Shopping Montages and Food Court Terrors: Richie Tankersley Cusick’s The Mall

The shopping mall was a staple of 1990s teen culture, a space away from home and school where teens could get together away from the prying eyes of grown ups to gossip, window shop, or grab a giant pretzel. It was the place to see and be seen. Bursting with bookstores, music stores, trendy clothing boutiques, and fast fashion chain stores, there was something for everyone and the browsing possibilities were endless. The mall was a heady sensory experience: there was the steady hum of bustling crowds, the constantly running escalator, muzak on the loudspeakers, the tantalizing aromas of the food court, and maybe even the happy gurgling of a water feature. As a ‘90s teen myself, some of the most pleasurable nostalgia moments of Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy in 2021 were the mall scenes, with their bright neon lights, those wide familiar corridors, and stores that felt like a relic of bygone days, like Musicland, B. Dalton, and Gadzooks. The horrors playing out within this ‘90s teen oasis evoked a sense of familiarity, longing, and realism, giving the story a strong sense of both place and time as viewers were drawn into the legacy and horror of Sarah Fear. Many of the teen horror books of the ‘90s featured a trip to the mall for shopping, a movie, a slice of pizza, or just to see who was there and who they were there with, but in The Mall (1992), Richie Tankersley Cusick makes the mall itself the center of the horror.

In Cusick’s book, the mall is a microcosmic ecosystem all its own. Trish Somerfield and her friends, sisters Nita and Imogene Hanson, have lives outside of the mall—they go to school, they go home—but all the really important stuff happens at the mall. All three have part-time afterschool jobs there, with Trish working at a muffin counter in the food court, Nita in a trendy clothing store, and Imogene at a bookstore. Pretty much every day after school, they pile in their cars, head straight to the mall, and work until closing time. But lest you think these are three joyless career women, there’s also a lot of hot gossip and romantic intrigue. Imogene is particularly interested in the mysterious goings-on at the mall, including items being shoplifted from several of the stores without the thief ever setting off an alarm, and a young woman named Frieda who has gone inexplicably missing from the store where Nita works. (Shockingly, no one else is all that worried about Freida. They figure she just went on vacation and forgot to tell everybody. She didn’t). Nita is really invested in being at the cutting-edge of teen fashion, but is just as interested in scoping out cute guys in the food court, particularly a mysterious young man named Wyatt, who has the audacity to ignore her when she makes fun of and then flirts with him. And Trish likes muffins okay, but what she really likes is the view she has of the pizza place across the food court, where her crush Storm Reynolds works. As Trish and Nita ogle him from across the food court, Storm “leaned forward to slide some trays of pizza into the ovens … his thick dark hair fell over his forehead, and a fine sheen of sweat shone across his high cheekbones … he suddenly glanced at [Trish] and winked, the corners of his mouth lifting in an amused smile” (6). Aside from watching Storm, Trish’s main non-muffin-related activity is arguing with her boss Bethany, who’s always on Trish’s case for socializing, disappearing for long stretches of time, and not finding things to clean when business is slow (though to be fair, muffins are inexplicably big sellers at this mall and there are often long lines of people waiting to get their hands on some). So there’s always something going at the mall, whether it’s mystery, men, or muffins.

Then someone starts stalking and harassing Trish and The Mall becomes legitimately terrifying. Trish is lured out into the dark parking lot when someone tells her that her car has been damaged in a hit and run, and when she gets out there, her car is fine (good) but the payphone in the middle of the creepy parking lot starts ringing (less good). Trish answers the phone and an incredibly creepy, whispery voice tells her “I’m eating the muffin … It tastes just like you” (22), which is HORRIFYING. Trish continues to get creepy messages and phone calls, and her stalker escalates from saying unnerving and disgusting things to threatening to hurt Trish’s friends if she goes to the police. She has an “accident” at the mall while she’s running away from a scary guy and falls off a disabled escalator, which lands her in the hospital. But even there, Trish isn’t safe and her stalker shows up in her hospital room in the middle of the night, telling her that “I’ve been watching you for a long … long time” (103) and that “If you don’t be quiet, I’ll have to … to make you stop. I won’t hurt you … I could never hurt you … but I’ll do something so you won’t be able to talk. Do you understand?” (104). He threatens her, telling her that he knows where she lives and that her mom’s out of town, leaving Trish home alone, but when she gets out of the hospital and goes to stay with Nita and Imogene’s family, he calls her there too. Trish knows that he has been donning disguises (a fake beard, sunglasses) and between that and the high volume of people that are at the mall pretty much every time it’s open, there’s an overwhelming sense of danger and uncertainty: he could be anyone, anywhere in the mall, and she would never know until it’s too late.

