Loneliness is the real horror of the cult hit We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.
The premise of Jane Schoenbrun’s debut narrative feature We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is familiar on the surface: An isolated teenage girl uploads a video on online participating in the viral “World’s Fair Challenge,” wherein one pricks their finger, smears their own blood on their computer screen, and announces “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times before then watching a video of flashing lights growing more and more rapid before abruptly ending. What happens next to the participant is up to them to document, and the MMORPG horror game begins.
Such a premise harkens back to the sleepover dares children would challenge each other with for their entertainment, like standing before a mirror in a dark room with a candle, chanting “Bloody Mary” three times, and waiting in suspense for the eponymous ghost to appear.
But for this film, the concept isn’t used as a vehicle for supernatural horror, but as a way to subvert the expectations of the viewer, instead delving into themes much more grounded in reality, but dark and unnerving all the same.
The very first scene of the film is one long, uninterrupted shot, from a webcam’s perspective as Casey (played by Anna Cobb, also making her feature film debut) stares into her computer screen, preparing to play her part for the internet as she begins the challenge. Schoenbrun masterfully feeds into the viewer’s preconceptions, allowing the scene to linger, forcing your eyes to scan the dark room behind Casey for any signs of what you’re assuming would be approaching if this were a less nuanced work. The scene is poorly lit, with the only light that bathes her room being the ominous blue glow of the computer screen, allowing pervasive shadows to be the silent harbinger of what’s to come, keeping the slow burn suspenseful and attention grabbing in its ambiguity.
Anna Cobb is the driving force of World’s Fair. In every scene, she encapsulates the all too familiar sense of loneliness and boredom of a young life raised on the internet – the modern latchkey kid. Innocence is etched into each facial expression and monologue she performs in every video for an audience of no more than a couple dozen anonymous strangers. “I took the World’s Fair challenge,” she tells them, “because I love horror movies and I thought it might be cool to actually try living in one.”
There is never a scene in the film where Casey isn’t alone. She lives in an exurban nowhereland in upstate New York, emanating monotony as she takes solitary walks past chain stores, strip malls, and a suffocating, highway-strewn flat landscape. Her father, the only other person she lives with, makes his presence known in a single scene, and even then his appearance is relegated to one audible line, screaming from downstairs and out of view that “It’s three in the fucking morning” as Casey lays on her bed, watching videos from other participants documenting their transformations after taking the challenge.
As a representation of the first post-online generation, Casey spends almost all of her time lying alone in her room, lamenting the lack of views on her own uploads as she stares in a trance at the videos of the other World’s Fair players, which dutifully builds a fictional world around the online interactive challenge, including short films, 8-bit video game clips, and one particularly disturbing video diary of a boy explaining that he now feels his body filling up with different shapes, rising up to his neck inside him when he realizes that he’s become a living game of Tetris that will soon consume him.
When she can’t sleep, which seems to be about every night, Casey takes her stuffed lemur Poe and walks out to the barn on her father’s property, inspects the rifle he keeps hidden, lingering upon the weapon for long enough to elicit worry, before turning on a projector to watch an ASMR video to help coax her to rest. This scene cuts to the heart of the film, seemingly showing how a stranger on YouTube serves as a surrogate for a parent reading their child a bedtime story. The shot again lingers for a long time on the video, until organically shifting to the next video in the queue, where an uploader named “JLB” addresses Casey directly with an ominously warped still shot from her first “World’s Fair” video, lighting up the dark and empty barn with flashing text saying “YOU ARE IN TROUBLE” and “I NEED TO TALK TO YOU.”
JLB is another participant in the challenge, and the closest thing Casey has to a human relationship in the film, not that that’s saying much. During a Skype chat between the two, JLB tells Casey that he is worried about her, and that the dark forces of the World’s Fair are beginning to consume her. From behind an anonymous, hand-drawn profile picture, JLB tells her to keep uploading videos. For her part, Cobb perfectly plays up the innocence of the child she is, building a sense of unease as she converses with an unknown, adult man over the internet, sowing the seeds that he may be interested in more than just the game. It’s an abrupt reality-check, bringing the viewer back to the very real fear many parents have about their underage child being left alone online.
