Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun helms this creepypasta-like horror film about a teenager caught up in a bizarre online challenge
Horror has long dealt head-on with the effects of technology on our fragile, anxiety-ridden psyches. In the last decade alone, as computers and smartphones take over every aspect of our lives, screen horror, with films like Unfriended, Searching, and the pandemic-set breakout hit Host, has emerged as a natural successor to the found footage genre that dominated the ‘00s.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair uses screen horror as its starting point, though it eschews the tendency towards jump scares apparent in the sub-genre’s biggest hits. Instead, director Jane Schoenbrun’s film assumes the tone of a creepypasta – viral horror stories posted on the internet and shared widely on message boards and online communities.
We follow Casey (Anna Cobb), a teenage girl who decides to take on something called the World’s Fair Challenge: you prick your finger with a pin and announce “I want to go to the world’s fair,” keeping followers updated with changes to your body in the weeks to come. Other users report growths on their arms and loss of bodily sensations. A middle-aged man, JLB (Michael J Rogers), approaches Casey online, claiming to offer advice for serious-level players, and the two start a strange, disconcerting relationship that could be read as grooming.
There’s no doubt that We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a hugely ambitious work of lo-fi indie filmmaking that attempts to wrap its fingers around much of the vast, amorphous blob of internet culture. Virality, online identities, digital communities, all crashing together in this vast space which we are still struggling to comprehend. Much of the film depicts Casey’s vlogs on YouTube, picking up a handful of views each, or an endless algorithmic mix of what passes before Casey’s bored eyes. It's an endless jabber into the void in search of meaningful communication.
As a horror film, World's Fair is most effective in its first third, where it captures the existential terror of doomscrolling and the sudden interactions that crop up when you’re still online at 3am. The central premise – the idea that the internet is capable of generating some degree of mass psychosis and hysteria, with its promises of democratic utopia turned towards our darkest impulses – is not just interesting, but utterly terrifying. We very quickly get a sense of why Casey would see the attraction. Her life is some variant of small-town USA, a flat-pack land of box retail stores and cultural emptiness. Dangerous though it may be, the World’s Fair Challenge offers the capacity to at least join a community, even if that community is essentially a group of strangers talking only to themselves.
Where the film loses its way is in its decision to focus instead on the relationship between Casey and JLB in its latter half. Their light grooming dynamic is parlayed across a series of scenes in which both talk in half-whispered, mumbled dialogue. It’s a persistent problem in modern cinema that’s become lazy shorthand for interiority and in doing so the film loses much of its sociological power. Casey and JLB simply aren’t interesting enough in and of themselves – teenagers and middle-aged men are probably the most annoying online demographics out of everyone on the planet.
And yet, there’s something here. Amidst the film’s endless panoply of internet aesthetics, drip-fed under the late-night glow of the LED screen, there is the work of a brilliant, visually-challenging auteur: Jane Schoenbrun’s ideas are plentiful, even if the execution is not exactly fine-tuned.
We're All Going to the World's Fair is released in UK cinemas on 29 April.Where to watch