One day in 2015, Dan Bell left his home in Baltimore and drove into the suburbs to visit the Owings Mills Mall. It was a trip out of memory. As a 9-year-old boy, he had attended the grand opening of this 820,000-square-foot shopping emporium with his family.
Gold dust and pink feathers rained down from the glass-roof atrium that day as thousands gathered. Saks Fifth Avenue was an anchor tenant. The food court, lined with palm trees, was called the Conservatory. The ABC station in Baltimore dispatched its Copter Cam 2 to sweep over the parking lot and broadcast shots of the ocean of cars. Mr. Bell remembered his aunt driving around for 45 minutes to find a spot.
This was 1986, a peak mall year in America. At least one new shopping mall had been built in the United States every year since the 1950s, and 19 opened in 1990 alone. To capture the spirit of the time, Esquire dispatched a writer to the Chicago suburbs to follow two teenage boys on a typical Saturday night of mall cruising. Movies of the era, like “The Blues Brothers” (1980), “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), “True Stories” (1986), “Clueless” (1995), “Mallrats” (1995) and “Jackie Brown” (1997), included key sequences set within these “cathedrals of consumption,” a term coined by the sociologist George Ritzer to describe large indoor shopping spaces.
If you were remotely involved in the booming consumer culture in those years, you spent hours circling indoor fountains and riding escalators while sucking down an Orange Julius. Even the eternally alienated Joan Didion wrote of buying two straw hats, four bottles of nail enamel and “a toaster, on sale at Sears,” at the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu.
At the time of his return visit in 2015, Mr. Bell had not been to the mall in Owings Mills, Md. — or any shopping mall — in more than a decade. Although he had heard that it was struggling, he was not prepared for what he saw.
“The first moment kind of took my breath away, because it was this entire corridor of nothing,” Mr. Bell said.
The French marble floors still gleamed under artificial light. It wasn’t quite a ruin, but it looked as if a viral outbreak had removed all life from the place.
“They had loud pop music echoing through the mall, and I’m looking down this corridor, and there’s no people, no stores open,” Mr. Bell said. “It was really a sobering moment.”
Others have found creative grist in the dead-mall phenomenon. In her best-selling thriller “Gone Girl,” Gillian Flynn set a scene in a four-story destination mall gone to seed in a Missouri suburb. What was once the beating heart of the community had become “two million square feet of echo.” The author wrote the mall into the novel and kept it in her screenplay for the film adaptation, because, she said: “For kids of the ’80s especially, dead malls have a very strong allure. We were the last of the free-range kids, roaming around malls, not really buying anything, but just looking. To see all those big looming spaces so empty now — it’s a childhood haunting.”
Narrated in a low-key voice-over and set to a downbeat soundtrack of retro-synth Vaporwave music, Mr. Bell’s video shorts pay affectionate tribute to and try to understand a fallen world. They evoke the same fuzzy ’80s nostalgia as the recent time-capsule photo book “Malls Across America” by Michael Galinsky, even as they offer an unsettling visual document of the retail apocalypse that changing consumer habits, e-commerce and economic disparity have wrought. A report issued by Credit Suisse in June predicted that 20 to 25 percent of the more than 1,000 existing enclosed malls in America will close in the next five years.
Though upscale malls in wealthy communities continue to do well, Mr. Bell isn’t interested in those; he visits dead malls, and among the deadest are ones in working-class and rural communities. Filming at the Bristol Mall in Bristol, Va., Mr. Bell discovered 10 stores that remained open in the entire center; the rest of the retail spaces sat empty behind lowered metal gates.
At the Rehoboth Mall in Rehoboth Beach, Del., he met a middle-aged immigrant couple running a clothing alteration business in a space that had once been the food court. Weird moments abound in the series, as when Mr. Bell’s camera fixes on a forgotten corner to underscore the desolation, and then a geriatric mall-walker appears in frame, doing solitary laps.
