I sprinted out of my high school graduation. Shoving through a crowd of classmates I couldn’t wait to never see again, I threw open the double doors of that rented auditorium like I had been holding my breath and was about to get my first gulp of air in four years. I wasn’t rushing out to greet my family; in fact, I ditched my parents after the ceremony. (I still feel guilty about that.) No, I couldn’t wait to stomp on my mortarboard and give the building the finger, like I had seen in Ghost World.
One thing I never noticed until I watched the movie again 20 years later was that the banner over Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca’s (Scarlett Johannson) graduation is adorned with corporate logos. Which is too bad, because I and my stack of Adbusters magazines would have loved that at the time. Daniel Clowes’ original Ghost World comic ran from 1993 through 1997, the heyday of coffee-shop slacker bohemia. But by the time Terry Zwigoff’s movie version hit theaters in the summer of 2001, Gen X apathy was an endangered species.
Elder millennials (fuck this “geriatric” nonsense) like myself grew up in the shadow of Gen X, and revisiting Ghost World’s milieu of ironically named zine shops and influential alt-weeklies was like looking into a past that was both painfully personal and never really mine to begin with. (For context, 2001 was the year I saw Sum 41 on the cover of Tiger Beat, and in my 17-year-old wisdom proclaimed punk truly dead this time.) Like me, Enid and Rebecca are too young to be proper Gen X-ers, but old enough to worship their sense of eye-rolling detachment. And so they observe the people around them like the alien patrons of Vonnegut’s human zoo, snickering at the pathetic weirdos and overeager losers who populate their daily lives.
Paralyzed with fear of seeming uncool—a.k.a. trying too hard or caring too much—Enid and Rebecca don the armor of ironic distance, swaying to a cheesy band at a graduation party and declaring that it’s more than “so bad it’s good,” it’s swung all the way back around to bad again. Like people who giggle at every outdated moment in a movie in a desperate attempt to defuse their own discomfort, they have to be better than these pathetic freaks. Everyone else has to be intensely weird, because that makes them the sane ones.
Some of those who, like me, grew up thinking that chain smoking in a coffee shop was the coolest thing a person could do with their time are currently carrying that attitude into their encroaching middle age. But on the whole, pop culture has moved on from the sneering condescension of my counterculture youth—and that’s probably for the best. But there will always be a part of me that gapes wide-eyed at the shirtless guy with a mullet in the convenience store of my mind, exclaiming “that guy rules!” with a combination of disdain and envy.
I missed Ghost World in theaters, but picked up a VHS copy in the Blockbuster bargain bin where I got most of my movies in the months leading up to my high-school graduation in June 2002. Watching the movie on a low volume late at night on the 13" TV/VCR combo that was my prize possession, I had Rebecca’s haircut and relentless determination to move out of my parents’ house by any means necessary. But it was the character of Enid that really spoke to me.
On a surface level, we dressed the same. Early experiences being teased for wearing thrift-store clothes had long since flipped into a defiant love of loud, kitschy castoffs by the time I entered my senior year of high school. (Is this the place for a rant about how fast fashion ruined thrift stores? Perhaps another time.) I still have a plaid ’60s shift dress remarkably similar to the one Enid wears in the film, and while I didn’t have a dinosaur T-shirt, I did have one proclaiming that “I saw ONE BIG TRUCK!” at a rural Ohio truck stop. This was paired with a plaid skirt, barrettes, and Doc Martens—this was also the Daria era, remember—topped with an over-it snarl and deadpan sarcasm.
Feeling out of time was another thing that bound me to Enid: Like her, I had interests that weren’t shared even by my close friends. She buys bootleg VHS tapes of mid-’60s Bollywood dance numbers; I bought bootlegs of obscure Southeast Asian horror movies. We both scribbled in our notebooks all day, although I wrote poetry (ugh, I know) instead of drawing. We both were so intense about rejecting this stifling conformist hellhole into which we had so unfairly been born that we failed to see how callously we treated those around us, and both lacked the confidence to defend the things we actually thought were cool: Had I been challenged, as Enid is on her ’70s punk look, I would have similarly folded.
Ghost World does care about a few things, however timidly. Zwigoff’s satire is more cutting when applied to some groups than others: A scene poking fun at old-timey jazz nerds is more affectionate than anything, probably because Zwigoff is himself one of those nerds. The film’s condemnation of forced capitalist cheer, meanwhile, is venomous. A patron’s request for 8 1/2 at a corporate video store is met with a blank stare from the oblivious clerk; the movie recoils in disgust. Ghost World is a culture snob, and proud of it.
That’s another cornerstone of the ’90s counterculture that’s long since gone out of style, drowned in a wave of “poptimism” and the mainstreaming of unselfconsciously slavish fandom. Seeing the nostalgia of those slightly younger than I for early-’00s monoculture is a confusing experience, given that, from my point of view as an angsty punk-rock teen, the whole thing seemed irredeemable. Moving on from the casual misogyny of the era is probably for the best, as is the softening of the ironic hatefulness that marks Enid’s more edgelord tendencies. (Enid’s casual use of ableist slurs, for example, barely registered as offensive in 2001.) But c’mon—“she gets in one car wreck and all of a sudden she’s Little Miss Perfect and everyone loves her,” is still a funny line.
