We're All Going To The Worlds Fair

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

The internet is a place where things that are strange, stupid or both thrive like weeds.  In one corner you have TikTok, where members challenge themselves to do incredibly dangerous things like swallow a spoonful of cinnamon without drinking any water, punch unsuspecting people in the back of the head or construct a flamethrower from a lighter and an aerosol can.  In another corner there is the website Creepy Pasta, where the stories and videos of a fictional  being named the Slenderman influenced two teenage girls into murdering one of their friends.  (Luckily, she survived.)  We’re All Going to the World’s Fair considers what an intersection of those two worlds would look like, who would be interested in it, and what the ramifications would be.

The movie focuses on Casey (Anna Cobb), a lonely high school girl with no social life outside of the internet.  Her family consists only of her father, whom she avoids as soon as he comes home from work.  The only interaction between them in the entire movie is when he angrily yells at her for playing music at 3:00 AM in the morning.  Casey’s mother is never mentioned, and she substitutes her presence with a video of a woman lulling whomever is watching to go back to sleep.

Since her life is devoid of meaningful human contact (and love), it’s no surprise that Casey would be drawn to something like The World’s Fair Challenge.  In order to participate in the challenge, Casey must record herself performing an initiation ritual and posting it on the web.  First she introduces herself and thanks everyone for watching her channel.  After stating her intent to participate in the challenge, she repeats “I want to go to the world’s fair” three times.  She then holds a button with a skull image on it before the camera and proceeds to poke her finger with the pin repeatedly until it bleeds.  Casey displays her bloodied fingertip and smears blood across her laptop screen.  Finally, she then plays a video that reflects a sequence of colors on her face while ominous music plays.  Then the video ends and her laptop screen turns black.  Casey concludes the recording by thanking potential viewers for watching and promises to post updates if she experiences any changes.  As she studied her wounded finger hopefully, I wondered what changes she was referring to.

Based on the videos provided by others who have taken The World’s Fair Challenge, the changes that she anticipates will happen to her aren’t very interesting.  One guy who says he can’t feel his body, slaps his face while jogging on a treadmill.  A pretty girl in a video titled “I am turning into Plastic” smiles at herself in the mirror.  Another man who says how much he loved the character Stitch (from Lilo and Stitch) pulls a strip of admission tickets out of his arm.  The challenge is more or less an excuse for people to make silly videos of themselves being antisocial or dissociative.  Casey, who comes off as a thoughtful person, must know that the challenge is a fraud.  So the question is, why did she decide to participate in such a silly internet fad?

The answer comes in the form of another challenge participant who calls himself JLB (Michael J Rogers).  He reaches out to Casey directly with a video stating that she’s in trouble and that he needs to talk to her.  During their subsequent Skype call, JLB presents himself as an expert of the challenge, professing how he’s seen others who have changed in ways that Casey wouldn’t believe.  Being a novice to the challenge, Casey listens intently to JLB, but the awkward way he talks is unnerving.  At one point Casey hears sounds that seem to indicate JLB is pleasuring himself and hangs up.  The movie then shows JLB to be a balding, middle-aged man.  Welcome to the internet, Casey!  The internet, that wonderful place where creepy guys prey on young and innocent girls.

As the days pass and Casey realizes that she isn’t changing at all, she posts a series of videos bemoaning the chain store dullness of her suburb, of herself acting uncontrollably, her depression and finally her thoughts of killing her father or herself.  This alarms JLB, who insists on speaking with her.  At this point, I thought I knew where the movie would wind up.  However, to my surprise, World’s Fair takes a left turn that I wasn’t anticipating at all.

As a piece of filmmaking, The World’s Fair is another example of how to tell a story on a microbudget.  Using Paranormal Activity as her guide, writer-director Jane Schoenbrun captures most of the action through webcams, cell phone cameras and computer screens.  Unfortunately, Schoenbrun doesn’t bring the same level of showmanship as Oren Peli.  Even though the movie is only eighty-five minutes long, the characters are thinly developed and the plot dithers when it should be accelerating.  Scenes drag on long after the point has been made, particularly the challenge videos from the other participants, which quickly wear out their welcome.  (Except for The Plastic Girl.  I wonder what became of her?)  The pacing of The World’s Fair would challenge even the most fervent admirer of David Lynch.  I could forgive the movie for its pretentiousness and amateurishness if it took the time to tell a story that engaged at an emotional level.  As it stands, the movie is an interesting thesis statement rendered in bare-bones fashion.  Like most horror movies, The World’s Fair has ideas.  But perhaps due to budgetary constraints, it fails to fully explore them in a compelling and satisfying way.  While I admired the big risk the movie took in its final twenty minutes, it wasn’t enough to salvage the experience.  Regardless, I do believe that Schoenbrun and Cobb have bright futures, though.  Toss-up.


When it comes to watching movies, I’m very patient. I rarely turn off a movie after starting it, no matter how terrible it is. Every now and then a bad movie surprises me in the third act (see 2020’s The Hunt). Because of these rare instances, I resist giving up before a bad movie has the chance to offer something that made the preceding hour or two worthwhile. This was the case with The World’s Fair. For sixty-five of its eighty-five minute run time, the movie wears its micro budget aesthetic on its sleeve and doesn’t show much that could be described as scary. Unlike Paranormal Activity, its obvious source of inspiration, The World’s Fair has little in the way of showmanship that made the former so gripping and scary, and instead stitches together scenes that are amateurish and pretentious in varying degrees. Then, in the movie’s final twenty minutes, it took a huge risk that didn’t completely redeem the viewing experience for me, but it made me feel my patience had been rewarded, to a certain extent.

