, opens a 4D cinema at the Sydney Tower Eye, which incorporates a number of physical effects including actual fire.
2011: Spy Kids: All the Time in the World is released, one of the first mainstream Hollywood movies to be billed as “4D.” It is critically panned.
2014: 4DX debuts in the US (Los Angeles) and outperforms traditional movie theaters.
2016: 4DX debuts in New York City for Batman v Superman. Moviegoers are rained upon and punched.