We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2022)
Directed & Written by Jane Schoenbrun
Starring Anna Cobb & Michael J. Rogers
★★★★ (out of★★★★★)
For those of us old enough to remember a time before the internet it’s always interesting to look back at when personal computers became more common in the household, and people were grappling with how the world wide web started creeping into our daily lives. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair isn’t set back then, yet there’s an unsettling nostalgic quality to Jane Schoenbrun’s film that pulls the viewer back to that sometimes unnerving era and place of uncertainty, partly due to its protagonist, Casey (Anna Cobb), a young person drawn into an online phenomenon called “The World‘s Fair Challenge.”
Vicariously through Casey, the viewer’s brought back to the early days of creepypastas and a more youthful, innocent time in life when urban legends—whether traditional or digital—held greater sway over our lives because of our willingness to believe. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair also incorporates the potentially—or, likely, depending on your perspective—toxic influence of an older man on Casey, a mysterious person only known as JLB (Michael J. Rogers) who contacts Casey over the internet and drags her deeper into the challenge.
Part of Schoenbrun’s film is about the internet itself, and the collective stories with which many of us engage, while another part of it is about how our identity can be affected by our internet experiences. Then there’s a kind of warning in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair about the real dangers of the internet: those dangers are not the internet itself, the danger remains very human, depending on who may be sitting on the opposite end of an online communication and what their intentions are in communicating.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is most unsettling because of how Schoenbrun depicts the crossover between online life and real life, echoing what Schoenbrun has said in interviews was partly an inspiration for the film: the 2014 Slender Man stabbing, when twelve-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser lured their friend Payton Leutner into a forest and proceeded to stab her at the will of fictional internet terror Slender Man. As we watch Casey go deeper into the World’s Fair Challenge, we question whether her sanity has begun to slip. At one point it’s unclear if she’s planning on killing her dad, deliberately and specifically playing off the fears of the 2014 Slender Man stabbing, as Casey appears entirely under the influence of the World’s Fair Challenge like the girls in the real-life case felt under the influence of Slender Man. The film never goes to such gruesome lengths, and the story ends in its own unique way, but the real-life 2014 crime hangs heavy over Schoenbrun’s film. Like Slender Man, the World’s Fair Challenge’s symptoms are a tulpa, something given life and form by the combined mental power of many believers. Even if the World’s Fair Challenge, within the film, is not real and there’s no supernatural element, like a tulpa, the players still will it into existence, in one shape or form. And in spite of its fictional qualities, its effects can become real.
Something Schoenbrun does with We’re All Going to the World’s Fair that’s innovative is depict gender dysphoria through horror, intertwined with Casey and the effects of the World’s Fair Challenge she believes to be feeling. Even just being online and taking on an identity separate from our real-life identity creates disparity between parts of the self. The online space calls identity in general into question, disrupting traditional notions of identity by helping us get further away from the body and closer to the life of the mind. And so Schoenbrun plays off these ideas to present Casey’s experience of gender dysphoria via the World’s Fair Challenge. Casey, in a way, grapples with her dysphoria by displacing those feelings onto the game, stating: “It‘s like I can feel myself leaving my body, like it‘s making me someone else.” She initially sees this as a bad thing, similar to the feelings many project inward when they grapple with their expressions of gender in contrast with what’s expected by society.
The confusion only deepens for Casey, and a telling scene happens when she tears apart a stuffed animal named Poe, a stuffed bear she got as a newborn. When Casey tears Poe apart she’s figuratively destroying her childhood and a physical piece of her identity. It’s a way of shedding the skin. But also, moments later Casey returns to the torn up Poe and weeps over it, like she’s mourning the part of herself she’s just shed on the floor. It’s obvious by the end of the film that Casey is trying to become a different person than the Casey she’s able to portray to the world. One of the final things Casey says to JLB, as they have a falling out, touches on her dysphoric feelings about gender and sense of self: “That‘s not even my real name.” There’s a hurt on Casey’s part when she says this, as she seems to have, at least for a while, bought into the idea that JLB might allow her to be her true self, only to realise that he’s just playing with identity online for thrills rather than genuinely exploring identity out of necessity like her.
