In a nondescript town somewhere in the United States, in a time somewhere near present day, teenage Casey basks in the glow of her computer screen. We don’t know where she is, but it’s somewhere dark. And she’s alone. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun, is like a Creepypasta come to life, as Casey (newcomer Anna Cobb) creeps around shadowy corners of the web, finding horror games and online chats.
Casey talks intimately to the camera/audience about how she will be taking the World’s Fair Challenge, a vlog-based ritual, and films herself taking the initiation into the challenge. The title reads like an invocation as Casey chants “we’re all going to the World’s Fair” over and over again, as if trying to summon Bloody Mary. But it’s all pretty simple, beginning with a smear of blood on the screen. Casey resolves to viewers, whoever they may be, that “I’ll make sure to update if I start to notice any changes.” We’re never quite sure what will happen next, and neither is Casey, as she watches other videos from challenge participants who report strange transformations, from sprouting wings to becoming plastic.
This film features only two characters, Casey and JLB (Michael J. Rogers), which further emphasizes a sense of hauntedness and hiddenness; Casey’s father is only an off-camera presence, and she tries to find friends and thrills. The internet is a magical place of uncovering information and making connections, but it can also quickly become a breeding ground for fear. Its use of webcam footage mimics the formal innovations of internet horror of films like Unfriended and Searching, but never feels gimmicky. Instead, it feels alarmingly authentic, as we see this teenager’s confidence start to crack as she herself tries cracking the hidden secrets of life.
This film takes a perceptive look at teenage isolation, and the false mythologies and forged connections to strangers that are birthed out of this search for meaning in dark times. Casey seems aware that much of the strange transformations instigated by the World’s Fair Challenge are performance or participatory fictions, and she dives headfirst down the rabbit hole. Yet being a kid on the internet is scary, and Casey cannot always see just how terrifying things may be: JLB never steps fully into the realm of being predatory, but he, a mysterious member of the World’s Fair community, keeps “checking in” on Casey and pushes her to make more videos. Alex G’s low-fi score adds to the atmosphere of spectral presences and psychic influence, as Casey smears her blood on the computer and fictions bleed together on either side of the screen.
Watching Casey’s foray into the unknown has a familiar sense of vulnerability and uneasiness, as she loses her grip on reality and starts to become violent. Even if she seeks escapism and disembodiment in a virtual space, her real, physical body may still be in danger. Horror lurks not within Casey herself, though, but in the unregulated spaces of the internet where impressionable teenagers can be preyed upon. Schoenbrun never judges her protagonist, because who among us growing up in the internet age can say that we have not ever revealed too much online, or got too caught up in a game. Cobb is raw and unguarded in her performance, at once a magnetic screen presence as well as a wholly believable teenager.
To the credit of both the filmmakers and the cast, this tale never feels too in-your-face about the dangers of being online or interacting with strangers, nor does it attempt to send an alarmist message about teens these days on the internet. Because that’s not its point: ASMR videos, vlogs from strangers, role-playing games, and tall tales are not pure sources of danger and terror, but means of self-expression and self-realization. The film takes a provocative look at internet subcultures – and stays away from any easy lessons or secrets – but remains inscrutable at the end and, in many ways, unsatisfying.
The torments of adolescence and the stories we tell to survive are depicted in an almost uncannily and harrowingly familiar way, and Schoenbrun creates a film about anonymity and uncertainty that is fittingly impossible to fully pin down in either genre or intention. This may read as a horror story about internet culture, but it overflows with emotion, too, and finds power in its strange contradictions, giving a comforting embrace to any fragile or invisible teenager who feels forgotten by the world.