Another component to this horror is that absolutely no one believes her. When she runs back into the mall in a panic after that first creepy phone call, she goes straight to a security guard for help but he is annoyed and dismissive, telling Trish “Look, girlie, I don’t have time for all these pranks you kids think it’s so much fun to play on each other” (25, emphasis original). Nita is freaked out by the phantom caller, but quickly tries to convince Trish that it was just a tasteless prank, nothing to really worry about. When Trish’s stalker shows up in her hospital room and she threatens to go to the police, he laughs off this threat, saying “I don’t think the police would take you too seriously” (106). And really, based on the interactions she has had with authority figures and safety officers thus far, there’s not really any reason for her to think he’s wrong. She beats herself up for not going to the police, but also can’t really convince herself why she would or should, thinking “She didn’t know which was worse, feeling so alone not telling anyone or feeling even more alone trying to tell someone” (96, emphasis original).

In a completely unrelated incident, Storm tells her about a local legend regarding a woman who lived in the woods and told people that there was a man who was after her. No one believed her, she developed a reputation for being “crazy,” and then one day, she just disappeared and no one really cared. Storm tells Trish that “Some say she went off and killed herself—to get rid of her ghosts once and for all … And some say … That whoever it was she was so terrified of finally did find her after all that time. Found her … and murdered her … and hid her body so well that no one ever discovered it” (133, emphasis original). Hearing this story, Trish has to face the reality that not only does no one believe her, but that there’s a long history of women’s fears being minimized and doubted, sometimes right up until the moment of their deaths. Later, the reader learns that Storm made this story up, which is troubling on a whole separate level, first that this is such a socially ingrained narrative and perception that he could tell this “local legend” and have it be imminently believable and second, that he would think this is an okay story to tell a young woman who is being terrorized.

Which brings us to the next layer of horror in The Mall. With his disguises, Trish’s stalker could be anyone, a possibility that is compounded by the fact that just about every male character in the book is suspicious and at least slightly awful. Both Wyatt and Storm are cagey about who they are, their histories, and where they live. When Trish goes back to the parking lot the night of the gross phone call, she finds Wyatt trying to break into her car (though he says it’s an honest mistake because her car looks just like his car, but his car’s not there so it must have been stolen. Obviously). When Trish and Nita then invite Wyatt to come along with them to get a bite to eat—literally MINUTES after they catch him trying to break into the car—he goes all quiet and mysterious, and when they offer to give him a ride home, he has them drop him off at a drugstore next to the mall, saying he’ll walk to his friend’s house from there. After Trish has been released from the hospital, she’s too scared to stay in the Hansons’ house alone and walks to the library, where she runs into Storm. After a bit of flirty yet terrified banter (because she thinks he might be the stalker but still thinks he’s really cute), he forcibly grabs her, drags her out of the library and into his car, and then drives her out into the woods, ignoring her repeated protests that “I don’t want to go with you” (120, emphasis original). When she tries to run from him, he basically tackles her and holds her down, asking her “What is wrong with you?” (128). The creepy stalker could be either of these men and it wouldn’t be terrifically surprising.

On the other hand, the stalker could also be literally any other guy at the mall and that wouldn’t be surprising either, based on Trish’s unsettling interactions with construction workers, loading dock handlers, security guards, and random customers. In the end, it turns out that Wyatt and Storm (if those are their real names) have been so secretive and weird because they’re undercover policemen there to find the real stalker—who is actually a mall-focused serial killer—though this doesn’t actually make their actions any less unsettling really, between Storm dragging Trish out into the woods and trying to put the moves on her and Wyatt using her as bait to lure the killer into the open. Freida is only the latest of the women to go missing from the mall and there’s apparently no real sense of urgency in figuring out who’s doing it or even warning employees about the potential danger.

