INTERNET HORROR // 'We're All Going to the World's Fair'

I'm cheating a tiny bit here, because 'We're all Going to the World's Fair' isn't 'internet horror' in the same way that the other pieces I've talked about in this chapter are. Rather, 'World's Fair' is a film that had a theatrical release, that is about internet horror. It was directed by Jane Schoenbrun and released in 2021, and follows teenager Casey (played by Anna Cobb) as she takes part in an online horror role-playing game called the World's Fair Challenge. The best way I can describe the World's Fair Challenge is by likening it to another online horror property- 'The SCP Foundation'. In brief, 'SCP' is a collaborative story being consistently updated by any amateur writer that wishes to become involved and create an SCP report (a casefile detailing supernatural phenomena). In the same way that any fan can add to the SCP mythos, it is presented in the film that anyone with access to the internet and a means to record themselves can participate in the World's Fair Challenge and, in doing so, shape its overarching story. People participating in the challenge upload videos detailing their 'symptoms' in the weeks following undergoing the World's Fair ritual, and therefore can craft their own narrative as to what world's fair is and what it does, what it means.

For Casey, it means a gradual loss of control over her own body, sleep disturbances, and a leaning toward violence (suicidal ideation and the idea that she could kill her father). Casey uploads videos detailing all of this to a YouTube-esque website, as well as obsessively watching the videos of other participants. The mystery of the story is how seriously Casey takes the whole World's Fair thing- whether the symptoms she displays in her videos are elaborately and lovingly acted for her niche audience, or whether she truly believes these things are happening to her, in which case she is surely in the grips of a mental breakdown, exacerbated by the content she is consuming.

Casey in one of her later World's Fair videos

During her content-creation spree, Casey picks up an 'admirer'- a middle-aged man going by JLB- who convinces her to contact him via a ominous video message- an edited version of one of Casey's own videos. They communicate via Skype calls throughout the film, him urging her to keep making videos. During their calls, he always has his camera switched off. Their relationship is, from the off, unsettling.

The edited version of Casey's face that appears in JLB's video message to her

The film culminates with Casey's videos becoming more and more worrying, and JLB asking Casey how seriously she takes the World's Fair challenge, whether she knows it's all just a game or not. She responds insultingly, saying that, yes, of course she does (possibly lying). She proceeds to cease all communication with him, though an epilogue shows JLB recording a video detailing a possibly fabricated encounter he had with Casey, in-person, supposedly a year after this. As JLB tells it, she apologised to him, told him she had spent time in an assisted care facility, and believes that for a moment, she did reach the mythical World's Fair. My interpretation- JLB's story is horseshit. I believe that 'World's Fair' too leans into the fear that anyone can make anything of your online persona. Throughout the film, JLB takes Casey's work and tries to twist it in some way to be his own. Literally, in the case of him editing her videos, or less so in that he tries to sell himself to Casey as some sort of mentor- the World's Fair canon-keeper, telling Casey theories about the challenge that she already knows. I don't believe Casey ever contacted him outside of what is shown in 'World's Fair', and the not knowing what happened to her, that she evaded his attempts to control her, bugged him so much that he invented a scenario to share online to retain the illusion of all-knowing control, with the real Casey being long-gone from the online community and thus unable to corroborate or disprove this story.

JLB's initial message for Casey

So, in my own ideal 'World's Fair', Casey is acting, dutifully creating something for an online subculture that she is passionate about, and JLB's question of whether she knows she is playing a fictional game insults and infantilises her. Of course it's not real, but to her, it's still everything. It's her obsession. And so, to be challenged, or told that she has taken it to far, or to find out that it's not as real to other people as it is to her sparks outrage. By creating content detailing her supposed descent into madness and then disappearing, never to be heard from again, she has made something genuinely frightening, which was her goal all along. I want to believe this version, because I want to believe in a Casey who is completely in control of how she presents herself, and is one step ahead of the man who is (in all but name) attempting to groom her online, only tolerating him momentarily because she knows that later on, she can deliver the ultimate mindfuck that will frustrate him to no end. I need these things to be true.

JLB's Skype profile picture is of the image macro 'Horrifying House Guest', adjacent to a creepypasta but more on the comical side.

What I can't believe, what would be too painful, is that Casey is simply a lonely and unwell teenager dupped by an internet horror hoax seen by outsiders as obviously fictional. That she spirals into paranoia and mental illness, documenting and uploading this because she feels seen by other challenge participants, not knowing that to them, it isn't real. She thinks: "at least I'm not alone," because in this online circle she has found people like her. Every real symptom or delusion can be ascribed to the challenge, and every new thing she learns about the challenge can be linked back to her own experiences, making it all make sense. I don't want to think that JLB tells her that none of it is real, and essentially outcasts her from the only place she feels at home. That she would then feel like an idiot, or a freak, and realise then that if it wasn't real, then the only reason JLB, a middle-aged man, would be talking to her online, would be

Casey in 'We're all Going to the World's Fair'

If this version were to be believed, Casey would probably be dead (yes, JLB, to me, is a liar in both versions). Her online presence, or lack thereof, amended by JLB's (FAKE!) epilogue, is him picking at her memory like a vulture.

I love horror. At times it feels like it's all I care about. I want to believe the former version of 'World's Fair' because I want to think that it is something I can be wholly in charge of rather than it affecting me in ways I do not intend. Horror is where I can find empathy and recognition among atrocity, but I have a sinking feeling that the endless consumption of people doing awful things or having awful things done to them is not helping my wellbeing in the long run. However, I can't imagine not engaging with it. What would I do then? So, I grapple with this sinking feeling on the way down.

This is all besides the point- at its heart, 'World's Fair' is about sitting alone in the dark, zoning out and letting YouTube refresh itself to play mind-numbing video after video, when all of a sudden, your own face appears on the screen, projected six feet tall. Only it's not your face, it's someone else's rendition, bloated and distorted with blackened eyes. It's about the fear of being truly seen, and not knowing if you can reconcile with the result. Concurrently, it's about no one being able to see you, not really, so that every impression is just a cheap unmatching copy.

The similarities between 'World's Fair' and previously discussed online horror pieces in both theme and content is unsurprising. Jane Schoenbrun's feature prior to this ('A Self-Induced Hallucination' (2018)) was a documentary about Slender Man. They get it.