“It’s like I can feel myself leaving my body,
like it’s making me someone else.
It’s making me bad.”
There are a couple different ways to read We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, particularly due to the ambiguous ending. The most contentious point of Schoenbrun’s film is whether JLB is a pedophile, and even Casey accuses JLB of being one outright after they have their falling out. It’s easy to see JLB as just a slightly creepy older man online rather than an actual pedophile. One clue that JLB may just be a lonely older man is the room we see him in near the end of the film. It seems like JLB is married, judging by noise around the house and the size of the house. If so, the small room where JLB uses the computer regularly begs the question: is it a son’s room, past or present? It looks more like the room of a younger man. That could possibly point to a tragic, lonely backstory, and perhaps somewhat explain why JLB feels so determined to reach out constantly to a young girl he perceives to be in distress online.
In spite of all that, JLB remains too obsessive over Casey for the viewer not to at least entertain the idea he’s a pedophile. The way he uses the World’s Fair Challenge as a way to insert himself into Casey’s life is eerily reminiscent of pedophiles in the 21st century using YouTube, TikTok, and online trends as a way to groom kids. For instance, in 2020 a man using the handle @howardtheduck4 on TikTok started daring kids to ask their parents to let them get in the bath with all their clothes on, portraying it as yet another silly internet video trend. Sometimes the kids would actually do it, and some kids’ parents refused to let them. A pattern emerged after a while that many believe was actually a sick psychosexual game by @howardtheduck4 and that he was merely a pedophile looking to see some kids soaking wet; this video is a great, in-depth look at the whole story. There are countless cases of this happening on YouTube and TikTok, and something about JLB in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair gives the viewer a similar feeling.
The eeriest thing in the whole film is the final recording made by JLB. It’s the final thing we see in the film, which is intriguing given that most of the story is told through Casey’s perspective, and that’s also why it’s extra unnerving. JLB claims to have met Casey again and he portrays the entire thing as him ultimately being the saviour of a young girl who was going off the rails, going so far as to claim she went into a mental health facility for a while after their falling out. He also drops cryptic, strange hints that something more sinister might’ve happened: “That night, I made it there.” He almost acts like Casey was the object of the World’s Fair Challenge, bringing up a lot of uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, again leaning towards the potential that JLB is yet another pedophile. The ambiguity of the ending allows the viewer to come up with any number of scenarios—good, bad, or terrifying—to explain what’s happened. And it’s difficult not to lean towards something very, very bad.
Although there’s at least one dark and horrifying reading of the film’s ending, there remains a hopeful one, too. The last time we see Casey she says: “I swear, some day soon I‘m just going to disappear, and you won‘t have any idea what happened to me.” We can choose to see the end of Schoenbrun’s film as a positive one for Casey, believing that she has finally become someone new, her true self, and that she left her old life behind. In this light, JLB’s last recording may not be a dark one, as I’ve read it previously, but rather a sad, depressing one, as he conjures up an imagined scenario of him and the old Casey reuniting, remaining in a fantasy world under his control like the one he so gleefully inhabited online while engaging in the World’s Fair Challenge. Casey’s disappearance could even be taken then as disappearing totally from the gender binary enforced by society, and she’s finally disappeared from the sight of people like JLB, escaping into a whole new world of identity that someone like JLB could never understand.
The way Casey disappears at the end, and JLB’s left attempting to fill in all the missing pieces so he can find closure with a full puzzle, is again similar to how it really is with life online, too. Many of us, especially those who’ve been online for a long time, have experienced the disappearance of people we knew from the internet. And you wonder if they’re okay, or if they’re even alive. Sometimes you find out, even years after the fact. Other times, you never do, and that person remains a mystery in the story of your life. But there’s always hope, as there is in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair with Casey, that the person who disappears is out there, alive and thriving, living the life they were meant to live, far away from all the influences that would keep them from being themselves.