Why I Miss the Original Hunt Valley Mall

The demise of the American shopping mall over the past decade-plus has been well-documented. Closed, gutted, abandoned, defaced, obliterated, repurposed…use whatever action phrase suits you. It’s gone beyond syndrome, more than just a tag of “dead mall,” which used to belong strictly to the Monroeville Mall outside of Pittsburgh, the filming location of George Romero’s 1978 horror classic, Dawn of the Dead.

I suppose I saw the proverbial writing on the wall as far back as my visit to Monroeville Mall nearly 20 years ago for the purpose of making a pilgrimage to horror hallowed ground. Even then, retail stores were dying and this was before Amazon and Ebay started putting standard brick and mortar shops out to pasture. To my dismay, the famous interior clock tower had been removed from Monroeville Mall and the skating rink turned into a food court. Only a shell of the rink could be found beneath a table outside of an Arby’s we’d eaten at. Worse, the SunCoast Video (remember them?) had no copies available of Dawn of the Dead, nor were the staff at the time knowledgeable of the significance where they worked. I hummed “The Gonk” (as in the drippy, corny carousel-styled mall music ushering the zombie march in Romero’s film) and lurched around SunCoast in a deliberate shaming maneuver. Really, it was self-shaming. Semantics.

If you’ve been on the planet longer than the past 22 years, you no doubt left you heart at a certain mall in your area, even if there were six or seven within drivable proximity as we had around the Baltimore suburbs and its rural outskirts. Chances are, if you lament the great mall kill-off, you spent much or all of your teens in a mall, like Rat, Jeff, Stacy, Linda and Damone did in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, still in my top-five favorite flicks of all-time. To understand mall culture, sure, you can dive into Jay and Silent Bob’s goofery in Mallrats and Season 3 of Stranger Things did an excellent job capturing the mall phenomenon of 1980s. To get it entirely, though, is to submerge yourself in Fast Times.

I always like to refer to the original Hunt Valley Mall as my “Fast Times.” We had many malls available to us as far as our parents felt like driving us and each shopping complex had its own special “thing” separating them from each other (a prefab Gucci store, a more aromatic water fountain, see-through elevators in the middle of the doings, a maze of walkways), yet Hunt Valley Mall was my mecca, my mojo, my verve. Whether it was with my folks, my friends, a girlfriend or all alone, I came of age at Hunt Valley, shy of losing my cherry, which later came in a more idyllic setting.

Today stands Hunt Valley Towne Center, a next-gen “Avenue” type of sprawling commerce built overtop a splintered fragment of the original mall you only recognize if you’d been there through the mall’s closure in the 1990s. Instead of the Hunt Valley Mall food court where a gazillion teen romances were plotted, you have a more upscale hibachi grill to get cozy with your date. There’s a couple of sports bars, a California Kitchen pizzeria, Outback, Carrabba’s and Mediterranean grub, along with chain eateries having nothing to do with the burger wars. A Dick’s Sporting Goods and Wegman’s grocery store dwarf the old Sears location and one-ups to the old days, there’s a movieplex that’s had both prosperous and difficult stretches. Peet’s Coffee awaits if you need a kick start or a secondary jump.

We haunt the new town center frequently, I’ll confess, and no doubt any companion of mine has grown weary of hearing my old stories about the long-gone heyday of Hunt Valley Mall. I’ve outgrown the admittedly superficial sport known as “The Rating Game,” played as much by the ladies as the guys. For the uninitiated, this horndog jugheadism by either sex entailed calling out ratings amongst their own group to male or female passersby, often by specific body part. The trick was to never get caught, not unless you were hoping to snag a date by shouting a positive score. Often such a maneuver got you the finger.

Do I miss these goofball shenanigans? Absolutely not, but it is a little funny, as in the shaking my head brand of funny, to think about how shallow we teenagers were across the board. Today they do it more inconspicuously through texting and Snapchat, even standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Nearly none of it done in the shadows of a Burger King or Pizza Bob’s kiosk nor an arcade with quarter-to-play video games. Those latter things, I do miss.

