Forsaken America: the underground adventures of Dan Bell

Baltimore YouTuber Dan Bell explores the forgotten places that few would want to visit.

By David Chiodaroli  

Staff Writer

Deserted malls, filthy hotel rooms, and abandoned, decaying buildings are generally seen as places to avoid. But for Baltimore based YouTuber Dan Bell, they are forgotten relics of our collective culture that are just waiting to be rediscovered. Since launching his YouTube channel in 2013, Bell has made it his mission to document the creepy, bizarre, and dying elements of Americana, presenting these artifacts with a sense of dignity and respect that few other content creators can achieve. It is this attention to detail and appreciation for the past that has propelled Dan Bell into the world of internet stardom: he currently has over three-hundred thousand subscribers on YouTube, has been featured in the New York Times, and he even hosted a TED Talk.

Dan Bell, photo by David Chiodaroli

While it is his urban exploration videos that make up the bulk of his two YouTube channels, Bell’s passion involves his two, ongoing projects that have both become viral sensations: Dead Mall Series and Another Dirty Room. In Dead Malls Series, Bell takes a hidden camera into deserted, soon to be closing malls that have fallen victim to the tides of change.

“The dead malls stems from my interest in the nostalgic aspect of these places,” Bell explains. “I grew up in malls, I spent time going to the mall, I worked at the mall, I hung out at the mall. So, for me, it comes from that perspective, that I look at it like a nostalgic thing.”

If the amount of views in the Dead Malls Series is any indication, Bell isn’t the only one who longs for the days when malls were the center of American consumer culture. The videos routinely garner hundreds of thousands of views, encouraging Bell to continue the series well into the future. And for good reason: Bell’s high production values and insight into each mall featured in the series makes each episode feel like an interactive tour, or, as Bell describes it, an experience akin to a video game, “like you’re walking through the mall.”

But while Bell has visited countless malls since his series conception, his favorite would have to be The Sunrise Mall in Corpus Christie, Texas, which was one of the filming locations for the 1985 drama, The Legend of Billie Jean. “When I was growing up, I loved the movie so much, so it was almost weird going to the mall, because it looks exactly as it did in 1985.”

His other successful series, Another Dirty Room, sees Bell, his producer Will, and friend Rick Serra visiting the most vile, disgusting motel rooms across the country. He says his inspiration came from his love of vintage motels, and a particularly harrowing stay at an Econo Lodge in Rockport, Texas in the summer of 2016. “We got this room and set up, and realized that this room was infested with cockroaches.” Disgusted by what he saw, Bell filmed everything he saw on his phone, and posted the video to his second channel. But this one-off instance became a viral hit, and would plant the seeds to what would become his most successful series yet.

“Immediately, it got huge amounts of attention, it got a few write ups and we were like, ‘wow, people really seem to like that.” A few months later, Bell had similar experience at another abysmal motel in Greenville, South Carolina, and shot the pilot episode to Another Dirty Room.

“Once that went viral, it ended up on the front page of Reddit, and I said ‘maybe I’ve got something here’.”

Much like Dead Malls Series, Bell also has a favorite episode, the particularly heinous Swan Motel in Halethorpe, Maryland, which was featured in the show’s eleventh episode.

“That place was awful,” Bell laments. “It was a hundred degrees when we were filming, no air conditioning, no window to open. The room smelled like mold, body odor and cat urine.” Bell went on to describe the wretched state of the shower, the vomit covered walls, and the numerous blood splatters that were found covering almost every surface. The positive reception the episode received encouraged Bell, who had considered ending the show, to continue, and recently he has begun to take Another Dirty Room on the road. The most recent episode, lucky number 13, was shot in the Royal Inn in Detroit, Michigan, and within days of the upload, the inn was shut down and condemned by city authorities. In fact, on the day I interviewed him, Bell had just been interviewed by a number of local TV stations in Detroit over the episode, which may have been behind the Royal Inn’s closure.

Ironically, the videos that make up the majority of his content, his urban exploration videos, are the ones he least enjoys. “It was kind of a necessity when I started my channel,” he says. “I was focusing on dead malls, and I needed to have a backup to fill the channel with more content.” Bell went on to explain that urbex is a relatively cheap pastime, making it easier for him to produce the content to keep his fans satisfied, while pouring the bulk of his resources into his main projects. Regardless, his urbex videos, much like his other content, are made with the same level of dedication that Bell is known for.

“I really like the creep factor of it,” Bell says, “and it just kind of stuck, and people seem to enjoy it.”

Still, Bell thinks that his days as an urban explorer may be numbered. “The main thing I always worry about is getting arrested. And I’ve done so many abandoned places that I wonder when my luck is going to run out.” With all the risks involved, Bell says that he doesn’t know if he would continue with urbex, and thinks that his channel has moved on to different things.

This sentiment was bolstered by a nasty encounter in Organ, New Mexico, an old west ghost town in the southern portion of the state. While exploring an abandoned inn, Bell was attacked by a swarm of Killer African Honey Bees, resulting in one of his worst experiences in his entire YouTube career. “We went into this one room, and all of a sudden I felt a sting on the back of my head.” Bell fled the scene, but the bees ganged up on him, and by the time he was out of the inn, an entire swarm of them began to attack him mercilessly. “So, I jumped in my car, and had to drive through a fence to get to [my producer] Will, but the bees were in the car with me.”

In all, Bell was stung over fifty times. To say the least, the incident left him weary about filming new urbex episodes.

As for the future, Bell says, the best is yet to come. He hopes to take Another Dirty Room to Las Vegas, and he is currently working on a documentary about Baltimore’s notorious Leakin Park, which for over fifty years has been used by the city’s criminals to dump the bodied of their victims. Bell says that the project is currently in its experimental stage, and that he’ll be releasing a short film soon that delves into the many cases of dead bodies that were discovered in the park.

As of the time of this writing, Bell has gone out to the park about six times, and each time has brought another hair-raising experience. In fact, two nights before my interview with him, Bell was in the park with his buddy, Brook, who just so happened to be working that night at the Starbucks where the interview took place. Before continuing with our conversation, Bell calls Brook over to our table, to discuss a sound that they heard on the banks of a nearby river, that sounded like a woman’s ghostly moaning.

“I never want to go back there,” Brook says, to which Bell cracks a smile and says, “We need to go back, I want to go back,” before breaking into laughter. If this is any indication of Bell’s enthusiasm for his work, then his fans and subscribers have a lot to look forward to.

Check out Dan Bell’s videos on his main channel, This is Dan Bell, and his second channel, Dan Bell / Film It.                   

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