In June 2009, 20-year-old aspiring filmmaker Troy Wagner uploaded a remarkably spooky 47-second clip to YouTube. The beginning of a web series based on a story he read on the online forum Something Awful, the clip is introduced as the raw footage a young man recorded before abruptly cutting off all contact with his friends. A menacing figure lurks in the background, haunting its edges. The story unspools over nearly a hundred short, choppy, extremely freaky videos, a Blair Witch Project for younger millennials. It became a viral sensation, garnering more than a hundred million views and becoming a crown jewel of the burgeoning genre of internet-native horror known as “creepypasta.” The haunting figure—called “the Slenderman”—ultimately appeared in scores of creepypasta stories and even inspired a feature film spinoff released in 2015. But by that point, it had morphed from urban legend into something else altogether. The year before, two young girls in Wisconsin became convinced that the Slenderman wanted them to offer a blood sacrifice. They lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her. The real-life horror drained the fun out of the role-play that had sprung up around the internet-fueled legend.
It’s difficult to watch the new film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, out now, without thinking of Wagner’s videos and the Slenderman stabbing. Director Jane Schoenbrun’s debut feature focuses on a wayward young girl unhealthily obsessed with internet horror lore. The protagonist, Casey (Anna Cobb, hypnotic in her acting debut), is a teenage loner who starts recording videos of herself participating in an online role-playing game called We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. The exact parameters of the game remain murky, but we learn that players must begin by reciting its name and drawing their own blood, unleashing some sort of supernatural force that gradually overtakes them. Casey plunges into it, and her videos imply that she, too, is losing control of herself as she becomes more immersed in the World’s Fair world.
Just like Wagner’s web series, the videos Casey uploads have an unsettling found-footage feel. Watching it feels like slipping into an especially eerie nightmare in which nothing much actually happens but you wake in a cold sweat nonetheless. Casey spends most of her time in her attic bedroom, which is lit up with glow-in-the-dark space stickers and authentically messy; if she’s not there, she’s watching a projector elsewhere on her absent father’s property, or wandering around her forlorn town. She doesn’t seem to have any friends, save for an older man (Michael Rogers) with a creepy illustration as his avatar, known only as “JBL.” He watches all of Casey’s World’s Fair videos, and even instructs her to record herself sleeping and send the footage to him. (Not exactly heartening BFF material.) With JBL appearing to be her only confidant, Casey slips deeper and deeper into the game, where she may not have a traditional community, but she at least has an audience.
Despite all this tension and drama, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is not a zippy thriller. Instead it has the cadence of one of those video installations you might wander into at an art museum, moody and meditative and collage-y. There is some scary stuff here, too—one sequence, where the man walks Casey through a video of herself sleeping, may haunt my own dreams, and there’s a brief moment of full-blown body horror—but Schoenbrun isn’t going for jump scares or gory gross-outs. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair falls into that lightly cursed category of movie that’s much scarier (and more interesting) to think about than watch. Although a bit boring during its runtime, the film’s sinister imagery remains hard to shake days later.
The great trick Schoenbrun plays is getting the audience to fret over Casey. The opening, where Casey stares directly into the camera and invokes whatever spirits are meant to animate the game, is reminiscent not so much of other horror movies but of the opening of Bo Burnham’s gentle coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade, which follows another lonely and pubescent kid as she awkwardly tries her hand at vlogging. But while Eighth Grade’s hapless protagonist Kayla is nothing if not sincere, there’s something more slippery going on with Casey. JBL eventually gets worried enough about her that he essentially calls a time-out in their game to make sure she’s OK, and her response is perhaps the most chilling moment of the movie. There doesn’t need to be any real supernatural element at play to make puberty a true terror.
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