I imagine a lot of folks are going to come at We’re All Going to the World’s Fair with an accusation you hear about a lot of horror movies: It’s not very scary. I guess I counter with the simple observation that I don’t know what “scary” looks like anymore in this, the year of our lord 2022. My kids’ schools don’t even bother contact tracing for COVID-19 anymore.
There aren’t a lot of the loud, gross-out moments you’re supposed to jump at, anyway. You aren’t supposed to feel any feeling of imminent, visceral danger as in other works whose horrors are meant to evoke the predations that “land, with great violence, upon the body,” as it has been said. No boogeyman lurks in the space just outside the frame, no call is coming from inside the house. There are some moments of body horror or uncanniness, but they’re occurring safely on the other side of a laptop screen. Yet, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a horror film nonetheless.
Casey (Anna Cobb, in her feature debut) is a teen who lives in some vast stretch of Nowhere, U.S.A., a place with bare trees, featureless horizons, empty parking lots and a stable internet connection. We know she lives with her father, but we never see him. (His only line, from off-camera, is to yell at her for listening to something too loudly at “three in the fucking morning!”) We don’t see her at school, though presumably she goes there, or with other people her age. We never see her interact with her father, with any friends she may have. Whatever people she does have in her life, they don’t know about any of the things the movie is showing us about her.
Casey begins awkwardly making videos in the style of a creepypasta community, something called The World’s Fair Game (as in, a game about the World’s Fair, whatever that is). To those who may spend, ahem, way too much time lurking on creepypasta forums or in that corner of YouTube, it’ll sound like a familiar premise. The first moments of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair watch Casey across a few abortive attempts to play the game, in one long take, introducing it first to an audience of—we assume—fucking no one. It’s an acting feat for Cobb, and sets the tone of the movie, which is quiet and filled with such long stretches that other people are also, probably, going to complain about.
Eventually, somebody does actually see Casey’s videos and respond to them in the creepiest way imaginable. Casey answers the mysterious person seeking to contact her, and for a long, uncomfortable scene, we think we know what kind of movie this actually is. (It’s not that kind of movie. It’s a relief that it’s not.) The scenes leading up to it, in which Casey wanders out to a shed in the winter cold and pulls out her father’s gun in the full knowledge that nobody is ever going to know or care to stop her, are what kind of movie this actually is, and where the real danger is for her.
The man on the other end of the creepy videos interacting with Casey is “JLB” (Michael J. Rogers), and while the stuff he’s doing is definitely inappropriate and inadvisable, it isn’t criminal. JLB is another person who, despite his nice house and the companion who seems to live with him, is just as lonely and disaffected and no threat to anyone but, perhaps, himself.
Director Jane Schoenbrun has said that they were seeking to tell a story about something a lot of movies don’t tackle, which is the loneliness of the internet, where you “spend all day staring at a box that’s reflecting back at you.” That’s the horror of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, a movie that centers things like a woman who insists she’s turning into a plastic doll or a guy whose skin is becoming like Legos. It never lets you forget that you’re actually just watching some far-flung strangers trying to one-up each other over the internet, people who similarly live in their own islands, surrounded by a family or a country or a job or a school that are probably glad when they finally just go to their room.
It’s to Schoenbrun’s credit that their attempt at elucidating this continues to use the cinematic grammar of that kind of movie even after the reveal and none of it feels tonally off. And it’s a minor miracle that it’s still a horror movie, even though it straight-up shows you that nothing supernatural or even overtly menacing is actually going on.
My 13-year-old daughter went on Facebook for about 18 hours before getting harassed off of it, and I don’t know what’s worse from my perspective: That my warnings about this were not heeded; that the next exploitative piece of social media bullshit might snatch her up just as readily; that everybody else is blind to the obvious truth that at some point we’ve gotta ban kids from social media like we ban them from driving cars and drinking, and that the sooner we all come to our senses on that the saner we’ll all be; or that there’s nothing I can do about any of this, because by the time a kid is 13, they are out in a world filled with the ruined skeletons of retail buildings, divided by six-lane highways in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by people who don’t know or care about them.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair does crib a lot of internet footage, does take its premise from another web series, does commit the Psycho sin of explaining itself in a monologue to the camera at the end, relegating its main character’s too-tidy conclusion to a summary of what’s happened off-camera. It does seem too long even for its short runtime. It is still the first feature I’ve ever seen that gets creepypasta and the existential emptiness at the center of so much internet culture.
What’s more horrifying than that?
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.