by Frederica Mathewes-Green
The first thing we saw was a blinking sign warning us not to park on the interstate, and then a helicopter circling overhead. As we took the exit, signs assured us that all lanes led to parking, and every block or so a guy in security uniform was windmilling his arms, coaxing the herd of cars to creep forward. All the parking lots were full, their entrances blocked off by police cars. We followed the herd off the road to a vast field of gravel and hardened mud, and finally shut off the engine. Far in the distance we could see it, glowing like the Emerald City of Oz: Arundel Mills Mall.
My daughter Megan and I, and Megan’s baby daughter Hannah, had come to enact an American tradition: going to the mall on the day after Thanksgiving. Nationally, this is the biggest shopping day of the year, what they call “Black Friday,” the day retailers hope to put their accounting books in the black. When you combine that shopping mandate with a brand-new discount mall, you are bound to get large crowds. Management was expecting 250,000 during the weekend, a little less than at the grand opening two weeks before, when things got so overstuffed that they had to close the highway exits.
Meg and I are both short people, and once inside the mall we were swept into a human sea that limited our sightseeing largely to ceiling or floor. Fortunately, everyone knew instinctively to drive on the right side of the hallway. The crowd was like an amoeba, progressing slowly but inexorably, shifting shape to squeeze around obstructions like the line straggling out from Ben & Jerry’s. Not everyone was ready for prime time. Off to the side I glimpsed the folks at Tommy Hilfiger frantically selling goods out of cardboard boxes on folding tables. Store names emphasized vast comprehensiveness: “All About Cellular,” “Gadgets & More,” even “Scrubs and Beyond.”
Every once in a while there would be a break in the oncoming crowd and Meg and I could dart over to the stores on our left. We stepped into Old Navy, where she looked through the baby clothes and I counted the glum people standing in line at the register: 28. Then we’d jump back into the amoeba and fight our way across, “getting back on the train,” Megan said.
It was overwhelming. The crowd had to move through an environment set on overload, with jazzy retro decor in hot colors, ever-changing flooring patterns, giant overhead monitors showing rock videos, an audio jumble of music and advertising pitches, and regular fragrant minibombs of fried food or perfumery. As we neared the 5,000-seat movie theater the cacophony was heightened by a dozen grand pianos lined up along the concourse, some banged on by children and some tinkled by adults, some digitally playing themselves. A giant ceiling kaleidoscope cast changing patterns of light on the floor.
“Why is this?” Megan asked. “Are they trying to beat us into submission?”
I was wondering about that. In theory, Black Friday is a holly-jolly excursion, the yearly Olympic event for recreational shoppers. Arundel Mills’ brochure describes the experience as “Shoppertainment,” a registered trademark. But the crowd didn’t look enlivened by this sensory deluge; they didn’t even look happy. They looked mostly numb. They shuffled forward like zombies, blank but persistent, bumping into each other and moving on without recognition.
Forty years ago Vance Packard wrote in The Hidden Persuaders that consumer researchers, trying to harness the psyche of the impulse buyer, had made an interesting discovery. The average person blinks his eyes about 32 times a minute; under extreme stress he’ll speed up to fifty or sixty, and when particularly relaxed slow to twenty or less. Motivational analyst James Vicary set up hidden cameras in supermarkets, hoping to fathom what made shoppers decide to buy. He expected to find a heightened level of tension or excitement caused by the blare of colorful boxes and packaging; perhaps shoppers seized goods impulsively in an urgent desire to escape.
But to Vicary’s surprise, once shoppers entered the store their eyeblink rate went down to the very subnormal rate of fourteen blinks per minute. Shoppers fell into a “hypnoidal trance . . . the first stage of hypnosis.” In this state they bumped into boxes, failed to recognize neighbors, and some evidenced “a glassy stare.” Time slowed to a dreamy rate, and goods tumbled into the unresisting shoppers’ carts almost unnoticed. Only the ring of the cash register awakened them, sending the eyeblink rate shooting back up over normal. In those cash-only days, the shopper might reawaken in alarm to discover that she didn’t have enough money for her selections; in these days, stretchy plastic can postpone that rude awakening till the next month’s bill arrives in the mail.
