When there was no more room in hell, zombies headed to the shopping mall. In the 1978 gore-soaked zombie classic Dawn Of The Dead, director George Romero was not only playing to audience’s hunger for graphic zombie gore, but the bloody shocker was also a searing indictment of spend-happy culture and the shopping centres that sucked the life, and money, out of mindless shoppers.
As Romero set his zombies out to tear apart the American dream, in real life the advances in technology and the evolution of modern day retail have rung the death knell for over indulgent shopping destinations, leaving many large-scale shopping destinations across America empty and broken. The “Ghost Malls” episode of Abandoned sets out to investigate the reasons for their downfall focusing on the huge Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, Ohio.
The halcyon days of the shopping mall were the Eighties.In decades past, John Hughes-esque teenagers met in air-conditioned bliss, watched movies and window-shopped for the latest fashions. Any teen movie from the era worth its salts inevitably featured a trip to the mall. Not only did they promise some kind of wonderful life for valley girls and Heathers alike, the churches of consumerism became an aspirational part of family routine.
But if shopping malls were so ingrained in modern culture, why have they slipped out of favour for the discerning shopper and, in particular, why have many of the mega malls in North America fallen into disrepair?
The social economic climate across Middle America takes much of the blame. Shopping habits have changed for all. Once thriving industry towns have found their main source of income, and employment, closed down. Where streets used to bustle, now tumble weeds jostle for space. With high-unemployment and a disenfranchised customer base, the bottom line became all-important. As everyone searched for the best deal, the Costco and Amazon became the go-to stop for retail, from groceries to big-ticket items. Cinema attendances, another big draw to your average mall, have similarly been smashed by downloads and streaming.
The downfall of the mall parallels societies ever-growing obsession with the internet - modern culture's new social meeting space.
There may well be customer sadness as the shopping centres close, but the patrons who made the malls a success in the first place are a major reason for the closures. Acting like guilt-ridden rats leaving a sinking ship, the customer will always head to where the price is right. The malls were abandoned for convenience.
The Rolling Acres Mall became the poster child for that very abandonment.
After opening to much fanfare in 1975, the merchandising mecca fell on hard times and by 2000 35% of the stores inside the mall were left vacant, a figure nearly double the nationwide rate. Finally, after power was turned off, the Mall closed down in 2008, leaving only two anchor stores remaining. The mall itself left empty and derelict, a shadow of former glories, until it was demolished in 2016.
In an interesting quirk of fate, it was one of the very things that destroyed Rolling Acres, which saw the Mall’s star rise in the ascendant once again, albeit briefly. The two-storey behemoth covering 1.3 million square feet of prime retail real estate in its glory days became an online sensation when images of its plight peeked online curiosity. As eerie pictures of snow covered hallways, empty escalators, and vandalised shop facades flooded the internet, news of the Mall’s predicament was highlighted on social media across the country. Not that this saved the mall, but for millions of Facebook users it served as a reminder of what we had lost and where we once gathered before we all had 24/7 retail access in the palm of our hands.
The Ghost Mall episode of SBS VICELAND show Abandoned airs on Tuesday 21 March at 10:15pm.