Zwigoff almost certainly identifies with the character of sad-sack record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a fortysomething man whose myopic interests and defensive misanthropy make him Enid’s unlikely soul mate. Their age gap was, frankly, the element of the film that I was most nervous about revisiting. I dreaded scenes I didn’t remember, but imagined must be there, where Seymour abuses the power he has over unemployed teenager Enid as a grown man with an apartment and a car of his own.
But while it’s undeniably icky that the two end up sleeping together, for the most part those subtle signals never materialized. Instead, I saw a girl who assumes that she’s unattractive to men in general, who feels invisible when boys try to chat up her best friend. (“Am I even here?,” she snaps at one of them.) Presented with a man who’s even lower than she is on the sexual totem pole, she’s unconsciously testing the limits of her power—and trying to soothe her guilt about how they met—by dangling the prospect of a relationship in front of this dork. The fact that she actually grows to like him is much too vulnerable, and so she keeps it a secret until it’s too late.
Enid is a self-sabotager. She cares about her art, and cares about Seymour, but feels compelled to blow both of them up by turning in an artifact of Seymour’s employer’s racist past as her final art project. (Ileana Douglas’ remedial art teacher, one of the more specific caricatures in the film, eats up her half-assed artist’s statement.) It’s not exactly right to say that she does this on purpose—she just has an instinctual urge to destroy everything she loves.
She’s a confused, frightened adolescent blindly punching in all directions, one whose smug superiority and selfish behavior cover a deep well of self-loathing. I was one of those, too. And looking back on my own mouthy asshole years through the lens of Enid Coleslaw, I felt a mixture of embarrassment and compassion. As a teenager, Ghost World was aspirational. But as an adult, I felt the same way Roger Ebert did in his 2001 review: “I wanted to hug this movie.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s also clear that the biggest mistake Enid makes in Ghost World is not whatever fucked-up psychosexual game she’s playing with Seymour. It’s being too wrapped up in that game to notice that the most important relationship in her life—that with her best friend Rebecca—is slowly dying. At the beginning of the film, the two are tuned in to the same frequency, thinking the same things and having the same desires and goals. But before long, it becomes clear that, although they wear the same disaffected armor, there are walls between them as well.
Rebecca is eager to become an adult, and accepts that she’ll have to conform to at least some of society’s expectations to get what she wants—namely, financial independence. Enid doesn’t want a job, or an apartment, or a boyfriend, or anything, really. Enid needs to figure some things out first, but instead of telling Rebecca this up front, she lets a series of little betrayals and inconsiderate slights build up until Rebecca gets annoyed and walks away, once again sidestepping the need for an (ugh) honest conversation. By midway through the film, Rebecca has almost been written out of the story entirely. Enid barely notices.
At the end of the film, nothing is resolved and no one is feeling any better. (Thank God.) Seymour is going to therapy and living with his mom, and Enid walks away, leaving the life she’s known in ruins. Enid doesn’t talk about dying, but she can’t imagine what her future will look like, either. She tells Seymour in a moment of rare vulnerability: “You know what my number one fantasy used to be?… I used to think about one day—just not telling anyone and going off to some random place. And I’d just—disappear.” In the journal I toted everywhere, I wrote about wanting to walk out into the woods on a cold, clear day, dig a hole in the earth with my fingernails, curl up in it, cover myself in leaves, and sleep forever.
Revisiting the film, there’s a moment where Enid, crawling back to the life she and Rebecca have been planning since they were kids, is packing her stuff to take to the new apartment. Holding up a T-shirt with the name of the almost assuredly low-paying, thankless job she’s taking on to afford rent, she sees the future she’s stumbled into by default. It’s a small moment, but it broke my heart.
Because eventually, you have to stop running from yourself. These days, my therapist makes me do meditation exercises that I hate and talks a lot about not judging your feelings as good or bad, but simply acknowledging them and moving on. I roll my eyes, because being too cool for everything lasts forever. But I wouldn’t be sitting cross-legged on a couch clutching a wet Kleenex if rejecting the world before it can reject you was a viable strategy for long-term health and happiness.
We don’t see what happens to Enid after she gets on that mysterious bus to nowhere, which some interpret as symbolic of her dying by suicide. But there’s another, more hopeful interpretation. Like Enid, I took the bus out of Cincinnati the first chance I could, and things did get a little bit better over time. The urge to flee has even calmed, with time and those emotion regulation worksheets I begrudgingly fill out every week. My life is full of Enids and Rebeccas, the weird girls of their respective high schools who drifted together. Sometimes the bus is the end. But if you can hold on, wait just a little bit longer than you think you can, your bus will come.