“Dead Mall” videos constitute an entire genre of YouTube programming about intrepid youths who explore slowly dying shopping malls, lamenting their own nostalgia for the 1980s aesthetic and memories of childhood Saturdays well spent. A few months back, I spent a good couple of days watching them while working, curious about my own local spots at Lafayette and Washington Square Mall in Indianapolis. Then I branched out.
The United States is littered with the derelict husks of a consumer culture now long past. Online shopping and changes to recreation dealt massive blows to many malls in the early 21st century. Newly developed boutique malls closer to wealthy suburban enclaves made financial woes worse. By the time COVID-19 hit this year, most malls were already on death’s door.
“Dead Mall” videos usually feature one or two hosts who travel around the country visiting new locations. Some malls are worse off than others or offer a different level of access. Occasionally the videos involve trespassing on abandoned or condemned properties, but the majority are just daytime visits to open-but-desolate malls where a few shoppers still mill about, looking in the windows of locally owned establishments. Jewelers, florists, collectible sellers. The narrator tells the history of a mall, such as when the chain stores left, and notable events while pointing the camera at kitschy architectural elements or closed arcades.
At first, Jasper Mall seems like a feature-length exercise in “Dead Mall” discovery, but it turns out directors Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb have a little more narrative finesse up their sleeves. Jasper is located about 40 miles outside Birmingham, Alabama. It lost its two primary anchor stores, Kmart and J.C. Penney, in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The documentary was filmed over the course of 2018 as the mall tried to rebrand and recover from the loss. To stem the bleeding.
Thomason and Whitcomb capture 2018 through the perspective of several local characters: a shop owner whose flower shop is on its last legs; a teenage girl going through the throes of first love; and a retiree in ailing health who enjoys games of dominoes at the mall with his buddies all feature heavily. Unlike many “Dead Mall” videos, Jasper Mall mixes the wistfulness of times past with human portraits of the people who keep the mall alive. It’s effective, empathetic storytelling that elevates the subject matter.
The main character is Mike McClelland, the mall’s jack-of-all-trades superintendent who keeps it running smoothly. In a past life, McClelland was a private zoo operator (think Tiger King, but not totally insane). “I left a zoo, and now I’m in a jungle,” he says.
McClelland does his best to attract new tenants but explains the challenges of convincing a potential big name (like Victoria’s Secret) to come into a mall where stores keep closing down and leaving town. He helps find unique solutions to the low attendance like a parking lot carnival, church sermons in the larger public spaces and the encouragement of mall walkers and retiree recreation.
2018 is a rough year for the Jasper Mall. More businesses leave — including the Subway, which means McClelland has to find a new food vendor to service customers and tenants. Private stores relocate or owners retire. Young love ends. The mall’s economic situation continues to deteriorate, and McClelland mentions optimistically the owner might have work for him at another location if this falls through. But, he mentions, the mall where his wife works a few hours away will be closing its J.C. Penney, too, despite strong sales performance. The landscape is ever-shifting, and never in the direction of mall culture’s former glory..
Mall-store employees who appear in the documentary early and apparently leave for better opportunities later discuss the quiet dignities and indignities of retail work. Many of them hate living in Jasper and want to spread their wings elsewhere.
With the pandemic, mall culture seems to have been dealt a death blow. Generally speaking, in-person retail is irrevocably damaged. So much is gone now, and in ways unimagined just months ago. Jasper Mall itself was going to do a festival run (and had just premiered at Slamdance Film Festival) before the world changed in March.
Before then, Jasper Mall was just a good-natured documentary about the way retail culture has changed and those left behind in old spaces long and at large abandoned. Now it feels like a broader eulogy. We’re not only looking back at the fall of the shopping mall, but the obliteration of retail worker culture — of the hard work of men like McClelland and the people who worked in small storefronts scraping by in areas of the country destroyed by economic decline for decades.
The easy-listening mall music that permeates the halls of Jasper Mall is nothing but a funeral march.
Jasper Mall is available on all streaming platforms.