The unique dangers of online culture have long been considered ideal fodder for horror movies, yet somehow most depictions end up falling short. They paint the internet as a monolithic evil, enticing unwary youngsters like a digital pied piper. The assumption is always that the internet is a dangerous entity, purporting to offer community and excitement. In the reality of these stories, it provides only addiction, alienation and (often) death. Perhaps it is their rejection of this thematic truism that makes Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair such an authentic and compelling depiction of a life lived digitally. In Schoenbrun’s vision, the internet has no moral character – it simply is.
Our story opens in the attic room of teenager Casey (Anna Cobb). Firstly, she rehearses her introduction to her online audience, then follows a set of instructions to complete the ‘World’s Fair Challenge’. The ritual involves invoking the mythical World’s Fair through a repeated mantra, smearing blood on your computer screen, and watching a video (which we, as the audience, are not party to). With the ritual completed, there is nothing to do but wait.
Despite its sparse dialogue and action, it’s a riveting scene, and one that introduces us to several of the film’s key elements. For one thing, we get our first glimpse of Anna Cobb’s performance, which speaks both to emotional vulnerability and teenage listlessness. For another, we hear the truly unsettling sound design of Eli Cohn, in which the clacks of the keyboard, the whir of a computer fan and the howl of the wind are all heightened to unnerving effect. Lastly, we experience the feeling of uncomfortable intimacy with our subject. This is a feature throughout, thanks in no small part to Daniel Patrick Carbone‘s camerawork, which can feel deliberately oily and voyeuristic.
The aim of the exercise is to enter into a collaborative augmented reality game. A small but dedicated online community are creating videos, writing stories and producing artwork about the World’s Fair. Although the lore is mainly implied, we learn that those who complete the challenge experience altered states and strange bodily transformations, and can eventually disappear into the fair itself. As Casey begins to show some of these symptoms, a supposed ‘expert’ on the challenge reaches out to her, claiming that she is in danger and offering guidance. J.L.B. (Michael J Rogers) is in fact a middle-aged man, and his burgeoning relationship with teenager Casey is deeply uncomfortable to watch. Even though nothing illicit ever passes between them, Schoenbrun is expert at stressing the ambiguity of their pairing, leaving the audience scouring the frames for evidence of J.L.B.’s true intentions.
It is possible, however, that J.L.B. is acting purely out of genuine concern. As the film progresses, the video updates that Casey posts become increasingly bizarre. She feels more and more that she is somehow outside of her body, and other personalities appear to take over. Hints at potential violence emerge, and the spectres of school shootings, as well as the Slenderman stabbing of 2014 (which Schoenbrun explored in their archival documentary A Self Induced Hallucination) are never far out of frame.
The really striking thing about We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, outside of Anna Cobb’s extraordinary debut performance, is how grounded the World’s Fair community appears. Anyone with a passing familiarity with internet legends, creepypastas and ARGs will instantly recognise the thriving ecosystem of content producers all keen to add their own spin to the legend. It’s a world where less is more. A short video of a man running on a treadmill while slapping himself with no context but the title “I can’t feel my body” is infinitely unnerving. On the other hand, a slickly produced short film with creepy hands reaching through a laptop screen to snare an unwilling player is trite and clichéd.
Alongside Casey, who seems soothed by the consistent glow of her laptop screen, we scroll through video after video, experiencing these mysterious fragments of a wider story that never quite reveals itself. The spinning logo of the buffering video site becomes a source of deep anxiety – we never know what the screen is about to show to us next, yet we cannot look away. Like Casey, whose family and school life are never depicted, but who relies on ASMR videos to fall asleep at night, the flickering screen seems to be all we have.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair will be sure to leave viewers with more questions than answers. Is J.L.B. an ally or a predator? Is Casey a bored teen making her own entertainment or the victim of supernatural forces? What is the World’s Fair, really? Don’t expect easy answers to any of these questions, but do expect an enigmatic and enthralling movie. It’s a story with a lot to say about the nature of internet communities and a striking depiction of that peculiar melancholy that exists on the verge of adulthood.