It’s 5:30 on a wet Friday afternoon in spring. I’ve been driving around in the parking lot of the Stonestown Shopping Center for about four minutes, looking for an empty space. This is my second mall visit on a list of three. Yesterday, I hung out for a while at the San Francisco Shopping Center on Market Street. The Serramonte mall will be my next stop. Casinos and shopping centers have always given me a headache by the time I was ready to leave. But that didn’t stop me from having my share of visits in the past. The very essence of the mall gives its natural raison d’être. The place is a shopping compound, a community market, a year-round fair where the inhabitants of a city, town or village congregate for a social experience. Since the days of yore, markets and fairs have provided their members both with products for purchase or exchange, and an environment for social interaction and entertainment. For this reason, the mall today fulfills its ancestral purpose within the landscape of the culture and the economical system that originated it.
As we enter the mall, we feel comfortable with its surroundings. Everything pleases the eye. Products beckon you into their world like goblins leading you astray. It’s a perfect atmosphere that invites you to forget worries, problems and the world outside. According to William Severini Kowinski in his “The Malling of America”, these shopping structures present a standardized organization in the spacial composition of its architectural elements and business facilities. Talking about Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania – where “Dawn of the Dead” was shot – Kowinski notes: “But it was only after my travels were completed that I saw Monroeville Mall as something of a model for malls across America. It isn’t exactly average – it’s more that Monroeville Mall is the essential mall. It has a couple of big department stores and a reasonable selection of shops. It has all the typical mall stuff – the bathroom supply store, the fast-food dispensaries – but it also has a good French bakery and café, and a pleasant Italian restaurant.” (235) These defining characteristics can easily be observed in any mall we have been.
I had never seen George Romero’s 1978 classic “Dawn of the Dead” before, but as a movie buff, I couldn’t let go of the opportunity. The movie is more like a sociological sci-fi piece. Throughout, Romero sews in his social statements about consumerism and individual alienation. The corny treatment to the movie, places it in the cult genre. Like Barbarella, fighting Duran Duran to save the universe from evil in Roger Vadim’s kitsch scenario, George Romero paints these odd tableaux that play like a tragicomedy in front of our entertained eyes.
The glass doors of the mall, with its metallic golden handles, open into an optimum space. The perfumed scent lingering in the air, the glossy cleanliness of the marble floors, the sophistication of advertising strategies, and the never-ending proliferation of products, goodies and objects that galvanize our nerve system and arouse our coveting nature, all merge together to establish an ongoing communication with the public. The stores and the merchandise interact with us in a mutual conversation. The mall talks to us. The language used is based on the marketing goals devised by the mall developers. Every detail is strategically planned with profit in mind. The mall is essentially a powerful communications medium to the service of potent corporation groups. It seduces us into the semiotic glow of its lights and instructs us with gems of consumerist advice. Every particular element in its composition harbors a pristine relationship between production and the distribution of goods in a competitive free market. In the shopping centers that I visited, all the same basic structure is present. The stores are always the same; same kind of products and services, same electronics and technology, the same discerning presence of the media, and the same dazzled look in the faces of the ones who go there. It’s a set-up organized by the system and the culture it represents. In our experience, it’s the shooting of the corporate film that’s playing in America. The model is so massively strong that threatens to establish itself as an absolute reality for the globe. It’s appalling to find in the cities of third-world countries – where thousands of homeless people are starving in the streets – the sleek interiors of shopping centers sprawling around a slummy and destitute landscape. These are, undoubtedly, ramifications of neo-colonialism in our days.
Roaming the mall, I soon let myself be lured by the artifice, the trick, the lie. I entered the movie stores and examined the titles. I ended up purchasing two movies for myself. Interestingly, when I approached the cash register to pay for the articles, the clerk asked me fast-paced, memorized questions about membership to the store, services, and if I wanted to earn a free one-year subscription to Entertainment Weekly magazine. It’s all about sales – how much more revealing can that be? All the other movie/cd stores were basically the same. There is no paucity of the mainstream, blockbuster Hollywood fare. Some classic items like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” – a 1919 film by German filmmaker Robert Wiene – can surprisingly be found on the shelves. This movie was made under the aesthetic orientation of the expressionist movement in the arts and literature in vogue in Europe at that time. We should never underestimate the odd places where art may proliferate within a capitalist system. Everything can be appropriated and turned into a product. The good news are: in the domain of the mall, classic pieces like the one above is usually ¼ of its price, but the number of such items is definitely irrelevant in the context of the big picture. The star is still the big productions, and the merchandise tagged along to entertain our lives.
