In 1978, George Romero debuted Dawn of the Dead, a movie about flesh-eating zombies who converge on a US shopping mall. Released when malls had begun to supplant downtowns as centres of commerce, Dawn of the Dead critiqued the conformity and consumerism of 1970s America.
“It’s some kind of instinct,” one character explains, as brain-dead zombies stumble past escalators and chain stores. “Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
In 2012, Gillian Flynn released Gone Girl, a thriller that – in its portrayal of economic desperation, desolation and deception – is arguably the great novel of the recession. Like Dawn of the Dead, Gone Girl stages a key scene in a mall, only here the mall itself is the horror. Returning to his Midwest hometown, Gone Girl‘s narrator visits his old shopping grounds only to find a graveyard of US enterprise, a shattered structure of shuttered stores where the unemployed seek shelter and drugs.
“I’d expected the mall smell as we entered: the temperature-controlled hollowness,” the narrator observes. “Instead, I smelled old grass and dirt… It was suburbia, post-comet, post-zombie, post-humanity.”
Malls no longer breed zombie shoppers. Instead, they are graveyards of the US economy. Gone are the brain-dead consumers of a more decadent past, when there were things to buy and buyers to sell them and places with people inside.
Now we are zombies with nothing to eat.
Since 2008, hundreds of malls across the US have shut down, and half of all US malls are predicted to close within the next ten years. Thwarted shoppers visit online mall mortuaries like DeadMalls and LabelScar, where they post photos of their decimated economic landscapes. Others strip the malls for parts, stealing scrap material found inside.
Who would have guessed, a decade ago, that the most valuable part of the mall’s brick and mortar economy would be the brick and mortar?
Some rejoice at the fall of the mall, hopeful that it will lead to the revitalisation of downtown commercial districts. This is a faulty assumption. Cities doing well enough to rebuild their downtowns likely did not depend on the mall in the first place.
The mall has long been derided by those with the luxury of an alternative. When the US industrial economy faltered in the 1970s, downtowns in many cities crumbled, and shopping malls – homogeneous, enclosed and sterile – both enabled and compensated for their demise.
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In the media, malls were pilloried as monoliths devoid of character. Mockery of the mall spurred pop culture prototypes: vacuous valley girls, meandering mall rats. Underlying the mockery was grief for the loss of a seemingly more connected and welcoming urban life: the independent businesses, local markets, and community ties built around them.
But while these were memories for some, for others they were merely rumours. A functional local economy was a story our parents told us.
For US citizens raised in cities of post-industrial blight, there was the mall and the mall alone. We did not “choose” between supporting the mall or the local businesses, because by the time we came of age there were few local businesses left to support. There were no independent boutiques and bookstores to protect from corporate takeover: Such battles were plot devices of movies set in more cultured places. We watched from afar, wondering what it was like to have something to lose. Our rundown towns had little anyone wanted: empty lots, boarded windows, vacant stores.
Decades passed, and no one rebuilt them. Now the malls follow, and no one will rebuild them either.
My generation watches the malls fall like our parents watched the downtowns die. To our children, the mall will be a nostalgic abstraction, a 404 in concrete.
The rise in online shopping has been blamed for the demise of the mall. But some economic analysts see a more basic problem.
“What’s going on is the customers don’t have the […] money,” notes longtime retail consultant Howard Davidowitz. “That’s it. This isn’t rocket science.”
Between 2000-2011, suburban poverty surged 67 percent, as gentrification forced city residents from their homes. Mid-tier malls that depended on middle-class shoppers faltered, as the middle class shrank.
“They’re marginal malls because they’re in marginal areas, in many cases,” says retail analyst Kenneth Dalto, noting how demographic shifts have drained the revenue base.
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The fall of the mall is a problem for the consumer: With local businesses decimated and chain stores departed, those without Internet access and credit cards can struggle to procure goods. But the fall of the mall is a bigger problem for low-skill workers.
Materialism may remain rampant, but now its spaces are secret. Retail work has been replaced with jobs in online shopping warehouses where “pickers” labour unseen in brutal conditions.
“We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we’re holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves. We don’t think for ourselves, maybe they don’t trust us to think for ourselves as human beings, I don’t know,” says Adam Littler, who worked undercover at an Amazon.com warehouse to witness conditions first hand. On a given night shift he walked 17km and was expected to collect an order every 33 seconds.
Malls were once castigated for turning consumers into zombies. Now, the zombie is the ideal online retail employee, unthinking and robotic. Advice by algorithm, delivery by drone: This is what a dehumanised landscape looks like.
Our connections and commerce are dependent on our screens. Pay attention, pay attention, to the men behind the screens.
“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth,” the Dawn of the Dead trailer intoned 35 years ago. There is plenty of room in this hell: downtowns replaced by malls replaced by nothing. Old deserted buildings in cities, new deserted buildings in suburbs, always an available parking space, always a worker desperate for work.
Do not rejoice at the fall of the mall. The setting may have been artificial, but the people in it were real.
Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.
Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior