It’s no secret that a growing number of malls are dying. But at least we have Dan Bell to provide their obituaries. For the last two years, the Maryland filmmaker has taken viewers into dozens of abandoned and dying shopping centers throughout the U.S., generally using a hidden camera to evade security. Here, Bell talks with JCK about why he’s become a dead mall maven, what’s poignant about them, and why he thinks so many are closing their doors.
JCK: How did you get into filming dead malls?
Dan Bell: I have always had an interest in dead malls. I’m also into the aesthetics of vintage mall and retail interiors. It sometimes feels like the Titanic: This place that was once bustling with people and full of retail stores is now just sinking. I don’t think people really understand the feeling until they go into the dead mall….
I have been in malls that had five levels of retail space and everything is abandoned. You think about how much money went into building that building. That is one of the things that just blows me away. It’s just mind-boggling, really.
JCK: It is amazing to see the difference.
Bell: When I was a kid at the opening day at the Owings Mills mall, it was so fancy. There were models walking around with clothes from different stores, and they had trays of hors d’oeuvres, and it was amazing. Then I was in it a week before it closed and it was like watching the Titanic sink. Back in the day, you could never imagine a mall not doing well.
JCK: How many dead malls have you been in?
Bell: At this point, I have been in maybe 50 different malls. It’s a never-ending thing. Every state, every town now has a dead mall.
JCK: Any thoughts on why this is happening?
Bell: I think the closings are due to two factors. Back in the day, everyone went to the mall to socialize and meet their friends. Today everyone is on Facebook and social media. So young people socialize differently.
Of course, online shopping has also had a lot to do with these malls’ demise. So many of the big retailers have too many stores. In the 1980s, a town could support maybe two to three shopping centers. Today, it can maybe support one or two.
JCK: How do you get into the closed malls?
Bell: I have done everything from slip the security guard a few dollars to trespassing, which I don’t necessarily recommend.
JCK: Is there anything really poignant you have noticed on your trips?
Bell: The poignant things are when the videos come out and you hear from people who have memories of these malls. People have real attachments to these places. They see a video of a mall that is dying; it is sometimes very sad to see the comments. People will say I had my first date there, my first kiss there. That’s what’s special for people. When the mall is gone, part of their past is erased. I want people, if they feel like they’re mourning, they can go and watch these videos.
JCK: Are there any commonalities as far as these malls? Did they fail to modernize themselves?
Bell: In a lot of cases, there is nothing that can be done. There is a mall that has turned into a university. We are seeing malls with health clubs. One mall had an anchor tenant leave and they put in a data center. Sometimes they put in gyms, they park cars in them, anything that can take up space. It’s just weird stuff that you wouldn’t have imagined happening in the 1980s. Back then, the malls really killed small businesses. And now small businesses are really keeping the malls open.
JCK: What do you see as the future of malls?
Bell: We are going to see a lot fewer malls. I don’t think that malls are done. There are malls that are doing very well. We just built way too many malls, and now in 2017, they all can’t sustain themselves.
JCK: Do you often see jewelers in these malls?
Bell: I see a lot of jewelry stores. Back in the day, a mall could have six of them and they would all do very well. Today a mall can have maybe two or three. Most of the time in the dead malls you will see no jewelry stores. They have all moved out.
JCK: What happens to the malls when they close?
Bell: In Maryland, one mall is being turned into a super Walmart. A lot of times they turn them into outside strip malls. That saves tons of money because you don’t have heat and air conditioning. So that’s a way they reinvent the space.
JCK: Do you still see mall walkers, even in the dead malls?
Bell: They still walk those malls. Even if the places are empty, they will still run into you. They have very specific tiles that they follow. It’s almost like walking on a highway. If you are on their path, they will walk right into you.
For more on Bell’s adventures in dead malls, check out his TED talk:
(Image courtesy of Dan Bell)