We're all going to the World's Fair: a movie for fans of creepypasta

We’re all going to the World’s Fair: a movie for fans of creepypasta

The internet takes on a different structure when everyone around you has gone to sleep. The world behind the screen expands as the world outside contracts, becoming a portal to somewhere else. It’s Alice’s Looking-Glass via YouTube links. At strange hours, people’s attention is more easily drawn to the strange corners of the Internet, where it is possible to communicate, albeit indirectly, with the others who are also attracted to them.

In the enchanting of Jane Schoenbrun We’re all going to the World’s Fair, lonely teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) spends her time deep in one of those corners. After spending a lot of time watching videos of other people posting about the World’s Fair, an internet legend surrounding a secret rite of passage, she decides to join in herself. At the beginning of the film, she sits late at night in her attic bedroom, lit by the glow of her laptop screen. She follows every step of the ritual: she pricks her finger, smears the blood on the screen, plays a video and sings ‘I want to go to the World’s Fair’ three times. Then her journey begins – a journey she documents online, of course, as part of the process of telling a collective story.

According to legend, once a person participates in the World’s Fair Challenge, as it is called, it will begin to change in unpredictable and undefined ways. Some of their deepest fears and nightmares will become literal. The ritual is just the beginning of the game: participants are expected to keep posting videos and documenting any changes that take place. Eventually something terrible can happen. A man becomes an evil clown. Another finds a strange tumor on his arm. Casey wonders what could happen to her.

The majority of World Expo follows Casey as she shoots and watches videos on her descent down this enappropriate rabbit hole. It’s a very lonely movie – Casey doesn’t talk to anyone else in real life, nor does it ever share the frame with anyone. While most of the film unfolds from the perspective of webcams, it occasionally pulls back to show how empty the real spaces of the film are. Casey’s attic bedroom fades into the background, a claustrophobic, endless maw. Suburban decay marks its surroundings, with abandoned department stores carrying large boxes and dead sparse trees blanketing a gray landscape. One time we hear someone – presumably a parent – yelling at Casey to turn her volume down. It’s the only time anyone talks to her offline.

Internet-based horror of the sort We’re all going to the World’s Fair explores is based on connection. People who live their lives online are acutely aware of so many other people, so many other lives. The youthful desire of “Is this all there is?” suddenly has a concrete answer: no, it is not. There is so much more. At first, that discovery is exciting: there is so much on the internet, so many people and ideas, all better or more interesting than the ones you would otherwise spend your life with. It can also be terrifying when you consider that it may be possible to see too much.

As Casey posts her videos and the algorithm pulls her deeper into the World Expo community, someone named JLB (Michael L. Rogers) contacts her. JLB is a vlogger who doesn’t show his face – when he posts he has a stand-in illustration of a creep with a rictus grin. He reaches out to people who take the World’s Fair challenge on the understanding that his interests and conversations are strictly “in-game” – his modus operandi is to take the World’s Fair challenge very seriously and never break character, in the hope 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 are clear, unadorned recordings of normal behavior, quietly interrupted by something disturbing. Perhaps there is a supernatural element to the game, or perhaps all participants are simply acting to feel like they are part of a community, or to act out their own fantasies of change. In her debut performance, Cobb blurs reality so effortlessly that it becomes impossible to say in what way World Expo is going to land. Does she really dissociate and have out-of-body experiences, or is she driving herself crazy and using the World’s Fair to explain away feelings of depression or dysphoria? Is she really sleepwalking, or is she performing in front of the dozens of people who watch her videos? Is there something haunting her, or is she just growing up?

Covered in glow-in-the-dark face paint and with a stuffed animal's eyeball over her left eye, Casey stares ominously into her webcam in We're All Going to the World's Fair.

Image: Utopia

In the wee hours of the morning, when consciousness and sleep wage war on the minds of those lost in the infinite scroll, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between role-playing and real horror. The only consistent anchor is the familiar circular arrows of internet refresh, which automatically loads a new video for Casey to watch. Her aimless loading and scrolling fades with her aimless ramble through her hometown, and the longer she plays the online game, the harder it becomes to see how calculated her behavior is, whether she knows which parts of the story are real and which aren’t. or if she ever did.

We’re all going to the World’s Fair is a work of algorithm horror, presenting a world – our world – in which young people try to figure out who they are, while machines also keep an eye on them, trying to figure them out even faster. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm doesn’t know the difference between sincerity and irony, between propaganda and groundbreaking satire with different flavors. It’s just interested in getting people to watch. There is always another video ready to go. The algorithm is hard coded to assume that no one will ever find what they are 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 everyone can find a community, that the weirdness of activities like working anonymously 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 is not just a film about connecting, it is about becoming. It’s a powerful acknowledgment of how confusing and scary young adulthood can be. But it is also a film about hope. There is a name for the specific kind of alienation and confusion the characters feel. Perhaps, it suggests, people like Casey will find that name, despite the machine’s best efforts.

We’re all going to the World’s Fair now running in theaters, and coming to AppleVudu and other digital services on April 22.