In the last couple of years, I have produced what I call “The Dead Mall Series,” 32 short films and counting about dead malls. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with what a dead mall is, it’s basically a shopping mall that has fallen into hard times. So it either has few shops and fewer shoppers, or it’s abandoned and crumbling into ruin. No sale at Penny’s.
I started producing this series in early 2015 after going through kind of a dark period in my life where I just didn’t want to create films anymore. I put my camera away and I just stopped. So in 2015, I decided to make a short film about the Owings Mills Mall. Owings Mills Mall opened in 1986. I should know because I was there on opening day. I was there with my family, along with every other family in Baltimore, and you had to drive around for 45 minutes just to find a parking spot. So if you can imagine, that’s not happening at the malls today.
My first mall job that I had as a teenager was at a sporting goods store called Herman’s World of Sports. Maybe you remember.
(Singing) Herman’s World of Sports. You guys remember that? Yeah, so I worked in a lady’s shoe store. I worked in a leather goods store, and I also worked in a video store, and not being one who was very fond of the retail arts — I got fired from every single job.
In between these low-paying retail jobs, I did what any normal teenager did in the 1990s. I shoplifted. I’m just kidding. I hung out with my friends at the mall. Everyone’s like, “Oh my God, what kind of talk is this?” Hanging out at the mall could be fun, but it could be really lame, too, like sharing a cigarette with a 40-year-old unemployed mall rat who has put on black lipstick for the night while you’re on your break from your crappy minimum wage job.
As I stand here today, Owings Mills has been gutted and it’s ready for the wrecking ball. The last time I was there, it was in the evening, and it was about three days before they closed the mall for good. And you kind of felt — they never announced the mall was closing, but you had this sort of feeling, this ominous feeling, that something big was going to happen, like it was the end of the road. It was a very creepy walk through the mall. Let me show you.
So when I started producing “The Dead Mall Series,” I put the videos up onto YouTube, and while I thought they were interesting, frankly I didn’t think others would share the enthusiasm for such a drab and depressing topic. But apparently I was wrong, because a lot of people started to comment. And at first the comments were like — basically like, “Oh my God, that’s the mall from my childhood. What happened?” And then I would get comments from people who were like, “There’s a dead mall in my town. You should come and film it.” So I started to travel around the mid-Atlantic region filming these dead malls. Some were open. Some were abandoned. It was kind of always hard to get into the ones that were abandoned, but I somehow always found a way in.
The malls that are still open, they always do this weird thing — like the dead malls. They’ll have three stores left, but they try to spruce it up to make it appear like things are on the up-and-up. For example, you’ll have an empty store and they bring the gate down. So at Owings Mills, for example, they put this tarp over the gate. Right? And it’s got a stock photo of a woman who is so happy and she’s holding a blouse, and she’s like — And then there’s a guy standing next to her, with, like, an espresso cup, and he’s like — And it says, “What brings you today?” I wanted to be scared and depressed. Thank you.
So the comments just kept pouring in on the videos, from all over the country, and then all over the world. And I started to think, this could really be something, but I had to get creative, because I’m like, how long are people going to sit and watch me waddling through an empty mall?
So the original episodes I filmed with an iPhone. So I’d walk through the mall with an iPhone, and, you know. Like that. And security — because malls, they don’t like photography — so the security would come up and be like, “Put that away,” and I’m like, “OK.” So I had to get creative and sneaky, so I started using a hidden camera and different techniques to get the footage that I needed, and basically what I wanted to do was make the video like it was a first-person experience, like you are sitting — put your headphones on watching the screen — it’s like, you’re there in the video, like a video game, basically.
I also started to use music, collaborating with artists who create music called vaporwave. And vaporwave is a music genre that emerged in the early 2010s among internet communities. Here’s an example.
That’s by an artist named Disconscious from an album he did called “Hologram Plaza.” So if you look that up, you can hear more of those tunes. Vaporwave is more than an art form. It’s like a movement. It’s nihilistic, it’s angsty, but it’s somehow comforting. The whole aesthetic is a way of dealing with things you can’t do anything about, like no jobs, or sitting in your parents’ basement eating ramen noodles. Vaporwave came out of this generation’s desire to express their hopelessness, the same way that the pre-internet generation did sitting around in the food court.