As I was saying, it’s not difficult to succumb to our consumer inclinations. We’ve been taught like that by the media in our culture. I shopped, I ate, and I had a good time with my friends who accompanied me in this experience. However, there is a sense of emptiness and depressing void if we think of compulsively visiting the mall as the focus for our social activities. It’s an unsubstantial world; a realm deprived of relevance to our lives. It’s the stage where the corporate-owned media materialize their news and entertainment fabrications. That reminds us of “The Peek-a-Boo World” concocted by Neil Postman in his narrative about the information and the media: “Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world – a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.” (358)
Notwithstanding, the malls I visited fell short to my expectations. I did notice a profuse number of examples tying the mall experience with that of the media. Products were in one way or another related to movies or television programs familiar to all. Spongebob and his friends, Rugrats, Blues Clues, Steve Irwin, the Australian Crocodile Hunter, to name only a few, have engendered an endless list of toys and related replicas of their shows’ counterparts. However, the marketing strategy reflected a dearth in number, quality and novelty in relation to the present moment. I did not see one single advertising for the hurricane of summer movie releases that are about to saturate the market. I noticed only one movie, “Two weeks Notice” with Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock that announced its availability on VHS and DVD formats. The poster read: “The perfect gift for mother’s day”. I might be wrong, but I reckon the market activity could be more efficient. Nevertheless, other related marketer tie-ins such as the movie “The Hulk” and the beverage Mountain Dew, and “X2: X-Men United” and Dr. Pepper are a conspicuous presence on the companies’ packages and cups. Most of the time we usually take these details for granted and fail to identify the marketing game at play.
During my entire experience in the malls, I could not help relating to Romero’s film “Dawn of the Dead” – the scenes were still very fresh in my mind. At one time, I stopped in front of those familiar free car giveaways (they’re still part of the scenery) and pictured myself in Romero’s film, sometimes as a zombie, and other times, still alive, and battling the disfigured dead that wandered the mall after my life. The connections between the zombie consumers and the environment of the mall within the scope of a horror film, and the parallel structure with our real lives confined in a similar vicious system, bring to life an eerie symbolism that haunts the spectator in every visit to the mall. Romero has certainly made his point.
What’s so fascinating about the mall? What’s the nature of its bait? The crowd that visits the mall – ourselves – does so leisurely and aimlessly. It’s not a place to haste, but rather to bask in its obfuscating glare. We’re supposed to feel comfortable, entertain ourselves and go shopping. It’s the stage where big-name companies converge to solidify a mutually benefiting relationship that originates in the media. Movies and television, supported by a super-structure that outlines the physical landscape of a capitalist society, shape our view of the world. The shopping center is the last part in the dialectic process of distribution of products. It’s the display arena where we can fulfill our desires.
The mall is an intrinsic element in the topography of America. America is a vast country. Its distances are ingeniously covered by an interlinked system of highways. The malls spread on the national terrain like linking dots forming the blueprint for the personality of the economical system – its ethics, its moral codes, its idiosyncrasies. Huge, sparkling trucks cross the country every night to feed the nation with an assortment of fake ambrosia – tasteless nectar that takes its toll by smidgens. They carry the products that whet our desires. The highways are like arteries that nourish the national organism. The country is a breathing entity, a live wire of information and freight transportation. The malls of America have taken the task of unifying the country. The unification, however, results in a harmful cultural uniformity that stifles the lives of its citizens. We become mere automatons following a predetermined sequence of consumerist instructions subliminally encrypted in our brains.
The shopping mall is a seductively sanctioned space for the practice of peddling. Corridors of business establishments outline our path. In the middle of the halls, business kiosks proliferate, selling anything from candy, hideously tacky glass sculptures, and jewelry, to flashing cell phone accessories and Tupperware paraphernalia. (It’s interesting to see that Tupperware still sells big time – what a vision!) All these business clusters operate through the same standard language codified as means of consumption. Everything has a marketable appearance and communicates with us. Advertising is mainly focused on playing with our desires. It zeroes in on our instinctive drives, our need for comfort and safety; our fear of deprivation and loss. That’s how the media makes use of our psychological dispositions to manipulate expected marketing responses. The media itself is a product in the mall. We are invited to own it. Electronics, movies and related merchandise congregate to establish a familiarity with the universe we experience on television and on the movies. Our lives resemble a shadow projected on the screens of multi-movie complexes conveniently located around the mall. Interacting with the mall is, therefore, proportional to the interaction established with the world conjured up by the media and stored in the recesses of our memory. Whose lives are we living?
In his “The Malling of America”, Kowinski is not afraid to picture a future where the spirit of America is turned itself into a product. If that happens, how much longer will the survivors in George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” last? Kowinski’s essay inspired a new horror flick coming soon to a theater near you: “The Mauling of America”. Now, this is a nasty film. It’s one in which the spirit of a nation is savagely cut asunder. Are we willing to spend our dollar?
Kowinski, William Severini. “The Malling of America – An Inside Look at the Great Consumer Paradise”. Media Journal: reading and writing about popular culture . Eds. Joseph Harris, Jay Rosen and Gary Calpas. 2nd ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1999.
Postman, Neal. “The Peek-a-Boo World”. Media Journal: reading and writing about popular culture . Eds. Joseph Harris, Jay Rosen and Gary Calpas. 2nd ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1999.