Director: Jane Schoenbrun
Stars: Anna Cobb, Michael J Rogers, May Leitz
Like many of it’s potential viewers, I suspect, I watched We’re All Going to the World’s Fair on a laptop. Such is often the fate of indie horror pictures scaled as Jane Schoenbrun’s is. And such has been the nature of the past two years of our lives. COVID greatly exacerbated this trend, normalising Zoom calls and Teams meetings as well as our decisions on how we absorb new media.
Anna Cobb plays Casey, a young female vlogger who we meet sat alone in her attic room, recording an attempt at the ‘World’s Fair’ challenge – an online horror ‘game’ – which begins akin to an urban legend. She recites “I want to go to the World’s Fair” as if it were Candyman or ‘Bloody Mary’, draws blood from her finger which she smears on her screen while watching a mysterious strobing video. As things play out we’re to infer that this supposedly opens a door to irrevocable changes. Casey sets about documenting her experiences.
While the obvious touchstones for We’re All Going to the World’s Fair might appear to be Rob Savage’s COVID-era Host or laptop horror Unfriended, Schoenbrun’s film reaches further back to the technophobia of Ring combined with the viral mania of The Blair Witch Project; a no-budget, mumblecore horror that taps into the potent power of urban legends and how our former campfire stories are proliferated in new ways.
Going viral is the emergent form of creating hearsay. It’s interesting that Casey looks up symptoms of the World’s Fair challenge before developing any herself. Scrolling YouTube videos that suggest numbness or lack of feeling before itemising her immunity to the cold. Through this Schoenbrun seems to be asking us how we are affected by the ‘content’ we encounter. Are we genuinely offended, for instance, or has an offense response been triggered by observing the reactions of others? We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is about the very modern ways in which herd mentality is entertained, even groomed. A chronic insomniac, Casey watches an ASMR vlogger soothing her viewers to sleep. Suggestibility as comfort. The effectiveness of this ritual is thwarted when Casey receives a rather insidious overture in her video cycle.
Casey’s viewership is – and remains – relatively small. What’s her motivation for indulging in this premeditated descent? Like a number of ‘extremely online’ people, she uses self-documentation to feel connected to a world that seems increasingly fragmented. It is as though she is trying to purely digitise herself. A number of malcontent behaviours manifest. Casey seems exceedingly vulnerable and lonesome. Her indulgence of the World’s Fair challenge – choosing to live in a horror game or horror movie as opposed to the real world – is alarmingly fatalistic, and is understandably construed as a cry for help by obsessive viewer JLB (Michael J Rogers). The problem is that Casey’s video might be even more troubling than that. The film skirts the corners of possession horror, but approaches from some new angles at a decidedly subtle creep.
Among the choicely underplayed elements is Casey’s surprising lack of privacy. Her attic room doesn’t have a door. Following her out of the house we can see that the stairs down lead directly into the front hallway. Her dad is around… somewhere. If she objects to this then it’s not articulated within the movie. But, then, doesn’t she share most of her life – even her innermost – with her subscribers? Have our notions of privacy and its value been eroded by so many T&Cs and cookie requests?
Schoenbrun spices things up with an inventive body horror interlude but – like The Blair Witch Project – a lot more of World’s Fair is given over to the feathering of lore and rumour. Like Casey we get sucked down online video rabbit holes. Skits, computer games, origin stories, self-recorded kindred spirits… Schoenbrun splices a lo-fi third person perspective with the tropes and tics of found footage; watching… waiting…
Schoenbrun puts incredible faith in her young lead, proudly announcing this as her feature film debut. Such pride is earned. Cobb carries this thing admirably; be that speaking plainly and naturalistically to camera when Casey records video diaries or showcasing her dance skills in a scene that features one of the film’s most effective tonal lurches.
The most online a film has arguably yet managed to be; time will tell if We’re All Going to the World’s Fair becomes a cult capsule of right now or a genuine, bonafide genre classic. Either way, I imagine this one’ll be remembered.