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Why We Can’t Stop Saying ‘I Know It Smell Crazy in There’

A sometimes controversial catchphrase reveals the power of olfactory imagination

Recently, I tweeted a TikTok screenshot I found amusing. It shows four people under a caption presumed to be spoken by ourselves, the naïve observer: “But you don’t look polyamorous!” 

All I meant to convey by sharing the image was that — no disrespect to these folks or their romantic arrangements — they very much do look polyamorous as a group, and no one has ever uttered the exclamation they’d attributed to the entire non-poly population. But the tweet was quoted hundreds of times with additional commentary, and aside from comparisons to the band Paramore, there was a second common refrain: “I know it smell crazy in there.” 

For now, let’s breeze past the stereotype that polyamory has, let’s say, an interesting relationship to body odor — because the emergent use of “I know it smell crazy in there” raises many more questions. What does it mean to smell “crazy”? How do we know when something smells that way when separated from the circumstances of said odor? And why are we projecting an ability to smell through the internet, which only engages our vision and hearing?

The phrase, according to Know Your Meme, was a flashpoint of racial controversy in September of this year, when a Twitter user applied it to video from a nightclub in India. In the storm of accusations, callouts and spinoff memes that followed, it appeared that “I know it smell crazy in there” would only ever function as a casual smear against an ethnic group that someone wanted to disparage. However, the earliest known instance of the remark on social media wasn’t problematic in the slightest — it was in reference to a factory that manufactures rubber bands.   

If you reflect on the peculiar smell of rubber bands, you’ll have to agree with this assessment. That could be thanks to our innate ability to recall a scent when presented with an image of a familiar scene or object. Researchers have measured, for example, physiological reactions to pictures of food, and shown that subjects prompted to think about the smells that correspond to these visuals will salivate more than those who are not asked to use their olfactory imagination.

To know that something or someplace smells crazy, then, is to implicate oneself: You can only be sure of this if you’ve experienced the smell before. As for “crazy,” we can take this to mean an odor both unusually distinct (like rubber bands) and incredibly strong. Though we may not have encountered a scent on the scale of the situation presented, we can extrapolate from relevant cases. If you’ve ever been in an outhouse, you have some idea of how the Erfurt latrine disaster of 1184 must have smelled. If you’ve visited koi ponds and eaten at restaurants, you can mentally combine those scenarios for the smell portrait of a “koi café” where the floorspace doubles as an aquarium for the fish. And if you’ve attended a furry convention… yeah.

It’s occurred to me, amid all this smellposting, that our visions of what the web may become in the future — such as an immersive “metaverse” — are still lacking in scent, landscapes of only sight and sound. Maybe we’re hoping to hang on to aromas, their compelling mystery, their power to trigger memory. This month, game designer and quiz writer Alex McMillan put together a viral thread on the levels of abstraction represented in the product line of Yankee Candle (a store that I would argue smells categorically crazy). At the bottom, they explained, are fairly direct concepts like “black cherry” and “clean cotton,” while at the very top tier, you have undefinable properties untethered from any context. Smells that escape our reckoning. 

We don’t want a life that smells of nothing — we want to be able to apprehend the world, at least in part, through our nostrils. So we insist on that knowledge, if only with the sporadic certainty that we can detect a “crazy” smell through the screen. And by asserting this, we unlock the scent for others who realize they, too, have this speculative ability built into their brains. 

Until evolution does away with the human nose, we can rest assured of its relevance to our communication, even across networks that do not transmit odor. Declaring that something smells crazy doesn’t have to be divisive — instead, it can bring together a consensus that shows how much we share. Use these words wisely, and you won’t get any stink on yourself.