Cloverleaf Mall, Chesterfield, Virginia prior to demolition.
Hawthorne Plaza Shopping Center, Hawthorne, Southern California.
New South China Mall, Dongguan, China.
New World Shopping Mall, Bangkok, Thailand has become a home to thousands of Koi fish.
I watched the pilot for the new HBO series Westworld, based on the late novelist Michael Crichton’s mildly successful 1973 movie about a theme park filled with realistic, humanoid robots. To say the original was creepy is an understatement. And the new version is even more so. But I saw something in that opening episode that lifted it out of the creepy movie trope and placed it smack dab into the realm of real life creepy.
It was a location they used for a sub-basement, a place where old androids were housed, the kind of dark site filled with a sinister vibe that seemed to reach through the TV and right into the heart of where I lived. As I watched actors wander around a dimly lit set, with a matched pair of escalators leading from a lower level atrium to an upper level with walkways, ramps and bridges, it occurred to me: This place is familiar. In fact, I’d been there. They were wandering through the remains of the Hawthorne Plaza Shopping Center, once a good-sized, heavily patronized, shopping mall in Southern California.
Having worked closing shifts in a few malls over the years, I can tell you this: being there late at night, when the main lights are off and there’s no one around, is a great place to leave. Had we been worried about zombie apocalypses when I was in high school, I guarantee the Meadows Mall would have been the perfect place to witness one. George Romero, the guy who made zombies a household term back in the late ‘60s, recognized the sinister aspects of empty shopping malls in his 1979 horror film Dawn of the Dead.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized it all made perfect sense. Malls are huge, multi-level structures, with all sorts of nooks and crannies. Hiding places abound, superb for an ambush scenario, along with plenty of open areas for direct confrontations. As such places fall into disrepair, skylights crack to admit sun and weather, and unfettered shrubs once planted to increase oxygen or calm the masses find their way beyond brick planters to overtake walkways.
These places would be ideal for squatters, or as laser tag venues or police training sites. Annual haunted house mazes could be turned into year-round attractions at these locales. At some point, these forlorn emporia become almost too big to tear down. After all, there’s always a chance someone will want the structure for something. And hope springs eternal that former mainstays such as Miller’s Outpost or Kay-Bee Toys or Contempo Casuals (even Waldenbooks) will rise from the commercial graveyard, zombie-like, or that teens on lunch breaks from the nearby high school will once again seize every available food court seat (and never actually buy anything).
What I didn’t realize, though, is this is actually a thing. Ghost malls, as these abandoned structures are known, are everywhere, though their numbers are declining. In 2004, there were more than 1,100 nationwide. A scant 10 years later, more than 400 had been closed or converted to some other use. By 2014, according to the real estate analytics firm Green Street Advisors, another 15 percent had disappeared.
The reasons why these malls fail are as numerous as the failed malls themselves. No common theme emerges. It’s not that they’re all in economically depressed areas. Some simply face tough competition from newer, fancier malls. Other times, changing demographics doom them, or investors sour on them (Come to think of it, malls could easily be a metaphor for modern relationships). The Cloverleaf Mall in Chesterfield, Va., for instance, was undone by gangs of kids who scared off patrons, which depressed sales, led to closed stores and even fewer customers, which resulted in more closings. Eventually, no merchants – or customers – were left.
And that’s just in America.
The rest of the world has ghost malls, too. But they’ve gone bust for entirely different reasons. Take the Acropolis Mall in the Mexico City suburb of Ciudad. It provided a beautiful outdoor shopping environment, perfect for strolling from shop to shop. But air pollution in the region made strolling a life-threatening activity. Now, the mall is shuttered, a colonnaded warning sign, if you will, to the community. To be fair, an enclosed mall nearby is doing great.
In Bangkok, the New World Shopping Mall was doing fine. Someone decided to torch the place. And before it could rebuilt, floodwaters had swept through it, creating a neck-deep lake and providing access to koi, catfish and fishermen. It’s illegal to fish there, and local police do their best to keep everyone out. But what’s the point if you can’t swing by a mall on your way home to pick up something for dinner?
The mall in Dongguan, China, opened in 2005 as one of the largest in the world. It’s in a well-populated area, is second in total area to a mall in Dubai and has an attached amusement park. It’s twice the size of the Mall of America (our nation’s biggest). When the Dongguan mall opened, 47 of its 2,350 available retail slots were filled. And even today huge portions of the seven globally themed shopping areas are still empty. The problem is two-fold: most of the area’s inhabitants are struggling financially, and there’s no infrastructure to get the hoped-for 1,000-a-day customers to the place. Even with rebranding in 2007 (adding the word New to the original name South China Mall), and another retrofit in 2015, Dongguan remains the exception to the movie adage “If you build it, they will come.”
Today, websites such as DeadMalls.com, LabelScar.com and MallHistory.com are devoted to anecdotes about why malls have failed. They come with their own ghost mall jargon, including familiar words such as Big Box and Anchor. But they also define Outparcel, “a store that is not connected to a plaza or mall, but is located on the premises,” and denote the difference between a “Sealed” store and a “Shuttered” one (the first is merely locked; the second is boarded up). Then there are the “Greyfields,” malls whose annual sales are about 30 percent of those at a successful mall.
Also available is the “Mallmanac,” a guide listing a mall’s stores and their locations on a crudely drawn, color coded map. Another is “Labelscar,” the ghostly imprint left after the signs are gone and before the fresh paint arrives – where you can still see the name of what was there burnt in – like the memory of a first kiss.
Other classifications encompass a suburban mall’s entire life cycle: “a first class mall is one operating as it should, while a second class mall is experiencing high vacancy rates. The case of the third class mall shows the deterioration is, in fact, in progress and whole sections or even the entirety of the building have been cordoned off and closed to the public. A fourth class mall is the infamous ‘ghost mall;’ but the chance for renewal and rebirth comes in the form of the fifth class mall, where a ghost mall has been brought back to life through redevelopment … and thus the whole process, like a butterfly, starts again.”
With Halloween behind us, and the busiest shopping days of the year still ahead, you may get the chance to reflect as you wander along the atriums and balconies of your neighborhood mall. Take a moment to appreciate all that you survey. By this time next year, it may be closed to the general public; then, like me, the only time you’ll get to see it is when you’re watching some late-night TV show — and the shops you once prowled are home to special effects zombies.