Where most films would lean into the trope of this anonymous, older man, allowing the viewer to grow uncomfortable with the mystery surrounding the new character whose true intentions are yet to be seen, Schoenbrun immediately lifts the veil, revealing JLB to be just another, lonely, middle-aged man looking for community on the internet. “If you message me,” goes one of his own videos, “I hope that you’re ready to get scared together.”
He lives in a spacious McMansion that’s clearly not his, void of feeling or comfort, empty save the man himself always shown at the computer watching or uploading videos in a bedroom filled with toys and trophies. Like Casey, he watches videos lying sideways on his bed. The edge of his screen is decorated with grim sketches, and his desktop has notes keeping track of the many wormholes he’s gone down (“Newest Qanon drops,” “Mother Horse Eyes,” active “blackhat” players vs. “reformed//whitehat” players) with the challenge.
The elements of horror that exist here are subtle and brief, shown in snippets of videos uploaded by Casey that over time drift further away from the supernatural elements of the MMORPG’s “effects,” and into far more tangible, recognizable warning signs. What begins with the classic horror movie moment of Casey’s face contorting into a twisted, open-eyed grin as the camera records her sleeping, devolves into scatterbrained videos you’d find on darker corners of YouTube, sporting no more than a hundred views before being reported and removed: nonsensical ramblings about wanting to disappear while shakily filming a sputtering, suburban waterfall; giving into the delusions of the game, stating flatly that her father needs to die, or she needs to die, because it’s too late for her now, and she’s become lost in the World’s Fair.
These distressing new videos come to a head when Casey appears in her room covered in glow paint, again the only light reflecting her body being the low aura coming from the computer screen, and she tears apart her stuffed animal Poe with the anger and vitriol of someone in the depths of a psychotic episode, before walking away, leaving the viewer staring at a silent, empty room, anticipating the coming horror, before she reappears seemingly back in her right mind, and collapses in tears upon realizing what she’s done to the beloved companion she’s had since her birth. And the scene ends. No blood. No murder. No otherworldly transformations. Just a confused, lonely girl who became lost in her own mind.
After seeing these most recent videos, JLB reaches out again, and during their Skype call he asks Casey if they can go “out of game.” Not understanding what he means, a telling thing to admit, JLB reiterates hesitantly that The World’s Fair is, after all, just a game. He asks if Casey knows that. He asks if she knows that all the theories and lore and media surrounding the challenge are all just people roleplaying, participating in a game. In another fantastic performance, Anna Cobb illustrates with a brief flicker how taken aback Casey is by this, before quickly and stubbornly asserting that of course she knows. She’s just playing a part like everyone else. She is offended that JLB would ever think she would actually kill herself or others. She’s just acting.
JLB continues though, needing Casey to know that he’s been growing genuinely worried about her, and he could no longer tell if she believed what she was saying or not. Casey goes on the attack, hanging up and messaging JLB to never contact her again, and accuses him of being a pedophile. It’s a tragic scene that pulls the rug out from under you, forcing you to face the reality that’s been hovering behind the entire film, and ties together the core theme. These two anonymous strangers on the internet are the only friends that each other seem to have. And all the while, this relationship is tenuous, and built upon a delusion encompassed by an altogether larger illusion of connectivity. Neither is equipped to navigate the realities of life, try as they might, and both have become lost in the muddled lens through which they see the world.
The film concludes with JLB’s perspective. At least a year has passed since the events of World’s Fair, and what JLB describes in another anonymous video is a matter of interpretation. What is clear though, is that this man still lives in the isolation of his choosing, and his final video may just be an extension of the delusion with which he feels most comfortable. The words he leaves us with are ambiguous as to his true intentions with this child he met on the internet, and his feelings about her, and even if what he describes ever happened at all. All we are given is the testimony of a lonely, older man, who perhaps still lives in a fantasy that Casey may or may not have ever escaped from.
That ambiguity is the foundation of Schoenbrun’s vision. We are left with more questions than answers, our expectations completely turned on their heads, and with nothing else but a lingering sense of empathy and confusion. The loneliness, more than the challenge or even technology, is at the heart of the film’s horror. When Casey confesses in one of her videos that “I swear, someday soon, I am just gonna disappear, and you won’t have any idea what happened to me,” she seems to be speaking for more than just herself.