This isn’t the place to replay that old song about the true spirit of Christmas versus evil commercialization. No one is obliged to participate in rampant consumerism. Your neighbors can go on their merry, debt-ridden way, but you are not required to follow. It’s really not that hard. When our kids were small, we had a simple rule of three Christmas presents per kid, which eliminated most of the hysteria and gimme-gimmes. Gifts didn’t come from a magical Santa with endless resources, but from their real-life loving parents who had earned them by real labor. Christmas was a holy day, and we devoted the preceding month to spiritual preparation, so it could have the impact it deserves.
You can make up policies to suit your own family (for example, some parents are strongly pro-Santa), but the same principle holds. It’s not that hard to check out of the Christmas shopping frenzy and restore proper meaning to the day.
So this is not one more handwringing essay about a problem that, after all, has feasible solutions. What continues to haunt me is that hypnotic state, and the fumbling, vacant consumers. I kept looking at Hannah dozing in her mother’s front carrier. This was her first visit to a mall that will no doubt play a recurring role in her childhood. She may hold birthday parties in the pizza arcade, shop for doll clothes at the toy store, buy her first bra in the department store, go on her first date at the vast movie house. In the course of those years, I don’t want her to become one more of these zombie shoppers.
When I try to think back to how previous generations escaped this state, I have to confront how little I am able to do, in practical terms, and how much I depend on the gargantuan overabundance of the marketplace. My grandmother knew how to do a great many things I don’t—how to sew clothing, make jam, tend an orchard, kill and pluck a chicken. Her grandmother no doubt knew even more. But over the generations, the work people knew by hand has been replaced by the work of experts. Two centuries ago a mother was her family’s doctor, teacher, seamstress, cook, and storyteller. Today a mother “shops for” the best medical care, the best school, the best clothes, the best foods, the best entertainment video. She is no longer a producer, but merely an acquirer. Everything her family needs is produced by strangers and experts, whose abilities seem to far exceed her own. At the most she can make a decorative wall-hanging—from a kit designed by an expert.
Advertising would have us think that this role of mere selector is a luxurious one, and that we should go ahead and indulge ourselves (and in the process keep spewing money). But from inside the amoeba it feels debilitating. No one wants to be a mere taker. Such qualities as initiative, creativity, originality, and courage are necessary for people to feel that their lives have meaning—that they are truly alive. And since nobody has yet figured out how to make you pay for doing those things, these qualities are not much emphasized. Yet that is what I want for Hannah, dozing now serene in the midst of these battering enticements.
Creeping consumerism is numbing, hypnotizing, and instills the illusion that we are what we buy; our meaning is determined by which logos we wear, by whether we have the simulated leather or the simulated wood detailing. But there are entirely different bases on which to evaluate life, such as our relationships to those around us, to the beauty of this world, and to God. How to break free?
Well, we can shake up our perspective and avoid hypnosis by staying alert to the transience of all this, and staying aware of how long and varied human history has been. We can resist creeping intoxication by keeping one foot in eternity, in prayer. We can take practical steps: study the cultures of previous generations, develop forgotten hand-skills, read older books, even watch older movies. The simple act of shopping secondhand is a kind of consumer’s pocket veto. We should also cultivate amused skepticism about advertising, and teach this wariness to our kids, just as a previous generation taught kids to watch out for snakes.
I saw something really chilling not long ago: a baby bib inscribed “Born to Shop.” What a grim label for a little girl to wear, a stigma of futility imposed from birth. Not my Hannah. We don’t yet know what she is born for, other than giving and receiving love. In the unfolding of that life, though, in the joys and achievements and struggles, it is my fervent hope that the huge roiling confusion of this mall will be merely a fleeting diversion.
This article originally appeared in AGAIN, December 2008. Reprinted with author's permission.