World's Fair

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair (2021)

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair UK première at Grimmfest 2021

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair begins with an initiatory ritual of sorts. After nervously rehearsing her introduction a couple of times, Casey (extraordinary newcomer Anna Cobb) sits alone at the desk in her neon-lit attic bedroom with her stuffed monkey Poe by her side, and records herself declaring three times “I want to go to the World’s Fair”, pricking her finger till it bleeds, and then watching a short video whose strobing colours illuminate and distort her face. “OK, that was The World’s Fair Challenge,” she says into her laptop (whose intradiegetic camera has been the medium for this entire single-take sequence), “thanks for watching, and I’ll make sure to update if I notice any changes.”

Though older, Casey is reminiscent of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) from Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018) – wide-eyed, awkward, anxious and (as the presence of Poe proves) not quite adult. Most of all, though, she is lonely, appearing to have no friends, and staying clear of her father (who is heard but never seen, even though he lives in the same isolated rural home as Casey). So Casey has turned to The World’s Fair, “the internet’s scariest online horror game”, as a way of expressing her alienation and reaching out to like-minded people in the ether. Participants in this MMORPG first record themselves taking the Challenge, and then upload videos ‘documenting’ their ‘symptoms’ that result from the ritual. Then other players might reply or interact, helping fine-tune the stories into a collective urban legend. A wealth of mythology about The World’s Fair has already been planted online – not unlike the ‘drops’ that drive QAnon‘s conspiracies – as narrative breadcrumbs and ‘trailheads’ to inspire players, many of whom contribute polished, imaginative (body) horror shorts. Casey, however, uses her uploads as a sort of confessional video diary, expressing her hopes and fears that she is being overtaken by a mysterious power. Casey’s entries attract relatively few views, but one person, the older, more affluent JLB (Michael J. Rogers), takes notice, and soon connects with Casey, at first fuelling her fears as part of the game, and then, as her videos become more disturbed, starting to show genuine concern for her state of mind.

When JLB first contacts Casey on Skype, his face hidden behind a hand-drawn image of a ghoul, she apologises for her interactions with the words: “I’m not that good at talking with other people.” Casey is certainly shy, but she also needs little encouragement to film and share her most intimate thoughts with strangers on the web. The World’s Fair, with its story-telling focus on horrific personal transformations, perfectly mediates Casey’s own mental decline, which she performs as a kind of in-game possession – even styling her filmed ‘sleep  journals’ expressly in terms of Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007), a ‘found footage’ film in which domestic, private spaces are transformed into video ultimately for invasive public consumption. Yet The World’s Fair is also, clearly, a reflex for the World Wide Web itself – and here the internet is a locus of both harm and help. For it is simultaneously an arena that amplifies and exacerbates all Casey’s inner mental health problems, a zone where any others might merely be masked malefactors, ghoulish groomers or frightening predators, and a place where a casual, remote connection can pull Casey back from the brink and remind her of what is real amid all the make-believe, projection and delusion. 

The first-person plural pronoun in the title of writer/director Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going To The World’s Fair serves to locate something universal in the specificities of its scenario. For that ‘we’ suggests that this is, much like Schoenbrun’s previous documentary A Self-Induced Hallucination (2018), concerned with the direction that our entire species is taking as we increasingly live out our lives – and play-act ourselves – online. Much of the film is formatted as screenlife, parcelling out its narrative through Casey’s (and others’) uploaded videos or through their intradiegetic cameras’ view – but there are also scenes involving ‘objective’ camerawork, to reveal that there is a world (and a perspective) beyond the virtual. All at once sinister and sad, unnerving and oddly optimistic, this is a contemporary drama of disconnection where play quickly becomes serious, and where damaged, vulnerable people easily fall through the digital cracks. It is also, in its way, a hug of a film – both an intervention and a delicate reminder that every so often the mask needs to be removed before our dark fantasies can completely take over who we are and what we do.

strap: In Jane Schoenbrun’s screenlife scenario, a vulnerable woman documents her alienation and altering identity for an online horror game

© Anton Bitel