In his running commentary, Mr. Bell is part affable tour guide (“Heading down this corridor, you can see ahead there, that’s where the Sears used to be”), part mall-architecture buff (“Do I love this vintage brick planter? Yes”) and part baffled Everyman (“There’s no customers, but they have a customer-service desk”).
Watching the “Dead Mall Series” provokes in the viewer a conflicting swirl of emotions. You think of your own happy times in malls and feel sad for the loss, and then feel stupid for getting all emotional about what was an artificial and manipulative experience built around shopping.
Malls are an emotional subject, Mr. Bell has discovered: “The things people write me are incredible. From young people who just love the retro aspect to people who experienced things in malls that are meaningful. First dates, meeting their husband or wife, their first job.”
The short history of malls goes like this: In 1954, Victor Gruen’s Northland Center, often credited as the first modern shopping mall (though earlier examples existed), opens in Southfield, Mich. The suburban location is fitting because the rise of the automobile, helped along by the Federal-Aid Highway Act, led to the widespread creation of large shopping centers away from urban centers. This, among other factors, nearly killed downtowns, and malls reigned supreme for some 40 years. By the 1990s, however, a new urbanism movement revived the urban shopping experience and eroded the dominance of malls. Next, the rise of big box stores and online shopping sounded the death knell for mall culture.
“People who are in the malls, who went to malls, this is the mourning period right now, because we are losing a lot of malls,” Mr. Bell said. “It’s hard for some people.”
In the Marley Station Mall episode, filmed in January in Glen Burnie, Md., Mr. Bell related a personal story. Training his camera on a steel abstract sculpture, he says, “The shoe store was right in front of that sculpture. It’s now a Spencer’s, but at the time it was a Dolcis. And I worked there because my friend managed it. So I stared at that sculpture every single day from work.”
Marley Station was Mr. Bell’s home mall. He could get there in 15 minutes if he managed to swing a ride, an hour if he walked. Like Ms. Flynn and a whole generation of middle and lower-middle-class suburban kids, for Mr. Bell the mall was the place to go. Chess King and Regal Cinema beckoned. “You would sit outside and smoke cigarettes and walk around inside and see who’s there,” Mr. Bell said.
Mr. Bell’s favorite store in the mall was Suncoast Motion Picture Company. He would spend half the afternoon digging through videotapes in the $10 rack and finding weird little cult films like “The Honeymoon Killers” and “Street Trash.” Then he would stroll down to Walden Books and spend more happy hours in the film section.
In those years the mall was derided as an alienating place filled with soulless chain stores, but it was possible to get something of a cultural education there.
“It really fueled the artistic mind that I had but didn’t know how to do anything with,” Mr. Bell said. “Just having access to these films and books and everything the mall had at the time.”
In his later teens Mr. Bell held various jobs at the mall: at Macy’s, at the shoe store, at a leather-goods boutique that sold the brown suede jackets with puffy shoulders that were all the rage at the time.
“I don’t know how I kept my jobs at the mall, because I was never in the store,” Mr. Bell laughed. “I would just go around and talk to everybody. We were all losers, smoking cigarettes, drinking at work, hanging out with working-class, cool, fun people. We all kind of looked out for one another. It made having a crappy job easier.”
In 1996, a blizzard shut everything down. Mr. Bell and a co-worker were stranded inside the mall and spent the night walking the empty interior as the wind howled outside. The experience was a premonition of what he would film 20 years later.
On a recent Friday, Mr. Bell met me at Voorhees Town Center, a mall in central New Jersey that was dealt a blow when an anchor tenant, a Macy’s, closed.
An image of malls in their heyday may be frozen in your mind if you haven’t visited one in a while, and upon entering, the old sense memories rush back: the distinct smell of a department store (here, a Boscov’s), at once fresh and synthetic; the inward thrill upon entering the open main floor; the childlike joy of riding an escalator.
