The internet takes on a different texture once everyone around you has gone to sleep. The world behind the screen expands while the world outside contracts, becoming a portal to another place. It’s Alice’s Looking-Glass via YouTube links. At odd times, people’s attention is more easily drawn to the odder corners of the internet where it’s possible to converse, albeit indirectly, with the others who are also attracted to them.
In Jane Schoenbrun’s Mesmerizing We’re all going to the World’s FairHer lonely teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) spends her time deep in one of those corners. After watching lengthy videos of other people posting about the World’s Fair, an online urban legend wrapped around a secret rite of passage, she decides to get involved herself. At the beginning of the film, she is sitting in her attic bedroom late at night, lit by the glow of her laptop screen. She follows each step of the ritual: pricking her finger, smearing the blood on the screen, playing a video and shouting “I want to go to the World Fair” three times. Then her journey begins – a journey that she documents online, of course, as part of the process of telling a collective story.
Legend has it that once someone takes part in what is known as the World’s Fair Challenge, they change in unpredictable and undefined ways. Something out of their deepest fears and nightmares becomes literal. The ritual is just the beginning of the game: Participants should continue to post videos and document what changes are taking place. After all, something terrible could happen. A man becomes an evil clown. Another finds a strange growth on his arm. Casey wonders what could happen to her.
The majority of world exhibition follows Casey as she makes and watches videos of her descent down that creepypasta rabbit hole. It’s a very lonely movie – Casey doesn’t talk to another person in real life, nor does she ever share the picture with anyone else. While most of the film unfolds from the perspective of webcams, it occasionally pulls back to show how empty the film’s real spaces are. Casey’s attic bedroom recedes into the background, a claustrophobic, endless maw. The decay of the suburbs shapes their surroundings, with abandoned department stores and dead, sparse rows of trees punctuating a gray landscape. Once we hear someone – presumably a parent – yelling at Casey to turn down her volume. It’s the only time anyone speaks to her offline.
Internet-bred horror of this kind We’re all going to the World’s Fair explores is based on connection. People who live their lives online are very aware of so many other people, so many other lives. The youthful longing for “Is that all?” suddenly has a concrete answer: No, it’s not. There is so much more. This discovery is exciting at first: it exists so much to 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 frightening when you stop thinking that maybe you can 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 one vlogger who doesn’t show his face — whenever he posts, he has a backup illustration of a ghoul with a Rictus grin. He addresses people who accept the challenge of the World’s Fair with the understanding that his interests and conversations are solely “in play” – his modus operandi is to take the challenge of the World’s Fair very seriously without breaking his character, hoping that he and the people he speaks to “get scared together.”
JLB appreciates Casey’s approach to the World’s Fair challenge as her videos capture the true horror of creepypasta. They’re simple, no-frills records of normal behavior, punctuated quietly by something exciting. Maybe there is a supernatural element at play, maybe everyone involved is just acting to feel part of a community or maybe to live out their own fantasies of change. In her debut performance, Cobb blurs reality so effortlessly that it’s impossible to tell which way world exhibition will land. Is she really dissociating and having OBEs, or is she freaking out and using the World’s Fair to explain away feelings of depression or dysphoria? Is she really sleepwalking or is she giving a performance for the dozens of people who watch her videos? Is she chasing something or is she just growing up?
In the early hours of the morning, when consciousness and sleep battle for 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 internet refresh circular arrows, which automatically load 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 becomes to tell 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 algorithmic horror that presents a world – our world – in which young people are trying to figure out who they are, while machines are also watching them and trying to figure them out even faster. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm doesn’t know the difference between sincerity and irony, between propaganda and explosive satire of different tastes. It’s only interested in people-watching. There is always another video ready. The algorithm is hard-coded to assume that no one will ever find what they are looking for.
That’s 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 space. Schoenbrun suggests that within this range of collective expression, people can choose who and what they want to be. We’re all going to the World’s Fair is not just a film about connecting, it’s about becoming. It’s a powerful affirmation of how confusing and scary young adult life can be. But it’s also a film about hope. There is a name for the specific kind of alienation and confusion felt by its characters. Maybe people like Casey will find that name, despite the machine’s best efforts.
We’re all going to the World’s Fair is now playing in the theaters and coming to AppleVudu and other digital services on April 22
https://www.polygon.com/23027388/were-all-going-to-the-worlds-fair-review We’re All Going to the World’s Fair Review: Horror for Internet Junkies