‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ Dives Deep Into the Wormhole of Identity for Sad Scares

It is oddly fitting that Jane Schoenbrun’s “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” includes its ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) credits, done by Slight Sounds, in the opening sequence. This isn’t a straightforward horror movie and Alex G’s score of calming ambient sounds is a cloak to far more cutting daggers of the mind. The film opens squarely and intimately on internet-obsessed teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) as she prepares to immerse herself into the “World’s Fair Challenge,” nakedly desperate to be understood. She is alone, directly acknowledging a camera aimed so close to her face. Under such a microscope, it would appear Cobb can channel every single emotion she even thinks she feels directly into the lens, and the mind of the viewer. 

The title refers to the online role-playing horror game loading up on Casey’s computer. There are online urban legends warning anyone who attempts to play will experience physical and psychological changes once they commit to a game. Unlike the skull-breaker challenge, the only collateral damage incurred from booking a virtual trip to the World’s Fair is seemingly self-inflicted. The players document the physical effects of the challenge, very often breaching David Cronenberg levels of body horrors. 

Casey lives on the internet, inside her attic bedroom, desperate to connect with anything outside her firewalls. She obsesses over the videos of the other participants, which are interspersed onto view to augment the sensation of falling down a rabbit-hole. Like the best of Creepypasta, the game’s progress is vaguely unverifiable. Casey doesn’t know whether the events on the video response screens are truly happening in-game or if the participants are overcompensating for points. One player internalizes Tetris to a geometrically astonishing degree. The Plastic Girl (Holly Anne Frink) posts a video showing how good it feels. It culminates in a video of a man unsettlingly reaching into the folds of his metamorphosed flesh and pulling out a string of tickets to the world’s fair.

Casey practices her introduction before she begins the ritual to gain entry. She stabs her finger repeatedly with a dull and rusty pin from a button, wiping the blood onto her computer monitor as she recites the phrase “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times, like the “Bloody Mary” mirror game. This opening scene continues unblinkingly for eight minutes before the damage is done. On the surface, it appears Casey only wants to know if the “World’s Fair challenge” is legit. Beneath is a full commitment to a desired delusion. The ambient noise, however, signals cues about forced perceptions masquerading as reality.

The descent into the challenge is a metaphor for gender dysmorphia, and Casey has been aware of a disconnect in her identity since her earliest childhood waking nightmares. “It was like watching myself on a TV all the way across the room,” she streams to her viewers. “I was aware of my actions, but I couldn’t control myself.” We are rooting for her to lose that control long before she finds her father’s gun hidden in a barn, or live streams New Year’s celebrations like they are active crime scenes. Some monsters are real, like losing your mind to a game or blurring boundaries between players.

The title, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” implies group activity, further distancing Casey’s lonesome reality. In the whole world wide web, she only has herself. Cobb, “in her feature film debut,” as the credits herald, exudes loneliness. It is easy to believe the only friend Casey has ever had is the stuffed animal “Poe,” which she got when she was five days old. Casey is looking for a connection online, because she has an unhappy and disconnected home life. She has no friends and no parental supervision. Her father is never seen on camera, and only heard once, telling her to turn down her laptop at 3 in the morning. She is invisible, even her videos only get a few views.

But someone is watching. “YOU ARE IN TROUBLE. I NEED TO TALK TO YOU.,” reads a message from a World’s Fair obsessive who calls himself “JLB” (Michael J. Rogers). He is a much older man, apparently also living an isolated existence. Casey never knows his name and only sees a sketchy avatar on a Skype screen. He employs ASMR triggers as well as grooming techniques, but his motivations are discomfitingly ambiguous. Did he lose a child to a QAnon group, or is there another reason he wants Casey to continue posting videos? As her videos become more disturbing, JLB is more encouraging. He is the only person in the film Casey speaks to directly. It is jarring when he takes over narration. 

We spend the most of the film with Casey, but never know details. Instead, we get Cobb’s riveting performance. Whether Casey is putting a bloodcurdling spin on “dance like nobody’s watching” or ritualistically moving on from childhood in glow-in-the-dark paint. The audience is positioned as the screen she’s looking at, silent witnesses to her lonely journey. The soundtrack by Alex G finds the space between the notes. It presents an ambiguous atmosphere of loss, yet grounds every scene in suspense. 

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is far more sad than frightening. At one point in the film, Casey admits she “loves horror movies and always wanted to live in one,” but the seemingly endless Creepypasta wormhole she calls home only offers creatures comfort. Her mind is a strobing, seizure-inducing YouTube clip which buffers endlessly.  Schoenbrun understands internet culture. Their 2018 documentary, “A Self-Induced Hallucination,” expertly explained the Slender Man phenomenon by example. Existence is loneliness and the only respite is the occasional ASMR video that gets under the skin. 

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” releases April 15 in select theaters.