Finally, there’s the mall itself, which is an architectural construction worthy of a traditional Gothic castle. As Imogene explains to Trish and Nita, “It’s been renovated at least fifteen times over the years … without any real architectural pattern of design” (14). This makes for all kinds of nooks and crannies where someone can hide, because “there are so many tunnels and hallways and passages built on and added over the years, there’s probably no one living who knows about all of them” (14). When Imogene asks Trish to come with her down to the loading dock, they have to navigate a series of shadowy tunnels and two separate elevators to get to some sort of sub-basement. When Trish is trying on a dress at the store where Nita works, she feels a cold draft and gets the sense that someone is watching her, which is one hundred percent accurate because there’s a tunnel behind the wall and the dressing room mirror is really a creepy one-way window through which Trish’s stalker is watching her undress, intimate knowledge that he later uses to torment her. As Trish navigates the subterranean tunnels, lured there by the stalker’s threat that he has taken Imogene, the architecture of the mall itself simultaneously conceals and reveals, as Trisha “had the unmistakable feeling that she shouldn’t go around that curve … That something was waiting for her on the other side of the wall” (158, emphasis original). Similarly, when she tries to escape to the mall above using the freight elevator, she can hear someone on top of the elevator, manipulating the car and keeping her from escaping, but all she actually sees is Bethany’s dead body, falling from the top of the elevator in a macabre threat. The mall hides both the killer and the victims he takes, concealing the reality of this violence and its aftermath in its shadows. Once the women he preys upon are lured into these tunnels, there’s no way out, and Trish finds herself facing a similar fate.

In the book’s finale, Trish is attempting to flee from her attacker when she stumbles directly into his lair, which reveals the depths of the hidden spaces and alternate worlds hidden within and beneath the mall. Horrified, she looks around and sees “candles burning atop a long wooden table … To her amazement, she saw plates and platters of food arranged there … goblets of wine … a three-tiered wedding cake … a wooden cupboard … a washstand with a basin and old-fashioned pitcher. A handcarved cradle. A huge wooden bed with white canopy and snowy bed-curtains …” (182-3). There is an entire domestic world concealed here, a regressive and traditional space that celebrates confinement and is grounded in traditional gender roles and expectations, from the white dress her stalker has chosen as Trish’s “wedding dress”, to the cradle already waiting for babies to come. Cusick’s repeated use of ellipses in this section as Trish looks around gives the reader the sense of sharing in her horror and dawning comprehension as she realizes the dark future her stalker has planned out for her, which comes in tandem with the realization that she has walked right into his trap. But even then, she’s not entirely alone, because in addition to this warped domestic tableau, there are dozens and dozens of mannequins all crowded in and watching with their blank, staring eyes.

When Trish’s stalker finally emerges from the shadows in this demented bridal chamber, it’s a bit anticlimactic to find out that it’s Roger, a security guard that Trish has only actually talked to maybe three times (and at least two of those times, he was in disguise, so maybe those only half count?). He’s not even the security guard who called her “girlie” and dismissed her report of the horrifying phone call. The conversation she had with Roger when he was out of disguises was bland and pleasant, not at all memorable. One of the interactions Trish had with him when he was in disguise was more traumatic, as he pretended to be a night watchman and let her into the closed mall after she had (probably non-coincidental) car trouble that left her stranded, and while making her way through a storage room, she stumbles upon Freida’s dead body (totally not on vacation). He gives her fare for a cab and rushes her out before she can see any more, though since he was trying to sneak up on Trish to abduct her before she discovered Frieda’s body, this is a fortuitous—if macabre—discovery.

Wyatt and Storm show up to save Trish from Roger’s secret bunker, she isn’t raped and murdered, and she uses her flashlight to help them see where Roger is so they can shoot him after all of the lights go out. Trish emerges from the dark hidden spaces of the mall—and hopefully its larger traumatic horrors—but all is not quite safe, maybe, because as she shines her light over the ranks of unnerving mannequins on her way out, “she could almost swear one of them had moved” (212). To be fair though, after being stalked, disbelieved, nearly raped and murdered, and almost shot, maybe moving mannequins is a step in the right direction. icon-paragraph-end

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top