X-box and PlayStation may be ten times more advanced in graphics, concepts and interfacing, yet no virtual link to some screaming eight-year-old being outdone by his thirty-year-old father after getting vaporized on Fortnite compares to physically being amongst your peers in a live arcade setting. Anyone growing up in Hunt Valley Mall will utter the canonized name of “Space Port,” where moms and dads could dependably drop their kids off while they got their shopping done. Space Port was its own rite of passage, much as I’m sure any American kid of the 1980s would wax about their own arcade.

I can still see myself frantically twisting the joystick commanding those light cycles of Tron to mash the MPC’s guard to bits. I can feel my wrist getting tired hammering the snot out of the cannon fire button on Galaga–twice as fast during the bonus stages. There I go, dropping piledrivers, clotheslines and suplexes as Dynamite Tommy against video game wrestlers dubbed “The Piranha,” “The Insane Warrior,” “Coco Savage” and “Golden Hulk,” winning the championship belt in Mat Mania and defending it so many times I had to give my game up to some other kid when it was time to go.

Anyone habiting Space Port is wont to remember the days Punch Out! and the fully animated Dragon’s Lair arrived. Video gaming the Eighties wasn’t the same afterwards.

I’ve since loaded most of my music library onto a USB thumb drive, but Camelot Music will always have a special place in my heart. Yeah, mall music stores all around were overpriced. Yeah, they were often lacking depth as far as underground music goes, but Camelot was usually more on the dime than its mall-bound competitors of the day like Music World and Tape World. Maybe not as diverse and rich in selections as a Tower Records emporium or your local specialty music shop where punk, alternative and metal ruled, the mere name of Camelot Music brings automatic glee to any mall rat blowing his or her allowance on vinyl and cassettes of the day. Best album I ever bought from Hunt Valley Mall’s Camelot branch? Testament’s The New Order. In fact, I blared it as loud as I could push through my cheap speakers in my ’81 Escort in the Hunt Valley Mall parking lot. Two of my headbanger buddies joined me in a three man slam pit until the mall security chased us lunatics off.

I remember flirting with girls at The Gap and Big Sky clothing stores as I was just starting to build my confidence through my grit appearance. I remember eating at Friendly’s more so than the food court, sometimes with my family, other times with my girlfriend’s family, sometimes with a mixed group of friends from school who looked past my headbanger guise and welcomed me to the table. We bonded over Friendly’s famous “Happy Ending” ice cream desserts before taking anywhere from eight to ten laps around the mall, always right up to closing time. Store owners and security guards hated us, but we all played our roles and knew our boundaries, even if we would sometimes dash beneath lowering store gates daring to close a minute early like Indiana Jones inside the dropping temple barrier in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I remember a tobacco store I didn’t care about other than to stop and look at their Laurel and Hardy statues in the front window nearly every single time. My stepfather, a diehard Stan and Ollie fan, eventually landed that set and they’ve stood watch over his bar for nearly forty years. Not a time escapes me when I pull up with Pop for a beer downstairs that I don’t think about those statues’ original location. There was also Sir Walter Raleigh’s, one time more important than Macy’s and Hecht Company for the mall’s sustenance. One of the swankiest restaurants in Baltimore County, my father’s side of the family were frequent haunters of Sir Walter Raleigh’s and I relished any time I was invited along.

The days of rad are nothing you can teach future generations, but you can tell them about it, assuming they’re willing to take their AirPods out of their ears first. You were a mall rat or you weren’t, but most of us were and it’s not unheard of to hear mourning amongst many Gen X’ers over the death of their local mall as they would a best friend. A Five Below at the revamped Hunt Valley Towne Centre is cheap pacification, but it’s just not the same.

