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.”
You can see his hushed reaction in the 10-minute video he filmed that day and posted to YouTube. Owings Mills turned out to be the pilot episode for what Mr. Bell, a 40-year-old filmmaker, has called the “Dead Mall Series” — a visual journey through the Mid-Atlantic States focused on the dying pleasure palaces of his youth.
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.