Movie theaters are almost always the best way to watch a movie. The darkened cinema is the ideal place to immerse yourself, without distraction, in the sound and image of a film. That would be a nice setting for Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re all going to the World’s Fair, a tale of online alienation that debuted at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and hit theaters and some streaming services this month. But this release is also the rare instance where I advocate a more intimate viewing experience: at home, perhaps curled up in bed, with your headphones on and this indie horror on your laptop.
Why? Because We’re all going to the World’s Fair feels like a weird bit of internet ephemera that you might accidentally discover while browsing late at night. The film will resonate with anyone who has gone down a macabre digital rabbit hole and discovered something as mild as one too many grim Wikipedia articles, or as powerfully disturbing as “creepy pasta‘, a narrative subgenre that serves as the folk horror corner of the web.
We’re all going to the World’s Fair might as well have crawled out of one of those enpasta-filled forums, where users exchange eerily plausible fictions. The film is about a lonely teenager named Casey (played by Anna Cobb) who decides to take on the viral “World’s Fair Challenge”, a shapeless online game in which you participate by saying “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times in front of the camera. and prick your finger to smear some blood on your computer screen. Then you wait and see how your life changes in the coming weeks.
Most of the movie takes place through Casey’s laptop, as she records updates for her viewers, interacts with other “players” and films creepy encounters. Once the game starts, the rules are nonexistent, or at least never defined. Everyone’s experience is purposefully different. The idea is simply that the mysterious forces behind the World’s Fair are transforming the player in some way. Casey watches videos of alleged misadventures from other users – one man finding an abnormal growth in his arm, another showing symptoms of possession.
The unspoken tension is whether any of the things Casey documents and watches actually happen. Good online storytelling should raise that kind of doubt – the amateur realism should at least make you wonder if it’s not just a remarkably elaborate lie. The film’s low budget and often grainy video quality is part of that veracity; the trick is one that indie horror has been playing for generations, albeit in the famous one fake documentaries from the 80s such as Cannibal Holocaustor ’90s and aughts features with so-called archive images like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity†
We’re all going to the World’s Fair doesn’t try to approach those movies in terms of sheer terror intensity. The fears burn more slowly, like a distant shot of someone’s face twisting into an unnatural rictus grin. Watching this movie made me think of the popular YouTube series Marble Hornets, a multi-season amateur affair based on the online mythos “Slenderman,” which evoked fear from shaky camera footage of empty playgrounds and damp hotel rooms. Schoenbrun has spoken about being inspired by the hair-raising slim stabbing in 2014, in which two 12-year-old girls, motivated by the fictional stories, attacked and nearly killed their boyfriend in the Wisconsin woods; it remains the most disturbing example of how internet fascinations can translate into real malice.
But what I found even more compelling about the film is that it understands the creativity inherent in each of these social experiments — the subconscious ways participants build on each other’s ideas to try to crowd and startle each other. As the plot progresses, Casey immerses herself more and more in other players’ videos, and her own behavior becomes more and more deviant. Schoenbrun wants the audience to wonder if supernatural forces are at work, or just an echo chamber of creepiness. In several scenes, Casey interacts with another World’s Fair fan named JLB, an elderly man who talks to her in a distorted voice. JLB is increasingly concerned about Casey’s direction, even though he’s not sure if she’s really going crazy.
By framing the inventiveness of her characters with daringly bizarre images, Schoenbrun discovers what makes internet horror such a unique form of cinema. The viewer is not only shocked by the content, but also by their ambiguous relationship with those who share it. That parasocial relationship is evident in so much online interaction, and the public’s hesitant connection to Casey is what holds We’re all going to the World’s Fair captivating right up to its cryptic ending. Are we looking at a confessional allowance or a carefully designed performance? For a chronically logged-in audience, that’s the scariest question Schoenbrun can ask.