The Cathode Ray Mission: We’re All Going to the World’s Fair and the Age of Loneliness
The internet is an alien place, one whose customs and languages are borderline impenetrable to those who have not internalized them. As someone who was born on the border of the new millennium and has spent his whole life surrounded by video games, social media, television, and other intrusions of technological life, I still find myself frequently out of my depth in the face of certain online trends and cultures (not to go full boomer or anything, but everything about TikTok is basically incomprehensible to me). This is largely fine, not everything is for everyone, and it’s perfectly logical for an entity as all-encompassing and nebulous as the internet to birth unfamiliar subcultures. With this multitude of environments, however, comes an atomization, an all-too-pervasive feeling of loneliness, smallness in the face of such a large world, a feeling that could be related to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s idea of the postmodern sublime. Amid the wash of information, any sense of personal identity becomes overwhelmed, rendering real communication between individuals impossible, always performed under the pretext of codes and games that exist to navigate the great flood of information. It’s in these games that Jane Schoenbrun’s new film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair takes place.
The marketing of World’s Fair presents it in a lineage of internet-based found-footage horror films that have seen an emergence over the past decade or so. Stylistically and conceptually speaking, it makes sense: the story follows an adolescent girl named Casey (Anna Cobb in her acting debut) as she takes part in an online ARG/creepypasta game called the World’s Fair Challenge, which supposedly causes people to physically transform and lose their minds. Casey documents the ongoing aftermath of the challenge in a series of videos uploaded to Youtube, and eventually gets the interest of an older man who goes by JLB (Michael Rogers) and postures as a sort of expert on the World’s Fair and its effects. The film is presented as a mixture of “third-person” cinematography (long, static takes of Casey often meant to mimic the positioning of a webcam or camcorder setup) and direct recordings (Skype windows, Youtube videos, desktop displays, etc.). The mediation of reality through the internet is reflected in the film’s frequent mediation across different screens: a recurring aesthetic decision is to have one shot composed by the camera itself, and within that composition is a screen composing another shot. It’s frames within frames, but at it’s most complex it’s two separate shots occupying the same frame, a visual effect similar to the diffusion of reality that the internet causes. Despite its aesthetic similarities, World’s Fair is minimally dependent on horror elements; smuggled beneath the creepy surfaces is a coming-of-age story depicting a particular kind of estrangement and loneliness that finds both its origins and greatest representations in the internet’s particular kind of alienation.
First and foremost, there is a certain fidelity to the way Schoenbrun depicts the experience of being online here that comes across as unsettlingly genuine and instantly recognizable to anyone with a passing familiarity with some of the internet’s more popular examples of communal horror metafiction, like the SCP foundation and Slender Man. The World’s Fair challenge has created its own community, where we have people taking the challenge and record the consequences, supposed guides on the World’s Fair like JLB, and even a brief segment of an overproduced, Machinima-esque video series dramatizing the World’s Fair. The film captures the feeling of turning on Youtube and letting the autoplay lead you into strange and confusing territories, videos of people who say their skin is turning into plastic and pulling carnival tickets out from under growths on their skin with maybe a couple hundred views on them, functionally made for nobody but the enthusiasts. There’s a strange perverseness to these sections, a feeling of watching something private or embarrassing despite it being on a public platform. Casey’s work is no exception: the start of the film sees her greeting her Youtube audience and undertaking the challenge, where she repeats the phrase “I want to go to the world’s fair” three times, pricks her finger, wipes the blood on her screen, and watches a video of irregular flashing colors. The film continues to return to, and after a certain point becomes largely composed of, these videos Casey is making to document her “transformation,” which grow increasingly upsetting, starting with her attempts to record herself sleeping and eventually leading to explicit threats to kill her father and herself (a threat made chillingly real by an earlier scene where Casey finds a gun hidden away in the shed).
The attempted intervention of JLB in Casey’s project occurs in this scene with the gun, and brings with it its own charged implications. There is inherently a tension to this unfamiliar grown man making direct contact and communicating with a child online, a tension Schoenbrun pushes ever further with their Skype calls, where Casey expresses this apparently real fear at what’s happening to her and JLB has to act as a supportive presence, a guiding hand. There’s a much bleaker, more predictable and less interesting version of this film where our worst fears are realized, and JLB is behaving with predatory intentions towards Casey, but Schoenbrun resists that temptation even as it grows so close to actualizing. Instead, they largely supplant Casey’s perspective in the narrative with JLB’s, and thus the audience perspective aligns more with his, and his actions appear to us far less predatorily and more out of a sense of increasing concern for Casey’s well-being (whether this is because of the POV shift or is honestly the intentions of JLB is left unclear, but there’s more evidence provided in the text that he is doesn’t harbor harmful intentions towards her). As we see more of Casey’s videos, the implication is that JLB is also watching them, and the picture of Casey grows more and more erratic and troublesome, to the point that it begins to overwhelmingly feel like a child expressing suicidal, antisocial urges. The authenticity of Cobb’s performance (genuinely an outstanding debut) and Schoenbrun’s direction instill a truly deep dread in these moments, of total voyeurism both in the witnessing of private vulnerabilities but even moreso in the helplessness to do anything about them.
