Back in the era of Myspace, before transitioning into forums, I used to participate in roleplay (rp) online. From the ages of 14-17, I was immersed in these online communities centered around mythologies, fandom property (think Harry Potter or “True Blood“), or a completely original story. Creating characters and scenarios we would act out in writing, there were (at least on the forums) strict rules regarding boundaries, particularly in-game (IG) or out of game (OOG). However, there were always participants who either invested too much in the game or there were those, usually older, who pushed younger participants’ boundaries, blurring the lines between IG/OOG and taking advantage. These seem to be some of the horrors explored in Jane Schoenbrun‘s WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR with great success.
The story of WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR is centered around the teenage Casey (Anna Cobb), who spends most of their time on the internet inside their attic bedroom. They come across as awkward and, over the course of the film, we see that there’s an unspoken need from them to connect with others. We see this manifest in their decision to take on the World’s Fair Challenge, an online role-playing horror game, where participants are rumored to experience physical and psychological changes once they start to play. The more active, the more likely these participants may experience these changes. After Casey initiates themselves into the game, they start documenting any and all changes that might be happening. As reality begins to merge, JLB (Michael J. Rogers), a more senior player, reaches out to her, with concerns and words highlighting the special nature of Casey’s videos. However, whether or not his intentions are pure, is left for the viewer to decide.
For anyone who has grown up with the rise of social media and the explosion of daily internet usage, Casey’s story may feel familiar. Reminding of the tales from Creepypasta, WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR subtly weaves and escalates the horror into something else. The way the story is structured, it’s like peeling back an onion’s layers to decipher whether or not what is truly happening in-game in the World’s Fair Challenge. Knowing how serious some participants can get in wanting to be included, that’s a whole other horror dissection within itself. However, the changes that Casey exhibits onscreen within their personality are enough to make anyone step back. And, as JLB pushes her to keep making more videos, there is a concern about how close is too close for comfort between this teenager and this much older man.
There’s also a supernatural element hinted at that blurs the lines of whether or not JLB is truly trying to keep Casey safe. Videos of other participants are interspersed throughout the course of WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR, with some committing acts of bodily harm. In one scene, the audience gets a more overt hint that something else might be up with this challenge that no one else has cracked yet. These elements have the impact of making us question if Casey’s psychological changes and mood swings, later on, are a result of the game itself or her wanting to belong. The audience doesn’t quite get, at least from my interpretation, a definitive conclusion as to whether or not it’s the game itself or Casey that has resulted in the film’s end. The unreliable narrator approach is applied to both Casey and JLB, which makes for a questionably open-ending in a way due to the elements introduced in the plot earlier on.
WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR is subtly horrifying, but might not be overly horrific enough for some horror genre fans. This isn’t an internet-based horror film with monsters coming at you ala Host. However, anyone who has operated in forums, especially horror or reality-blurring RPG games, can tell you that the horror featured in this film is frightfully real. From the over-investment in a game to the blurring of boundaries between participants, there’s still a lot left unchecked online. This feature debut from Jane Schoenbrun perfectly captures this slice of the Creepypasta/RPG community in a lo-fi fashion. And, if people got the opportunity to view the film in the future, I imagine the film and its ending will open many discussions.
As a general warning, there are moments of flashing strobe effect that takes place toward the beginning of the film for about a minute or so. For anyone sensitive, just be cautious.
WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR had its world premiere on January 31st at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.