‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ Explores the Terrors of Growing Up Online

Jane Schoenbrun’s new indie horror is anxious and eloquent

Adam Nayman
Logging Off Forever

“Would you like to meet a ghost?” reads a computer screen early on in the 2001 Japanese thriller Pulse. It’s not a rhetorical question. The hook of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s quietly terrifying film is that the dead have begun infiltrating the world of the living via our computers, and that any person unlucky enough to witness their emergence ends up taking their own life: a kind of metaphysical exchange program with the great beyond.

Shot in and around Tokyo in the dim, monochromatic tones of a world long since drained of its life force, Pulse mines the same rich vein of Y2K-era technophobia as Hideo Nakata’s Ringu — the other major work of the millennial cycle informally known as J-horror. Where Ringu’s signature image of a dark-haired wraith slithering out of a television set depicts an act of supernatural vengeance, Kurosawa’s film — at once less narratively coherent and more broadly suggestive — imbues its nightmares with an apocalyptic scale. The eerie silhouettes burned into apartment walls knowingly evoke the “Human Shadow Etched in Stone” at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum; a shot of a crashing U.S. cargo plane descending against a metropolitan skyline offers an uncanny, unfathomable foreshock of 9/11.

As a parable of virality in which a younger, plugged-in generation finds itself at the center of sinister paradigm shift, Pulse holds up; the Japanese term hikokomori, describing an severe form of social withdrawal characterized by author Saitō Tamaki in a best-selling 2013 book as “adolescence without end,” has migrated from an acutely Japanese phenomenon to a global condition. Jane Schoenbrun’s new and acclaimed independent horror movie We’re All Going to the World’s Fair orbits two characters of different ages — a tween girl named Casey and a fortysomething man — who could each be described as mired in an “adolescence without end.” The pretense of their online relationship is a popular (fictional) internet game called “The World’s Fair Challenge” whose vaguely defined premise requires players to chronicle — that is, film and upload — evidence of the bodily or behavioral mutations they’ve undergone as a byproduct of exposure to the host site.

Watching along with Casey — who, as acted by newcomer Anna Cobb, may be the most authentically somnambulistic scroller ever seen on a movie screen — we glimpse a series of ambiguously ersatz creep-outs: a female user rictus grinning beneath the superimposed title “i am turning to plastic;” a high school boy soberly likening his reconfiguring physiognomy to a flesh-and-blood Tetris game; disembodied hands emerging out of a laptop. The impulses they describe are painfully authentic — a longing for transformation, and with it, transcendence. To quote the once and future king of cinematic body horror: “long live the new flesh!”

While it’s never confirmed that Casey has seen David Cronenberg’s Videodrome — or Pulse — chances are that she’d enjoy them. In the direct-to-webcam monologues that structure the movie’s slow, drifting narrative she revels in her potential susceptibility to spooky diversions of all kinds. “I love horror movies, and thought it might be cool to live inside of one,” she confesses — scream queen, auteur, and fangirl fused together in a single entity. This conceptual conjointment of creator, star, and audience is crucial: even more than Cronenberg or Kurosawa’s masterpieces, the title that hovers over We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’s semi-screenlife aesthetic is 2007’s Paranormal Activity, which — like The Blair Witch Project before it — not only had its unknown stars playing versions of themselves, but captured them wielding the camera as well.

Where so many of the most unsettling and enduring images of 20th century horror cinema were yoked to point-of-view shots — the razor blade slicing the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou; Norman Bates staring through the peephole in Psycho; the weaponized close-ups of Peeping Tom — Oren Peli’s homemade blockbuster probed the possibilities of disembodied surveillance as a portal into the uncanny. The film’s cutting, structuralist intervention in the syntax of genre cinema can be felt not only in obvious successors like Unfriended and Host (both about Zoomers foolishly eager to meet a ghost) but also Julia Leigh’s 2012 Sleeping Beauty, whose heroine records grainy footage of her own sleeping form to fill in the blanks of her off-hours freelance gig as a medicated sexual receptacle for a wealthy, graying male clientele — a clinical, feminist millennial fairy tale located at the intersection of Grimm and Epstein, digital aperture open, eyes wide shut.

For Schoenbrun, whose previous credits include a segment in the ambitious omnibus Collective: Unconscious — in which a group of directors interpreted and filmed each others’ dreams — and the found-footage Slenderman meditation A Self-Induced Hallucination, Fair’s r/nosleep aesthetic feels second nature, if not knowingly received; the director recently programmed a series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music called “Photographing the Ether: The Internet on Film 1983-2022” whose selections duly contextualizes their own film’s numerous allusions and homages. On the levels of microbudget craft and execution, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is impressive, held together by Cobb’s deceptively recessive (and at times, fearlessly physical) performance; its hauntological vision of social media as a virtual cabinet of curiosities gives it cultural currency — a finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. The question is whether Schoenbrun’s patient, increasingly pressurized assemblage is intended as an act of observation, critique, or communion with its subject.

From a certain angle, the film presents itself as a cautionary tale. With the exception of one scene where she’s yelled at by her (offscreen) father to turn down the sound on her laptop at 3 AM, Casey is never seen or heard interacting with another human being. The depth of her isolation is unsettling quite apart from the contents of her YouTube playlist. When she narrates her churning inner life to a hypothetical online constituency, she’s really talking to herself; at night, she falls asleep to ASMR recordings, as if slipping into a trance. Suggestibility is a constant source of tension: Casey’s conversations with the initially solicitous (and also physically unseen) ”JLB” are like a case study in grooming couched strategically in the language of commiseration and concern. At one point, JLB tells Casey to keep uploading videos to show that she’s “ok,” an instruction containing a Svengali-ish measure of control. In her determination to freak herself out — to imagine herself as a locus of paranormal activity — Casey can’t see what’s really scary.

A more ruthless movie might have milked JLB’s true motivations for suspense right until the end, but Schoenbrun’s agenda is ultimately empathetic: they’re more interested in loneliness as a form of exile, and they’re aiming for the heart — or the gut — rather than the jugular. Like Pulse, with which it shares a bruised sense of melancholy, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is about the desire to cross over, a subtext that offers up multiple readings. Schoenbrun came out as trans during the film’s production, and a number of online critics have written about both the ambient body-horror imagery and the protagonist’s inchoate, impulsive yearning for change in the broader context of gender dysphoria — a connection that opens the movie up instead of boiling it down. “[The film] moves beyond the need to be allegorically legible, opting for a much richer formal and emotional communication,” writes critic Sam Brodojan, at once nailing Fair’s intricately shape-shifting style and spacious interior meanings. “Schoenbrun, who is nonbinary, lets their film speak in whispers.” The observation of muted eloquence is apt: in a moment of often bombastic elevated horror, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair carves out its own ardent, anxious niche. It exists in a quiet place of its own.

Adam Nayman is a contributing editor at Cinema Scope and the author of books on Showgirls, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher.