There is something deeply unsettling about the American mall. When I was a child, I remember going to the mall with my mom to get new school clothes. My brother and I hated to be dragged there, but the whole expedition was for us. My mom quickly realized that we had no intention of spending our allowance on new clothes. We wore them until they were stained and ripped, and ultimately she would cave and force us to upgrade our wardrobe.

At the time, the mall seemed normal enough, a cavernous, windowless space filled with all sorts of stuff, a majority of which I didn't want or need.

Now, as an adult, I find malls to be just a step off from normal. They disturb me.

For over a decade, I lived in rural places not big enough to be the proud home to a mall. Then, when I moved to a bigger town, although not a bustling metropolis by any means, it took me several months to realize that some of the stores I frequented were actually a part of a mall. They seemed so normal from the exterior entrance.

One day, I located the back door of one of the stores and found myself in the alternate reality that is the modern mall.

One of the things that is most sideways about malls is that while they now contain stores that weren't around thirty years ago, they are somehow almost exactly the same as the malls from my childhood. It feels like a form of time travel. The floors are all the same grey square tiles. The walls and ceiling still have that strange warehouse effect, and somehow or another, JC Penny's is still there, selling the sylvan green velvet dresses that four-year-olds were wearing in 1989.

I ended up in the JC Penny's the other day. My friend and I were trying to find a formal dress, and for some reason we thought the mall would be the place to find one. It was not. We walked into JC Penny's. Half the lights were off, ceiling tiles hung from the oddly high ceiling, the clothes looked three decades out of date, and while it wasn't Christmas, tinny holiday music played from some recess of the store. We were the only things moving in the store, and the half dressed mannequins only made this creepier.

That isn't the JC Penny's I remember from my childhood, but at the same time, it refuses to die. It lives on, like some un-killable beast from a horror movie. Perhaps it's a metaphor for the America that was, catching up with the America that is?

The one thing that has changed about malls are the giant stuffed animal cars that people rent to ride. The first time I was almost run over by an eight-year-old driving a mechanical panda, I felt like I had missed something. Like when a new social media platform explodes in popularity overnight, and I am somehow the only person on the planet to not get the memo.

But now, every time I see a giant elephant or tiger buzzing toward me while I try to to escape the eldritch cavern which I mistakenly entered, it is not a child driving. It's a full grown man, and a pack of his buddies, speeding through the sunless labyrinth, overpriced suckers from the candy store hanging from their mouths, yelling and hooting like they are some sort of ferocious pack of hyenas.

Which, I suppose, in the mall ecosystem, they are. And it makes me wonder, is this what happens when you put people in a windowless, human-built cave? Adult men regress to children, and I find myself looking at dresses I wore decades ago, now priced according to current inflation? Do malls warp reality into its sharper, uglier parts? Do they show us what we could be, if we cut ourselves off from the sun entirely?

The other day, my husband were in a store when it closed. We had walked through the mall to get to the store, and when we checked out, we saw that the gate that led back to the catacombs had been lowered. We would have to walk around the entire mall to get back to our car.

At first this seemed like an inconvenience. Then we stepped into the night, and even though we were in nothing but a desolate parking lot, I found myself standing taller, the night air seeping into my pores.

Outside felt real. It felt alive. It felt like the place I was supposed to be.