Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Retail Dinosaurs: The Shopping Mall (Night's Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Fear Itself)

Once upon a time you could guarantee that, come the zombie apocalypse, folks would naturally head to shopping malls. About five minutes after that, the survivors get remarkably good at shooting things in the head, which always surprises me; it's not an easy trick to pull off. However there may be a problem with that plan, if the apocalypse arrives right about now, as shopping malls are dying off.

The photographs in that link come from Seph Lawless' collection of urban decay artwork. The mall culture as we've come to know it, with its big boxes, anchor stores and chain outlets, got its start just after the Second World War. The concept really started catching on in the 1950s, when developers began making fully enclosed shopping spaces, rather than the open-air design that had been popular before the War. These behemoths took shopping to the suburbs; you didn't have to go all the way into the smoky, polluted city to scratch your retail itch any more. The mall became the new community hub, a place you'd go to just to hang out, or see friends. If you were a kid living out in the suburbs it started as an entertainment center, with its arcades and food court, then became a source of employment later on, when you needed cash for the summer. It was a part of everyday life.

But the retail environment has changed. Part of it is changing economic circumstances, with many of the mall's former customers being too cash-strapped to afford its goods, and many of the chains that serviced them - RadioShack, Blockbuster, Virgin - now out of business or on their way out. Particularly in America, where entire cities and suburbs can be dead on their feet, the mall has become a symbol of this overarching collapse of community narrative. Part of it is a change in retail habits, now that the internet has brought goods to everyone's doorstep, eliminating the need to get out of the house.

It can be a slow death. First just one or two shops shut, but the mall can't find replacement tenants, so they stay vacant. Then footfall patterns change, as people stop going to that section of the mall that housed those shops. Soon nearby stores or food outlets move on, seeking to avoid the blank spot, but it just expands. Nobody's taking care of those areas, so if the floor gets dirty, or windows broken, nobody fixes or cleans. Pretty soon the mall has a ratty, desperate look to it, and it will only get worse if, say, a serial murderer decides your now-quiet mall is the perfect place to stash a body or two. The slightest whiff of crime, and you might as well shutter the place now and save money.

This isn't a pattern unique to America. A mall I knew very well when I was a student in Reading offers a zombie experience now, and I don't doubt there are malls all over Europe - particularly in Spain and Greece, I'd bet - in similar straits, either dead or dying. When I posted the Escapist article, one of the commentators was kind enough to post a link to a dead Bangkok mall that's become a home for coy and exotic fish. Pick your country; there's bound to be at least one or two of these retail dinosaurs, still standing but dead on their feet.

What does this mean for Night's Black Agents, The Esoterrorists, and Fear Itself?

Well, both Night's Black Agents and The Esoterrorists rely on spycraft tropes, and an abandoned mall is perfect for a chase scene as well as a fun setting for an enemy base. Malls don't have to be centrally located; part of their charm, when the retail model still held sway, was that a developer could plant it out in the middle of the countryside and still expect people to drive there. That means an abandoned mall can be isolated, with any hope of rescue far, far away. If it's in the middle of a decaying suburb, then the Keeper has the option of a Silent Hill vibe, with the mall the centerpiece of an expanding network of dead buildings, the few humans left scurrying for cover when night falls.

Fear Itself has a slightly different aesthetic. It takes essentially the same game world as the Esoterrorists, but plunges ordinary people into the mincing machine rather than highly trained special agents. In that kind of setting the abandoned mall can be a kind of Castle Ravenloft, and the characters the equivalent of villagers huddled nervously in its shadow. In a one-off they'd head straight to the mall, but in a mini-campaign it may be better to have the characters skirt around its edges first, perhaps take on a few minor challenges in some of the houses roundabout before trying to penetrate to the heart of the mystery.

As far as mall design is concerned, the Keeper only needs to know the basics. There's usually a Food Court, a central location where several different fast food outlets serve everyone at once. Emphasis here is on 'everyone at once,' which means it needs to be cleaned easily and quickly. There's going to be a lot of tile and glass here, and probably a very bright, cheerful color scheme. The Food Court is likely to be central, in a large, open area.

The mall probably relied on one or more key tenants to provide revenue. These are the big boys, the nationwide chains, and they may occupy more than one floor of the mall, with internal connections via stairs, escalator and elevator. If there's more than one key tenant, the stores will be positioned as far apart as possible. That way people going to the mall have to walk from one anchor store to the other, which means they walk past the smaller stores and Food Court. Footfall is everything in retail.

Finally, there may be satellites. Technically these stores may not be an official part of the mall, but they're close enough for that not to matter to the customers. These standalone stores may or may not have their own parking areas, and may provide completely different, but complimentary, functions. I've noticed that gas stations are quite common in the UK; I don't know if the same applies in North America. Food outlets and cinemas are also likely.

So let's talk about Spring Creek Shopping Center.

Located in the suburbs surrounding a major city center, Spring Creek got its start as Indian Spring, an open-air mall built in 1947. As the city's industrial sector took off and people started relocating to the suburbs, the developers who owned Indian Spring soon discovered that their development was just too small to satisfy their expanding customer base. They started quietly buying up adjoining land, unveiling their new scheme, Spring Creek, in 1954. By 1957 it was a reality: a massive complex capable of satisfying pretty much any retail need a suburbanite could think of.

Problems began in 1961, when a partial collapse due to shoddy design caused the deaths of two people. Subsequent lawsuits and bad press were a significant knock on Spring Creek's profitability, and the original developers sold out to a management firm, Westbrook, in 1968. Westbrook decided significant renovations were needed, which finally completed in 1971.

During 1970, when the renovations were still ongoing and the mall part-shuttered, fledgeling horror director Bill O'Bannon shot his low-budget vampire movie, Scream Nocturna Scream, at Spring Creek. Many of its most memorable scenes were shot in one of Spring Creek's anchors, the department store retailer Von Moore. O'Bannon later went on to become a schlock horror icon, but died of a drug overdose while attending a horror convention, Fright Night Dallas, in 1981. 

Spring Creek's heyday came in the 1980s. There was money and lots of it, rolling in day by day. The mall expanded in 1982, and again in 1987, with the promised addition of a new anchor store and a dozen smaller outlets in its Galleria Wing. However the expansion was too large, even for the projected profits, and it didn't help that, in 1989, it was revealed that Westbrook's CFO had embezzled millions over the years before committing suicide - or possibly met death by misadventure during a sex act - on Christmas Eve, an event that became enshrined in local memory as Black Christmas.

It was all downhill from there. Lack of development money meant that the promised Galleria Wing was left unfinished, and the big box retailer decided not to move in after all. Spring Creek struggled through the 1990s hoping for a break, and never got one. The internet, and economic collapse in the 2000s, sealed its fate. Its customers were broke - the city's industrial sector was on its knees - and the ones that had money didn't need Spring Creek any more.

The defining event of the 2000s was the discovery, in 2006, that the serial killer who came to be known as the Hammer Killer had been stashing bodies in the abandoned Galleria Wing, relying on lack of maintenance to conceal his dump site. It was three months, and eight victims, before he was caught.

In 2008 Spring Creek shuttered for good. One or two of the satellite stores still operate, on reduced hours, but the main building has been locked up for years. There has been talk of knocking it down, perhaps replacing it with an open-air mall or park, but there's neither the money nor the will to get it done.

Now, Keeper: if you can't do something with that, there's no hope for you! Enjoy!

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