[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Stranger Things 3. Read at your own risk!]
If you grew up in the '80s or '90s, the mall likely holds a special place in your heart. The mall was a magical world where dreams came true under neon signs and bad fluorescent dressing room lighting. It's where formal dresses were purchased at Deb and new depths of immaturity were reached in Spencer Gifts. It's where many young kids and teens got up close (but never personal) with their favorite bands and celebrities, or where they found a safe space to flirt with crushes away from the prying eyes of their parents. It's where many teens got their first taste of freedom. The mall, in essence, was a place to hang out and feel like you'd reached some version of quasi-adulthood.
The new Starcourt Mall is the centerpiece of Netflix's Stranger Things 3, which jumps forward in time to the summer of 1985. It is where Max (Sadie Sink), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and Will (Noah Schnapp) hang out and sneak into the movies while Dustin's (Gaten Matarazzo) at camp. It's where Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (new cast member Maya Hawke), a former classmate, work at a nautical-themed ice cream parlor called Scoops Ahoy. And it's also where Max takes Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) for some retail therapy and teen girl bonding after Mike lies to her.
The mall is the show's most transparent milking of its nostalgia-inducing power yet as it reminds us of our own former carefree existence and calls to mind popular '80s films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or even the 1995 Kevin Smith movie Mallrats. But the mall's existence isn't without complications. This being Stranger Things, the mall is also a front for the Soviets, who have built a massive underground compound beneath the mall (and Hawkins) where they are attempting to open another gate to the Upside Down after Eleven closed the one at the lab at the end of Season 2. Additionally, at the end of the season, the mall is the site of the final confrontation between the teens and the new monster, a towering version of the Mind Flayer that is comprised of the goopy, fleshy remnants of a number of unfortunate Hawkins residents (and dozens of rats).
It makes sense the mall is at the center of everything in Season 3 because it's the one spot in town where everyone naturally converged at the time. Its ubiquitous presence is a reminder of how central malls once were not just to teens, but also children, adults, and even the elderly. They were public spaces where we shopped for back-to-school clothing and ran errands, but they were also frequently used for leisure, and everyone between the ages of 10 and 80 felt at home within them. Looking at Starcourt, with its bright neon lights, glass skylights, and centralized food court, it feels like a snapshot of a time that no longer exists.
The once thriving social spaces where you could meet friends after school or gather on a carefree Friday night have been on the decline ever since the rise of online shopping retailers like Amazon. And although plenty malls still exist today (those catering to luxury seem to be thriving even as others lay vacant), the mall as a social gathering space or public square is slowly dying out. Our digital existence has seemingly rendered them a less vital part of our culture (much to Robin Sparkles' dismay).
According to a study by the International Council of Shopping Centers, 95 percent of Gen Z-ers surveyed said they visited the mall during a three-month span, compared to just 75 percent of millennials and 58 percent of Gen X-ers. So teens are still the age group that frequents the mall the most (which isn't surprising given the priorities of older generations and the convenience of online shopping), but despite the number of teens visiting the mall, 74 percent of respondents to a 2017 global survey of 15,600 members of Gen Z on six continents also said they preferred to spend their free time online.
Gen Z is the first generation to be digitally native, meaning they've never known a world in which the answer to everything wasn't at their fingertips. Today's teens essentially don't need the social space offered or created by the mall; they can communicate with friends or watch a movie without ever leaving the couch. In 1985, though, the mall was the centerpiece of teen life, especially Midwestern teen life. And as a result, this season's mall setting created such a specific sense of time and place that the nostalgic feelings produced were the strongest I've ever felt as a viewer of Stranger Things.
And for eight wonderful episodes, I was back there. I was able to live in the past, in a world where the stores that are now long gone, like Waldenbooks or Sam Goody, still existed. And I was so taken in by the idea of the mall and the carefree existence it represented that I actually spent an inordinate amount of time cataloguing the stores featured in the background of scenes -- Wicks 'N' Sticks! Hot Dog on a Stick! Orange Julius! Jazzercise! -- instead of watching the action playing out in front of them. By the time the mall was destroyed in the finale, I wondered wistfully if Stranger Things could somehow revitalize the mall even as I was mourning a sort of strange, familiar loss.
But by the end of the season, the teens of Stranger Things were mourning something as well. They were no longer innocent children, having seemingly lost not one but two people in their efforts to stop both the Soviets and the monster from killing Eleven. They were also growing up and growing apart, in some cases quite literally as Joyce (Winona Ryder), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Will, and Eleven left Hawkins in the season's closing moments. We know they'll all likely be back for whatever madness Season 4 entails (could it involve time travel?), but Stranger Things 3, despite being pure delightful summer entertainment, was also a turning point for the show and for its characters.
The mall, like it has done so many times before, brought our favorite people from Hawkins together, but it also tore them apart. It was an aggressive time capsule, a reminder meant to feed our desperate hunger for nostalgia, but it was also a vehicle meant to carry yet another group of young men and women toward some version of quasi-independence and adulthood, just like it did in the '80s and '90s. So it's a shame the mall didn't survive this season, but at some point we all have to grow up and leave the mall rat life behind, even if it's happening a bit sooner for the residents of Hawkins than it might have in the real world.
Stranger Things 3 is now streaming on Netflix.