Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
This film explores the uncanny valley of adolescence online.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
New technologies have always been generative for the horror genre, from early silent films, like The X Ray Fiend (1897), to kitschy 1980s films, like Robert Englund's dial-a-demon flick 976-EVIL (1988). The source of fear in the techno-horror genre is simple: the uncanniness of technology. It alters the way humans exist in the world, violating previously tangible boundaries of space, time, and intimacy. Like Unfriended (2014) or One Missed Call (2008), techno-horror often focuses on the impact of these new technologies on adolescents, the demographic that generally adapts to and embraces these advances the fastest. All the while, adolescents are also going through the delicate and challenging work of identity formation outside the purview of their parents.
Jane Schoenbrun’s We're All Going to the World's Fair, released in April, captures these anxieties for a generation raised online in the 2000s and 2010s. The titular “World’s Fair Challenge” itself, a horror game wherein a largely adolescent group of participants prick their fingers, smear blood across their computer screens, watch a hypnotic video, then “wait and report their ‘symptoms,’” feels like something out of a spooky chain email thread viewed late at night on the family computer to which a child of the aughts only had access for a limited time per day. Its fundamental concept springs from the 2010s Vine “challenges” that often involve physical discomfort (the cinnamon challenge comes to mind). From there, the challenge combines the aesthetics of Creepypasta, internet-born urban legends like “Man Door Hand Hook Car Door,” or Slenderman, as well as more traditional scary stories. For example, to play the game in the film, its protagonist chants "I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times into her computer, in a manner evocative of Bloody Mary. The challenge in the film also draws from the online games—and real-life acts of violence—these internet legends sometimes spawn.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a journey down an internet rabbit hole. Its teenage protagonist, Casey, takes the challenge and allows its lore to consume her life. Beyond her relationship to her computer, we learn virtually nothing about her.
Indeed, the film evokes its creeping anxiety expressly through the way Casey conflates the world within her laptop with the world outside it. By the end, she claims that "Casey" isn't even her real name, emphasizing the unreliability of anything ostensibly true online. The challenge itself highlights the dissolution of the line between reality and technology through the act of smearing blood onto the screen, connecting the corporeal to the technologic in an almost Biblical sense.
After Casey does the challenge, the film follows her descent into psychological anguish, or, potentially, demonic possession, characterized by a grab-bag of bleak vignettes that have become synonymous with the loneliness and troubles of young people in America today: doom-scrolling through YouTube until the wee hours of the morning, playing with her father's assault rifle in the garage, live-streaming her every unsettling and violent thought to her small number of online followers, and never encountering another person in real life.
The veracity of the challenge’s paranormal effects on her and other teens is immaterial. The horror of the film lies less in the supernatural—though surreal and unnerving imagery pervades Casey’s feed—and more in the simple fact of Casey’s social isolation and fundamental anonymity. The one other named character in the film is a middle-aged man, JLB, who is likely a pedophile. However, the film leaves this question, like most issues of reality it addresses, hauntingly open to interpretation.
Casey’s contact with JLB happens through Skype (not Zoom—the film, though topical in myriad ways, is examining an earlier era of internet culture where selfies and videos were taken on Photobooth). During their Skype sessions, they “play” the World’s Fair by describing in excruciating detail the dangers Casey faces in the challenge with no hint of artifice. JLB never shows his face to her and is represented to her only by his Skype icon, a crudely drawn cartoon of the Grim Reaper.
Neither character exists in a community or even a named location, rather they exist in a world of abandoned Toys“R”Us parking lots and under-furnished McMansions. As these two locations would indicate, their worlds are those of arrested development and stunted childhood: Toys“R”Us parking lots were a childhood staple for many and represent a pointedly melancholy marker of the world of the late-aughts before the franchise went bankrupt.
Though both characters are shown to live with other people through brief flashes of movement in the background of shots or through shouted invectives to go to bed through closed doors, neither shares a face-to-face conversation throughout the entire movie; rather, they lie on their beds alone in identically framed shots surrounded with the detritus of childhood irrespective of their difference in age, the diegesis of their lives often delineated scene to scene by the passive, depersonalized spinning wheel of autoplay as it buffers.