The film turns unpredictable and far more complicated when JLB eventually does try to pierce the veil. He drops the act, no longer playing as the mysterious guide to online phenomena he once was and instead assumes the role of a genuinely concerned adult. He asks her very earnestly to not kill herself, outside of the “game” as he puts it, and tells her that he grew so worried about her mental condition he almost called the cops; Casey takes great offense to this. She, too, has been acting—all the “symptoms,” everything in the film that she’s supposedly been experiencing and recording were parts of the game. Of course it’s not real, it’s a silly online horror game that enterprising kids can take part in to scare each other, but there’s a generational difference in vocabulary between her and JLB; for him the online language has limits, and his limits are reached when he’s unable to determine if she is actually threatening harm to herself, when he stops recognizing the performance as such, but this is the world that she grew up in, there is nothing that is off limits in her expression. She tells him Casey isn’t even her real name, to never call her again, and calls him a pedophile before hanging up.
Much of the film serves to depict the oppressive loneliness of Casey’s life, one without any real social interaction or warmth, but depressed teenagers are not the only ones online to feel this solitude. JLB is clearly very lonely as well, even as he appears to have a wife or partner of some sort that he lives with, and tries to take part in a community where he finds value. But he can’t keep up, he misunderstands the codes. What he tries to express as earnest care is miscommunicated in a culture that relies on performative distance, and so he breaks the seemingly one, unspoken rule that Casey (and presumably her milieu) obeys, which is to not get real. His own misunderstanding is one shared by the audience (at least, by me lol), where in watching the film it’s unclear if what we’re seeing Casey do is some real result of a mysterious online disease, a cry for help from a troubled kid, or all just an act. The first one is pretty conclusively rebuked, but the latter two are practically indistinguishable from each other, something confirmed by the film’s epilogue. JLB sits at his computer, dictating a voice recording, where he describes him and Casey reconciling with each other and mentions that she spent time in a mental health facility after their last conversation. He explains that after she recovered they met in person for the first time and apologized to each other, almost breaking into tears when he says that they hugged goodbye and that she was a real person that he could touch. There’s an obvious icky read one could make on this line, and perhaps the ambiguity the film heavily relies on with regard to JLB makes these alternative readings intentional, but I think they would be uncharitable and kind of miss the point in their interpretation. This is ultimately a very moving and hopeful ending, an account of finally overcoming the completely alienating natures of the characters’ existences.
World’s Fair has been written about as a trans metaphor, and while I’m not trans and can’t speak to the accuracy or nuances of its representative qualities (here is an interview with Schoenbrun where the subject is talked about in more detail), there is a deeply affecting uncanniness to the film’s representation of the world and specifically of one’s relationship to the internet, particularly of one growing up on the internet. It’s one of the strongest depictions of dysphoria I can recall from a recent film, and is far more specific in its evocations of an overwhelming personal unease than some of the great dysphoric filmmakers like David Cronenberg or Michelangelo Antonioni. The unease is socially prescribed, the internet being both the cause and a potential escape from the sense of ghostliness that characterizes Casey from the very start (How to Disappear Completely would be a good alternate name for the film if Schoenbrun was more of a fan of Radiohead than Alex G). To return to JLB’s critical error, the problem we see emerge through the film is that nothing mediated through the internet should be assumed to be real, and because so much of actual life is predicated as it is on the internet, the feeling of unreality can’t help but seep into daily life. “Casey” being a pseudonym is a key example of this seepage: we do not know her by any other name, and her only record of existence is under this false name. When she cuts off JLB from contacting her, there is a palpable panic in him, and we understand easily that this may very well be the end of her. Regardless of potentially suicidal actions, her existence online is little more than a ghost, a low-viewer count Youtube channel under a fake name, and with the press of a button she can vanish, fade away into the oblivion of white noise that makes up the internet. She is not the only person that this is true for: JLB is similarly marginal, as are most of the creators of the other World’s Fair videos. All of them are floating in this pool, and drowning is very easy and very quiet. The only way to solidify one’s existence is to be recognized by others, and in a world like Casey’s that is so insulated and detached, a simple act of recognition takes an extraordinary effort.