Tag Archives: Jane Schoenbrun

The Universal Unease of ‘We’re All Going To the World’s Fair’

Growing up in the age of the internet brings an entirely new set of challenges for young people. At first touted as a way to stay more connected with people across the globe, many who spend their free time perpetually online feel more isolated than ever before. One film that captures this feeling perfectly is the 2021 hidden gem, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun (I Saw the TV Glow), We’re All Going to the World’s Fair follows one young woman’s struggle to find human connection through an online horror roleplaying game (or RPG). 

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The film begins by introducing us to Casey (Anna Cobb). Casey is a teenage girl living with her absentee dad in a small, rundown town. Shown primarily through her computer screen, it’s clear this teen has no one. Her dad is never around, and even when he is she hides from him, implying possible abuse. There don’t seem to be many peers around Casey’s age for her to spend time with either. This leads Casey to the “World’s Fair Challenge” online. To participate in the viral horror RPG, Casey must say “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times, prick her finger and wipe the blood on her computer screen, then watch a short video. From there, participants continue to make videos to show any “changes” they might experience as a result of the game. 

This game may seem innocent enough, but there are underlying dangers. For most, the game and the videos they post about strange physical and mental changes are just make believe. It’s a fun way to interact with other horror fans playing the game. It’s also a creative outlet for people to make their own little horror videos, some even using CGI and/or makeup effects. Early on in Casey’s game play, she watches other player’s videos to get inspiration for the changes she should be experiencing. After watching a video of one man saying he can’t physically feel anything anymore, Casey makes a video that begins by discussing how she used to sleepwalk as a kid, and it seems to be happening again since playing the game. Before ending the video, she notes how cold it should be outside, yet she doesn’t feel a thing. At this point, it seems Casey is still viewing this as a game. That changes when she sees a video made by a man who goes by JLB (Michael J. Rogers).

Instead of reaching out to Casey directly, JLB makes a disturbing video directed at Casey saying she’s in danger and he needs to speak with her. The only image in the video is Casey’s face from one of her previous posts, but it’s altered to slowly morph and melt in a frightening way. The two finally connect and talk over Skype, but JLB never shows his face. Casey expresses she isn’t great at talking to people, and JLB wastes no time in asserting his dominance. He touts himself as an expert of the game and the lore that surrounds it. He claims this knowledge is why he is convinced Casey could be in danger, and he encourages her to keep making videos so he can make sure she’s okay. While this sounds innocent enough, JLB continues to make videos about Casey, draws her face, and generally seems to be obsessed with her in a way no adult man should be towards a teenager. 

While at first Casey seems to be well aware she is playing an RPG, after her talk with JLB, things change. Casey keeps making videos, but they become increasingly bizarre and concerning. She dances around her room before having an unexpected screaming fit; she goes to a cemetery and pretends she’s giving a tour of her high school; she talks about disappearing, and talks about her dad’s gun. Casey even rips apart the stuffed lemur she’s had since she was a baby, mourning the toy as though she wasn’t the one who did the damage. Some of her videos seem to be targeted directly at JLB, including one where she appears to awaken in the middle of the night, crawl to the camera, and say, “I see you there even if you won’t show your face. You can’t stop me.” In another video seemingly directed at JLB, Casey does a tarot reading for “whoever is watching” that says the person must be lonely, mentally ill, tries to deceive people, and acts like they know everything. With each video, Casey is more and more detached from reality and on a path that will either result in Casey murdering her father or killing herself. 

Casey has one final Skype call with JLB. While his motives are still unclear, he does express genuine concern for Casey after her recent videos. He asks if they can speak “out of game,” a term Casey is unfamiliar with. He tries to find out if Casey understands the “World’s Fair” is just a game, that the videos and conversations they’ve had in the past were part of the game, and now they’re speaking out of game because he’s worried. JLB goes so far as to mention he’s thought about calling the police to do a wellness check, but he wasn’t sure where she lived. This flips a switch in Casey. She immediately gets defensive, saying JLB is dumb for thinking she believed the game was real and emphasizing her videos are fake before disconnecting the call. Shortly after, she sends JLB a message saying to never contact her again and calling him a pedophile. Casey never posts another video after this incident, and while JLB tells the audience a story about talking to and meeting Casey in person a year later, his story sounds more like a fairy tale.

One of the stronger aspects of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is how universal the story is. It’s told from Casey’s perspective, who is referred to with she/her pronouns. Her experience is one young women, men, and nonbinary teens can all relate to. Being a teenager is a nightmare, but being that age while also feeling alone, anxious, and depressed can lead down a dark path. Combine these feelings with the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the results can be explosive. 

For Casey, what began as a way to feel connected to other people soon becomes sinister as she starts to believe the game is real. The horror RPG interferes with her mental health struggles, increasingly blurring the lines until Casey can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction. This is especially apparent when she so casually makes videos about using her dad’s gun, either on him or herself. It isn’t until the potential threat of a police intervention that she snaps back to reality. However, we never learn the truth of what happened to Casey after her last call with JLB, so there’s no way to be certain she ever fully came out of the game. 

Casey also appears to use the game as a way to process her feelings about growing up. In her earlier videos, Casey is very much attached to her childhood. She includes her stuffed lemur in her first video, then mentions her childhood sleepwalking in the second. The deeper she gets into the game, the more this other persona tries to move away from those childish things. Casey speaks more confidently in those videos. She also spends time in the cemetery (most children struggle with the idea of death) and more. 

Yet, Casey often reverts back to a childlike mentality. After a supposed bout of sleepwalking, she watches an ASMR video to soothe herself, the woman in the video sounding very much like a mother calming a child after a nightmare. The most evident example of this is when Casey rips up her favorite stuffed animal. She’s making another video, covering her face in toothpaste to glow under the blacklight of her attic bedroom. After making some very unsettling looks and movements at the camera, Casey violently rips the stuffed lemur to pieces, going so far as to bite out some of the stuffing with her teeth. This moment feels like an act of defiance, letting the world know she’s not a kid anymore by destroying the one thing she still has from that time of her life. Yet her immediate regret only proves that she’s not quite ready to grow up.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a brilliant coming-of-age story that fits in the Uterus Horror subgenre and beyond. The more universal themes of growing up allow a broader audience to connect with the film’s ideas. What’s more, the film is a great example of Uterus Horror not only being a genre about young women, but a wider group of individuals. Much has been written about the ability of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair to evoke and explore feelings of gender dysphoria. For those looking to explore that analysis, I highly recommend reading the article and interview with filmmaker Schoenbrun in THEM, in which the themes of gender dysphoria are more deeply examined.

Ultimately, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is fairly light on horror, relying more on real-life terrors to emphasize the character’s sense of isolation. Viewers who were perpetually online in their youth will certainly have a deeper understanding of the film’s message. It’s a grounded, powerful piece of cinema that speaks to the importance of mental health issues, the potential dangers of the internet, and the struggles of growing up and discovering who you are.