The internet takes on a different texture once everyone around you has gone to sleep. The world behind the screen expands as the world outside it contracts, becoming a portal to somewhere else. It’s Alice’s Looking-Glass by way of YouTube links. At strange hours, people’s attention is more easily drawn to the internet’s stranger corners, where it’s possible to commune, however indirectly, with the others who are drawn to them too.
In Jane Schoenbrun’s mesmerizing We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, lonely teen Casey (Anna Cobb) spends her time deep in one of those corners. After a long spell of watching videos of other people posting about the World’s Fair, an internet urban legend wrapped around a secret rite of passage, she decides to join in herself. At the start of the film, she sits in her attic bedroom late at night, illuminated by the glow of her laptop screen. She follows each step of the ritual: She pricks her finger, smears the blood on the screen, plays a video, and chants “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times. Then her journey begins — a journey she naturally documents online, as part of the process of telling a collective story.
According to the legend, once someone participates in the World’s Fair Challenge, as it’s called, they’ll start to change in unpredictable and undefined ways. Something from their deepest fears and nightmares will become literal. The ritual is just the start of the game: Participants are supposed to continue posting videos, documenting whatever changes take place. Eventually, something horrifying might happen. One man becomes an evil clown. Another finds a strange growth on his arm. Casey wonders what might happen to her.
The majority of World’s Fair follows Casey as she makes and watches videos in her descent down this creepypasta rabbit hole. It’s a very solitary film — Casey doesn’t talk to another person in real life, nor does she ever share the frame with one. While most of the film unfolds from the perspective of webcams, it occasionally pulls back to show how empty the film’s real-world spaces are. Casey’s attic bedroom recedes into the background, a claustrophobic, endless maw. Suburban decay marks her surroundings, with abandoned big-box department stores and dead, sparse treelines dotting a gray landscape. Once, we hear someone — presumably a parent — yell at Casey to turn her volume down. It’s the only time someone talks to her offline.
Internet-borne horror of the sort We’re All Going to the World’s Fair explores is predicated on connection. People who live their lives online are acutely aware of so many other people, so many other lives. The youthful yearning of “Is this all there is?” suddenly has a concrete answer: no, it isn’t. There is so much more. At first, that discovery is thrilling: There is so much to the internet, so many people and ideas, all of them better or more interesting than the ones you would otherwise spend your life around. It can also be terrifying, if you stop to think that maybe it’s possible to see too much.
As Casey posts her videos and lets the algorithm pull her deeper into the World’s Fair community, someone named JLB (Michael L. Rogers) contacts her. JLB is a vlogger who doesn’t show his face — whenever he posts, he has a stand-in illustration of a ghoul with a rictus grin. He reaches out to people taking the World’s Fair challenge, with the understanding that his interests and conversation are strictly “in-game” — his modus operandi is to take the World’s Fair challenge very seriously, never breaking character, in the hopes that he and the people he talks to “get scared together.”
JLB appreciates Casey’s approach to the World’s Fair challenge, as her videos take on the vérité horror of creepypasta. They’re plain, unadorned recordings of normal behavior, quietly interrupted by something upsetting. Maybe there’s a supernatural element at play, or maybe all the participants are just acting, in order to feel like they’re part of a community, or possibly to live out their own fantasies of change. In her debut performance, Cobb blurs the reality so effortlessly that it becomes impossible to tell which way World’s Fair is going to land. Is she really dissociating and having out-of-body experiences, or is she psyching herself out and using the World’s Fair to explain away feelings of depression or dysphoria? Is she really sleepwalking, or giving a performance for the several dozen people who watch her videos? Is something haunting her, or is she just growing up?
In the wee hours of the morning, when consciousness and sleep war over the minds of those lost in the infinite scroll, it gets hard to tell the difference between role-play and genuine horror. The only consistent anchor is the familiar circular arrows of the internet refreshing, automatically loading up another video for Casey to watch. Her aimless loading and scrolling blurs with her aimless wandering around her hometown, and the longer she plays the online game, the harder it gets to tell how calculated her behavior is, whether she knows which parts of the story are real and which aren’t, or whether she ever did.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a work of algorithm-horror, presenting a world — our world — where young people are trying to figure out who they are while machines also watch them, trying to figure them out even faster. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm doesn’t know the difference between sincerity and irony, between propaganda and boundary-pushing satire of varying tastes. It’s just interested in keeping people watching. There’s always another video ready to go. The algorithm is hard-coded to presume that no one will ever find what they’re looking for.
This is the real horror of trying to figure out who you are by being online. The hope of the internet is that everybody can find community, that the strangeness of activities like anonymously working to scare each other online can create a safe, creative place. Schoenbrun suggests that within that range of collective expression, people can decide who and what they want to be. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair isn’t just a movie about connecting, it’s about becoming. It’s a powerful acknowledgement of how confounding and frightening young adulthood can be. But it’s also a film about hope. There’s a name for the specific kind of alienation and confusion its characters are feeling. Maybe, it suggests, people like Casey will find that name, in spite of the machine’s best efforts.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is now playing in theaters, and coming to Apple, Vudu, and other digital services on April 22.