We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021, dir. Jane Schoenbrun) is a cerebral horror that follows a teenager named Casey (played by Anna Cobb) as she becomes engrossed within an internet horror role-play game, or an Augmented Reality Game (ARG), called the World’s Fair Challenge. As Casey begins playing this game and documents her experiences, another player by the name of JLB (played by Michael J. Rogers) contacts Casey in an attempt to guide her through the mostly established and accepted story of the World’s Fair Challenge spread online. However, as Casey’s videos become more gruesome, JLB begins to wonder how seriously the World’s Fair Challenge is affecting Casey’s mental health.
I have a lot of thoughts about this film, and for every positive there’s an equal negative to it as well. From the moment it begins, World’s Fair shows off its artistic voice with an aesthetically pleasing and atmospheric style. Many of the scenes are dark, taking place at night, or at least dusk. The lighting in each scene is usually one or two lamps, or even the sole glow of a computer screen, which makes the environment feel more intimate and the characters more alone, adding to the film’s dreadful tone. Along with this is an amazing score that transports the viewer back to the hipster film soundtracks of the 2010s. Honestly, there’s a lot working together within World’s Fair which transports the viewer back into what the internet was like in the 2010s, especially within internet horror communities.
Along with the film’s ability to build a fitting atmosphere, World’s Fair is great at building tension and contains some genuinely frightening moments. The opening sequence itself hooks and frightens the viewer effectively. The audience is thrown into the action as soon as the film begins and with Casey nervously performing the World’s Fair Challenge. Being introduced to the challenge by watching a girl with tears in her eyes performing it left me on the edge of my seat. There was no way to guess where the challenge was going nor what to expect. This opening is another element that works towards the film feeling like a love letter to 2010s internet horror, primarily CreepyPastas. The moment Casey began the World’s Fair Challenge I was reminded of ritual CreepyPastas I had read during middle school such as The Three Kings Ritual, The Midnight Game, and, the one that frightened me, 11 Miles. Another of my initial thoughts was that the World’s Fair Challenge might be similar to Running the Gauntlet – a carousel of disturbing, real gore videos online which are unskippable and get more depraved the deeper one goes, with the goal of reaching the Gauntlet’s final video. Side note, please don’t Run the Gauntlet for fun. You will have a happier existence if you stay away from this challenge because, while the videos used to be a lot worse, the videos within it are some of the worst actions and behaviors humanity has to offer. I promise, it’s not cute or a flex to have Run the Gauntlet.
As someone who spent a lot of unrestricted time online in my youth, I was able to immediately pick up on the theme this film had and the direction it might go from then on. But, what about those who don’t have this shared experience? What about those who, although horror enthusiasts, might have been, or are, too busy to experience internet horror and ARGs? Or, what about the casual horror fan? What about the fan who loves horror, but only watches movies and doesn’t participate in literature or communities? While World’s Fair has a plot that many resonate with and find true horror in, it is incredibly niche and difficult to understand without that prior engagement with internet horror. I might argue that without the prior understanding of what CreepyPastas or ARGs are, World’s Fair might feel boring, uneventful, and lackluster.
As much as the story engrossed me, I admit that I spent a large portion of the film feeling bored and waiting for something more to happen. Throughout its entirety, I was waiting to feel scared, uncomfortable, or unsafe; and while World’s Fair has its moments, the frightening and suspenseful aspects are few and far between. I don’t believe it helps that the World’s Fair Challenge is introduced to the audience as an Augmented Reality Game which clarifies that all effects of the challenge are fiction or role-play. Knowing that nothing is actually happening to Casey takes a lot of the danger out of the plot, at least for this viewer. What instead makes the viewer uncomfortable is the strange, uncertain relationship between Casey and JLB; and maybe that’s the point of their interactions. Overall, this lack of danger eventually leads to a decline in tension for the viewer – the long wait for something more to happen reminds me of the boy who cried wolf. While World’s Fair is great at building tension and suspense, one of its weaknesses is the trouble of maintaining the tension and danger involved. Too little happens to keep the audience on the edge of their seat or worried for Casey’s safety and the film’s conclusion doesn’t help with this much either as it’s fairly unsatisfying.
Likewise, I think for any audience members who don’t know what internet horror is or what it’s like, World’s Fair could come across as polarizing. It doesn’t give an opportunity for anyone new to understand what’s happening in the film; and even as someone who once participated in internet horror, I found myself confused and disappointed. There’s no explanation for what’s happening in the film, and for those who are unfamiliar with internet horror I can understand them feeling entirely lost and potentially angry out of confusion. An audience who is unfamiliar with this online community may be waiting through the whole film for something paranormal to happen due to the World’s Fair Challenge, only to be reminded that it’s just a fake game and the only real horror is how seriously Casey took it. For someone who might think they’re getting a traditional horror movie, I can understand how World’s Fair might set up those expectations only to disappoint. For example, the synopsis of the film on Amazon states, “Alone in her attic bedroom, teenager Casey becomes immersed in an online role-playing horror game, wherein she begins to document the changes that may or may not be happening to her.” When one hears that the character will be undergoing “changes,” they might have something drastic and physical in mind – but much of Casey’s “changes” are mundane and hardly noticeable. Also, although these changes might feel real to Casey, they feel obviously fake and as if she knows she’s role-playing to the audience – especially because it was already established with the audience that nothing would be real. Honestly, I found myself more surprised that Casey acted shocked at being told the World’s Fair is just a game, when there have been several pieces of evidence throughout to establish the challenge being a game. Again, the real horror of the film is merely how real the challenge is to Casey, not anything that’s truly happening to her.
I can see this being a film that a large, general horror audience might hate because it’s made for such a small, specific group of people. However, I’m not saying there should be no horror films that are made for specific, niche audiences – those are the films that typically end up becoming my favorite and I love the inventiveness behind them. Rather, I’m just including an argument for how this film will not speak to nor scare everyone who likes horror due to its very specific nature.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair – C Tier
I could see myself rewatching this film in the future, despite feeling more bored than anything else during my viewing. I believe this is a film where the more it's watched the more can be understood – for example, on my second watch I paused on a screen that looks at JLB’s computer screen and the various notes he has on his desktop. Reading over these notes helps to paint a broader picture of who JLB is and why he cares so much, but the notes might be easily glazed over on the initial viewing. Because of this, the film has also garnered a large online fanbase filled with people who have thoughtful interpretations and theories on what the film is saying. My largest complaint with World's Fair is that the beginning was promising and genuinely succeeded in being a horrifying depiction of unrestricted internet access, but once the audience is hooked the chain of events feel as if they move slower and slower until the semi-unsatisfactory end. I like the story a lot, but I feel as if it might succeed more as a written piece rather than a film. The psychological changes happening to Casey are very difficult to make clear in a video format, however if We’re All Going to the World’s Fair were a novel I believe it could be terrifying and Casey’s changes would be more apparent, or frightening, to the audience. I think it could also make for a deep and experimental piece of horror literature, similar to House of Leaves.
I am curious to know others’ thoughts on if World’s Fair is too niche to satisfy a general horror audience or not. I believe that while there’s nothing wrong with addressing a small niche audience (in fact, I believe there should be more films like this), there should be an expectation that a majority of people will hate it and/or not understand it. Even as a person who grew up with internet horror and gore, it was difficult for me to get on board with the way World’s Fair was executed.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is available to stream through Max and is available to rent through Amazon Prime Video