Time and tide, so the saying goes. Fact, traditional retail has lost tremendous ground to online shopping. Today’s specialized tastes and service wants and needs are seldom able to be fulfilled in a mall, whereas most people would rather click for sales in their pajamas instead of slugging it out for a parking spot. I’ll be a hypocrite and say I’m a frequent flier at Amazon, Ebay, Etsy and other electronic retailers for the simple fact I can find, more often than not, things you just can’t get in a hands-on store setting. Change is inevitable, change is often convenient. Sometimes change is for the good. Other times, change has you saying “gnarly” a lot, not as an embellishment, but as a twilight holding-on habit.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

A Road Lesser Traveled (a poem by Ray Van Horn, Jr.)

A Road Lesser Traveled

Ray Van Horn, Jr.

glass shards crying phantasmagoria along the crackled asphalt

outraged brio against the tumbling Twinkie wrappers and flattened Wendy’s cups

a goddess without offerings, much less a flock,

her name thrice changed, the same for her pantheon

a 60 mile an hour highway built upon three-second rule empathy,

opening a lane closure leading to the heart

the first t.v. Superman undone by a matchless brand of kryptonite,

Reeves dispatched by a fading monochrome

the color-washed, lone video single from a cult metal band,

given its lone play decades ago between Bon Jovi and Def Leppard

the art of doing a solid,

much less dropping a thank you

the perpetual duel between poet and espresso machine

a throughway toll paid in blood

love without pretense

the word “agreement” prefaced by harmony

decorum where the “n” word is still taboo

the swallow of a cold, starry night sky,

gorging humanity back into its measured condition

an idiosyncratic signature done in cursive,

instead of through an e-bot

the same applying to self-eroticism

folks who know what comes next after “Hey hey hey!”

or, for that matter, “My country, ‘tis of thee…”

a smile,

giving even the most desperate a sense of worth

Best Assignment Ever: On-Site at Camp No-Be-Bos-Co (aka Camp Crystal Lake from the Original Friday the 13th)

From time-to-time, I’ve posted these photos from what I consider the best assignment ever to this point in my writing career.  Until the site had been recently repurposed and monetized for the public as “Crystal Lake Tours” (only given at certain times of the year, caveat) I’d been granted private access to the location most horror fans would give an appendage or two to see:  the Boy Scout camp doubling as the most notorious patch of woods the horror genre’s ever seen in the original Friday the 13th.

Camp No-Be-Bos-Co has been around since the early 1900s and continues to operate as a functioning Scout camp today.  I’ll never forget this trip as I was given a green light by the camp’s management to do an article on the site in 2008 when it was announced a remake of Friday the 13th was on its way.  Ranger Tom, the only official presence on-site the day I went up, gave me some terrific stories but advised that, just like the deputy in the original Friday says, they don’t stand for no weirdness from unauthorized uber-fans trying to sneak onto the camp.  I consider myself blessed for being allowed to photograph “Camp Crystal Lake” to my heart’s content.  It really does have a creepy ambiance, in particular around the edges of Sand Pond, constituting the movie’s “lake.”

I later ventured into Blairstown, New Jersey to see the town used in Friday the 13th’s establishing shots where the ill-fated hitchhiker cook Annie tramps through.  To no surprise, I couldn’t get anyone to talk to me about the film for my article, but I did find a jewelry store owner with the last name of Voorhees.  As it turns out, Voorhees is a common last name in the Jersey region.  Later, we ate at the Blairstown Diner used in the film, but our waitress vanished as quick as the doomed counselors when I tried to kick up convo about the film with her.

Nonetheless, the piece was a success and it was capped by an interview with the late Betsy Palmer, another personal thrill.  Betsy was the sweetest woman and she’d called me after our interview ran, telling me I was the first writer to ever quote her 100% accurately.  I still feel proud about that.  She’d invited me to a future lunch date in Manhattan, which I’m sorry to say never happened, even when I made the attempt to follow up a couple years later prior to her unfortunate passing.  RIP Mama Voorhees.  

I was later approached by Allentown, PA writer David Zernhelt about my “Crystal Lake” photos I’d posted around the web.  He’d put together a few small booklets about the Friday the 13th series and asked to use some of the photos you see here.  Some were featured by him and I thank David for his exposure of my work.   

Ki ki ki kiiiii…ma ma ma maaaaa…

All photos (c) Ray Van Horn, Jr.