In the 1991 Paul Mazursky comedy “Scenes From a Mall,” shot partly at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, the main characters, played by Woody Allen and Bette Midler, relive the ups and downs of their marriage as they shop, eat and go to the movies “under the all-embracing roof of this sparkly, neon-glowing shrine to American consumerism,” as the New York Times film critic Vincent Canby described the mall in his review. With apologies to that movie, here is Scenes from Voorhees Town Center:
A bird flies around the mall’s upper level.
Advertising banners show young women smiling and having fun. “Something new starts here,” say the banners, which hide the windows of vacant stores.
A lone man sits in a massage chair, staring at his smartphone in an otherwise shopperless corridor.
The employees of Keith’s Classic Furniture, a secondhand furniture store, discuss the mall’s precise state of deadness. “It’s not quite dead, and it’s not quite alive,” one says to the other. “We’re a zombified mall.”
The most happening part was the food court, which had six remaining restaurants and a small crowd having lunch among the palm trees under a skylight.
“I have not been to a food court this populated in a while,” Mr. Bell said. “In the heyday, you wouldn’t be able to find a seat.”
A large man with short brown hair and a beard, Mr. Bell comes across as wistful for his youth. He agrees that mallgoing was lame in retrospect, but he nevertheless beams when he sees a still-operating fountain.
“I love the smell of pizza and chlorine together,” he said. “It’s like my favorite smell.”
His many visits to dead malls have not, however, aroused in him a renewed desire to be a mall shopper. Like so many, he hasn’t purchased anything in a mall in years. “The stuff that interests me is really not in a mall,” he said. “Plus, it’s a lot cheaper to buy it on Amazon.”
He ordered a slice of pizza and a soda and offered his assessment on Voorhees Town Center. “It seems like there’s a little bit more going on than some of the other malls I’ve been to,” he said. “It’s not completely dead, but it’s definitely getting there.”
His eyes widened when he noticed an older woman leaving the mall with a Great American Cookie box. “Now, see, that is right out of the ’80s,” he said. “That’s an experience I have not seen lately, someone walking out with a Great American Cookie cake. She’s probably getting it for her grandkid.”
Like some archaeologist of retail, Mr. Bell read the “label scars” on the facades of closed storefronts, the marks left behind by the uprooted lettering. One of them had been a Kay Jewelers, he determined.
The upper level had an unlikely mix of tenants, including government offices, a cancer charity, a youth club called the Spot, and the Echelon Mall Ministry. “This is another way malls can redo themselves,” Mr. Bell said. “At one time, this was probably five stores.” Looking at potted flora in the corridor, he noted, “People are taking care of the plants at least.”
For all the time he spends visiting and filming these concrete carcasses, “malls do not make me sad,” Mr. Bell said. In fact, he finds it calming to be in a large building among the familiar sights and smells of his childhood with the air-conditioning cranked high and not many people around. “When I hear about malls that are in the series that have closed, there’s a moment where I’m, like, ‘That’s a shame,’” Mr. Bell said. “But I don’t mourn for malls.”
Instead, like some latter-day Edward Sheriff Curtis, he is visually documenting a culture that is, if not dying out, then surely transforming. As he put it, “So 20 years from now, 30 years from now, people can say, ‘Hey, that mall we used to go to, let’s look it up,’ and there will be a full video of me walking through it and talking about it.”
Only once was Mr. Bell truly unsettled during the course of his work. It happened two years ago, at the Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, Ohio. The place was not dying but fully dead and abandoned. Inside, he got a glimpse of end times. The first thing he heard upon entering the place, he recalled, was frogs singing as loud as could be.
“They were in a pool in the elevator shaft,” Mr. Bell said. “There was a bank of fog hovering midair in the food court. I was, like, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’”
“Who in the ’80s could imagine this?” he added. “Can you imagine filming this and taking it back to the ’80s and saying, ‘This is what’s going to happen in 30 years: There’s going to be a frog in the food court’?”