The setup of the movie is that Casey is drawn to the World’s Fair challenge, an internet game that is a TikTok infused with a Creepy Pasta narrative. Think of it as pledging your allegiance to Slenderman while swallowing a teaspoon of cinnamon; if you don’t gag, you get to meet him in person. Similarly, Casey willingly participates in the challenge because she wants to change. In actuality, she wants her life to change. As her videos make painfully clear, she has no friends and her family life is practically nonexistent. The only family member in her life is her father, who she actively avoids. Her mother is not in the picture at all, and at one point Casey substitutes her presence with a video of a young woman who lulls those watching back to sleep.

Since Casey’s life is completely devoid of meaningful relationships, she does what other desperate people have done: she looks to the internet as a solution to her problem. She sees the World’s Fair Challenge as a way to make contact with others who share her love of horror movies. Maybe participating in this bizarre game will result in the attention she craves. Everyone else is doing it. What harm could there be in playing along?

Casey completes the ritual but to her dismay, nothing about her changes. She’s still the same person she was before the ritual, which adds to her depression. To paraphrase Buckaroo Banzai, no matter what silly internet challenge you take, there you are. As Casey watched video after silly video of other participants saying and showing how the challenge changed them, I wondered why Casey was wasting her time on something that was so obviously fake. Then, as Casey’s videos took a dark turn, I realized that the cheesiness of those videos didn’t matter to her at all. She wasn’t looking for the challenge to turn her into a vampire, as she tells JLB during a Skype call. Casey was looking for an outlet for her depression. The videos from the other participants provided her with examples of how to act out on her feelings of anger and rage that she wouldn’t have had otherwise. Instead of spending her days alone and depressed, she makes videos of herself acting antisocial and dissociative and posts them to her channel. Hopefully, her videos will cause someone to take an interest in her. Perhaps her evidence of how the challenge has changed her will result in a meaningful connection in her life.

Much to Casey’s surprise, her videos attract the attention of JLB, another participant in the challenge. Like her, JLB is someone who lacks the social skills necessary to form meaningful connections in his life and has latched onto the challenge as a way to meet people. He is also interested in horror movies, the macabre and is artistically inclined, just like Casey. (JLB draws scary faces and uses one as his Skype avatar.) Aside from their very significant age gap, they are a perfect match. They are two social misfits whose only connection to the outside world is a fake game played by posers.

Initially, Casey is intrigued that someone actually watched her initial video and wants to help her. Their Skype call starts out fine, but then Casey abruptly hangs up when she suspects the noises she hears indicate he’s pleasuring himself during their conversation. (The movie never shows what he actually was doing.) Casey ignores the subsequent video messages he creates for her, but every video she publishes after that point seems directed at him. She knows that JLB is her sole admirer, and she begins performing only for him. She dances for him, does a tarot reading for him, looks directly at the camera and taunts him, symbolically destroys a toy from her childhood for him and finally confesses her darkest thoughts to him. The New Year’s Eve video where she states that she will either kill her father or herself is what drives JLB to connect with her again.

In their second Skype call, JLB cautions Casey about taking the challenge seriously, describing it as nothing more than a multiplayer role playing game. When he admits to considering calling the police about what she said on her last video, Casey becomes angry and defensive. She says that her videos were all an act, that she never intended to do anything she said. She hangs up and messages JLB to not call her again and accuses him of being a pedophile. JLB takes Casey’s reaction very hard, but doesn’t know what to do other than put his hand on his monitor screen.

After Casey cuts her connection to JLB, I really thought the movie was going into Unfriended territory. I anticipated videos showing her killing her father and then possibly killing herself, possibly just like that unfortunate young woman who life-streamed her own hanging. Then, with her soul now a permanent resident of the World’s Fair, she torments JLB from the beyond. This turn of events would mirror the plot trajectory of Paranormal Activity, with Katie eventually being possessed by the demon haunting her and killing Micah. But to her credit, writer-director Schoenbrun has more ambition than to copy from a movie she admires. Instead of offering standard horror movie shocks, she wants to make a statement about social media and the internet in general. Up to this point, everything Schoenbrun had said I’d heard before and agreed with. The World’s Fair ends on a note that I did not anticipate or expect, however.

As I watched and listened to JLB’s monologue about his in-person meeting with Casey, I finally understood what the movie was about. Casey ultimately did seek help and wanted to apologize to JLB for what she said to him. The two of them spend the afternoon together, eating lunch and walking around New York City, but they don’t know how to talk to each other. They are two painfully lonely and socially awkward people who managed to find each other via a silly internet fad. Instead of the movie ending with a predictably horrific conclusion, it introduces a feeling of optimism and hope. When Casey signed up for the challenge, she wanted to know if someone–anyone cared about her. The answer to her question turned out to be a creepy older guy who should not be making friends with teenage girls, but his genuine reaction to her videos convinced Casey to seek treatment for her depression. Casey and JLB’s relationship, similar to others where older men prey upon young girls and exploit their innocence, could have gone wrong in many different ways. In this one (fictional) instance, disaster was averted and everything ended as well as it possibly could have. Thankfully, the worst that I could imagine didn’t happen for once.

With all of this in mind, I can see how The World’s Fair would completely frustrate viewers. It clearly teases that it is a horror movie in the vein of Paranormal Activity and Unfriended, only to take an unexpected left turn at the end that reveals the entire story has been a commentary on social media all along. The payoff at the end of the movie probably will leave viewers feeling they had been tricked into seeing a different movie than the one being signaled for an hour. While I understand and can sympathize with that reaction, I have several follow-up questions to pose as a response. Would the movie ending in a way similar to what I had envisioned be better than the one we have? And if so, what does that say about us as viewers?

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