Have you taken the World’s Fair challenge? The one where you prick your finger and say “I want to go to the World’s Fair” into your computer monitor, then watch a creepy video before something twisted begins to take control of your body?
Luckily, it’s purely fictional, but it’s the subject of an unsettling new movie that will make you believe it is real.
Already destined to be one of the most distinctive debut feature films of the year, Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair may also prove to be one of the best. Currently playing in limited release before expanding to further theaters and VOD on April 22, the film takes ultra-modern and inventive approaches to both the horror genre and the coming-of-age story, announcing Schoenbrun as a major new voice to watch. And part of its genius is that it makes you believe its eponymous challenge could be real.
Executive produced by The Green Knight’s David Lowery, the film follows a lonely middle-America teen named Casey, played by the breakthrough star Anna Cobb. Casey is one of countless “extremely online” youths who look to the internet not only to fill the void in their everyday lives, but for some sense of belonging—a community to call her own. This leads her to The World’s Fair challenge, an online Bloody Mary-style horror game that promises strange side effects for the participants, who then document their creepy developments.
The World’s Fair in which Casey participates is emblematic of an online phenomenon known as creepypasta. Emerging in the mid-aughts, creepypasta is a genre of bizarre, horror-tinged roleplay or narrative that could range from single service ghost stories to interactive, multi-platform experiences. The Reddit board r/NoSleep is a decent taste test for the unfamiliar.
The most famous of creepypastas is likely Slender Man, which resulted in countless videos of people recording their terrified responses to playing the game and, famously, an attempted murder where the preteen perpetrators claimed to be under the Slender Man’s influence.
But beyond Schoenbrun’s use of creepypasta to mold the film into something uniquely unsettling, Casey’s online experience showcases a complex online sensory tapestry for the viewer that also underscores her isolation.
We never see Casey with another human soul; even her father is an offscreen presence only, embodied in the headlights that flood into a dining room and his bellowing from downstairs objecting to Casey’s loud late-night video viewing. In her small town, we see only the empty parking lots of failing retail giants and vast fields beside long stretches of freeway without an offramp.
Casey’s real world is crushingly small, and the bottomless pit of the internet, even its darker corners, represent not only escape, but possibility for connection. There is the overflowing tap of auto-play videos, ASMR meant for comfort, and anonymous Skype chats with another World’s Fair participant known only as JLB.
JLB introduces himself to Casey by making a video that terrifyingly distorts Casey’s footage, requesting contact in a way that is alarming, especially given the various ways teenagers and children can be exploited online. But JLB presents as harmless and protective in their calls, seen only in a skeletal avatar that looks like something out of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series. His actions aren’t scary, though his ethos is: heavy breathing, his anxious speech, and of course, his anonymity.
What unfolds between Casey and this quasi-guide into the terrifying unknown of the World’s Fair is devastating, but not at all in the way audiences will expect.
Most of what we see onscreen is either Casey’s recordings of herself or the content she consumes. But when Schoenbrun breaks from this (in reveals that shouldn’t be spoiled), it’s to gasp-inducing effect. You may think you know what you’re watching at any moment of the film, but Schoenbrun is often one step ahead of you. More than a creative leap forward from the movie-set-within-a-computer screen thrills of the Unfriended series and its lesser rip-offs like Host, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair towers creatively over similar films for its insights into the ways we live online.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair positions itself as a game-changer for movies about the internet because of how it understands virality, and one that could prove seminal for a generation fundamentally enmeshed in it. Part of what makes something viral is that it allows for and demands interpretation. There isn’t a consistent theme Casey witnesses in terms of how the game’s participants respond to the World’s Fair, so the game is designed for players to one-up each other’s ability to freak each other out. And for Casey to question her reality.
She follows rabbit holes within the rabbit holes—something the film embodies in its seamless hopping from one online platform to the next, from horrifying act to soul-baring one. Here in this fictional viral playground, the wide-open possibility of the internet is synonymous with the fearful possibility of things unknown at the bottom of a dark hallway. In an era where modern horror movies aim to find their terror through human emotions, this film is as terrifying as it is honest.
Schoenbrun painfully taps into the idea that, while the World’s Fair is a collective experience, that doesn’t mean Casey is able to find community within it. If anything, it is something that ultimately isolates her further. As Casey begins to unravel, the film makes the audience both an active participant in the game and compliant to its deceptions. Like the experience of creepypasta, the lines between what’s real and what might be fictionalized in what the film shows us preys on our most innate, subconscious fears.
This is only enhanced by a virtual viewing experience, as the film received when it debuted to praise at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, one of the first and largest to occur entirely online. There was a unique power to viewing this film on a computer screen, one that made you question your own mythologizing of yourself on the internet. As the film begins its theatrical life (after a healthy run on the festival circuit, including some in-person screenings), We’re All Going to the World’s Fair will go from a private experience to a public one. Without question, the film will also be enhanced by experiencing its haunting intimacies (the kind we are all probably a bit too timid to admit to experiencing ourselves) while in the company of strangers.
But the surprise of Schoenbrun’s vision is that it offers the unsettling in equal measure with a bruised tenderness. As much as its hybrid multimedia visual approach is difficult to categorize, so is its emotional terrain. Imagine the creeping primal dread of The Blair Witch Project with the teenage horror of Eighth Grade and the abrupt stylistic daring of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and you might approximate something close to what Schoenbrun pulls off.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair lures us in with unnerving horror and exposes an emotional vulnerability that is all too relatable. Schoenbrun has an equally adept creative partner in Anna Cobb, who presents Casey with an alarming authenticity that only further blurs the film’s line between homespun myth and reality.
In the film’s final moments, we’re left with explanations we can only question the veracity of, given the characters’ willingness to build legend not only of the World’s Fair but their own lives. For Casey and JLB, the World’s Fair is done in public, but it is an intimate and private act. What Schoenbrun achieves is a submersion into that privacy, arriving on the other side with something wholly unique and uniquely observed, with an eye towards urban legend and the lore that can be created online