The themes of decorporealization and the trials of puberty are intimately linked both narratively and meta-narratively. The teenagers who encounter the game perceive themselves to be transforming into something no longer entirely human—a classic metaphor for pubescence which spans genres from horror films like Ginger Snaps (2000) or I Was a Teenage Zombie (1987) to this year's successful children’s film Turning Red (2022). But in the context of World’s Fair, the children are becoming cybernetic, their online presences manifesting onto their bodies. “I Am Turning Into Plastic,” reads the title to a video of a young woman with uncanny, shining skin, a rictus smile, and a Barbie doll’s proportions; “I Can't Feel My Body,” says another that depicts a muscular young man robotically running on a treadmill and stoically slapping himself across the face, a blank stare never leaving his eyes.
This metaphor is also poignantly queer. From Jennifer Check’s demonic transformation in the aptly-titled Jennifer’s Body (2009) (the accusation: “I thought you only ate boys!” with the rejoinder: “I go both ways.”) to the transness of Ginger Snaps wherein the teenage werewolf antihero finds herself tucking her newly grown tail between her legs to hide it, many comparable films examine queerness and puberty in tandem. World’s Fair’s choices of hyper-gendered-yet-unfixed representation specifically on the internet present a similar snapshot of a generation of young genderqueer individuals experiencing the physical changes of adolescence and exploring their identities for the first time through screens.
In an interview with IndieWire, Jane Schoenbrun says as much: they describe puberty for gender-nonconforming people as a dissociative space of horror and despair as the body becomes unfamiliar—a tense space of knowing your body is changing, but not in the way you desire. In the background of Casey's internet world, a mosaic of gender-nonconforming individuals make up a subtle Greek chorus describing their experiences with the game and the transformations they are undergoing, emphasizing this element of the film’s message.
The aforementioned Barbie Doll and Treadmill Robot represent two hyper-gendered examples of Casey’s experiences with adults’ internet presences. But they are primarily countered by a boy whose childlike videos recount a story of trying to win a stuffed animal at an arcade. He says his body is “turning into Tetris,” the early computer game. Colors mottle his arms before sores appear, erupting into a spew of arcade tickets. The stuffed animal is nowhere in evidence. Casey’s favorite physical object—virtually the only one besides her camera and her father’s gun—is also a stuffed animal, a lemur named Po she received at five days old. Her only face-to-face encounters are conversations with it.
Before she finishes the game, as her physical dissolution and depersonalization reach new heights, her relationship with the object changes dramatically. Whether or not he is to be trusted, JLB, an adult character purporting to preserve her childhood innocence, is powerless to stop this radical shift in her behavior. Instead, he watches it through his own monitor an unknown number of miles away, his hand to the screen in a tableaux of both characters’ fundamental isolation and inability to connect with each other.
These different iterations of uncanny cyber-disembodiment define the film’s message. In the film, the World’s Fair, historically an international exposition representing modernity through different countries’ demonstrations of their technological and cultural advances, becomes a pixelated carnival covered in graffiti slogans like “Kids rule!” In a world where many of us engage in social life through a computer screen, the World's Fair is the internet.
Now, however, it’s an interactive horror game with no concrete rules, sealed in blood and defined by physical changes potentially brought on by interactions not with others but with the pure viscera of the internet as a technologic form: a video of snowy, pixelated lights and the sound of static. This reorientation paints a dark portrait of a social world transformed for many isolated teens—and adults—into a dystopian version of itself defined by the kinds of doomsday prognostications brought to the fore at the dawn of mass internet culture. Kids have access to firearms and shoot their peers with horrifying regularity; adults lurk in the shadows of cyberspace waiting to take advantage of the vulnerable young; and parents, shut out of their children’s online worlds by headphones and closed bedroom doors, often lack the knowledge to stop them.
The film tells us that in this culture the boundaries between the biological/psychological and cybernetic/intangible have blurred. Like many films before it, the choice to highlight the aesthetics of childhood suggests that, while all of us are going to the World’s Fair in the end, for better and often for worse, adolescents are leading the way.