Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Director Jane Schoenbrun makes their feature film debut with “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” an exploration of isolation, loneliness, comfort and identity through the use of creepypasta — horror-related legends that are copied and pasted around the internet.   

Casey (Anna Cobb, in her debut), is a lonely teenager somewhere in hackneyed America (the kind with lots of Pizza Huts and AutoZones) who decides to participate in “The World’s Fair Challenge,” an online horror role-playing game that requires an initiation followed by successive video uploads documenting the horror of what happens to her body. 

After an unknown player reaches out via Skype suggesting her uploads are special, Casey dips deeper into the “game” and ultimately ponders murdering her father and killing herself. It’s reminiscent of the 2014 Slender Man stabbing, in which two 12-year-old girls stabbed their friend in the woods 19 times in the name of the fictional character Slender Man — a story Schoenbrun draws inspiration from, having worked on a Slender Man documentary in 2018 titled “A Self-Induced Hallucination.” 

Schoenbrun investigates the blurry, terrifying line between fiction and reality, questioning how the internet complicates this line and spotlighting how human it is to erase that line entirely.

In Sundance’s Q&A session following the film, Schoenburn noted the only rule of Reddit’s r/nosleep subforum, a hub of community-built fiction horror stories: “Everything is true here, even if it’s not.” 

For Casey, and subsequently, the viewer, the boundary between real and “just a game” becomes disturbingly blurry, sparking introspection about the fabrications we all build our lives on and ultimately act in honor of. 

As a member of Sundance’s “NEXT” Category, “World’s Fair” breaks both genre and technical boundaries, employing the use of YouTube videos, POV shots from laptop webcams, livestreams and Skype calls to create a story centered on the internet’s double-edged sword of comfort and delusion. The film is scored with original music by Alex G, who in and of himself is emblematic of DIY isolation and an internet-scouring fanbase. 

In fact, it’s Alex G who led me to “World’s Fair” and whom I ironically follow down deep internet rabbit holes for unreleased tracks and a sense of community. The Schoenbrun-Alex G pairing is genre-defying, haunted, internet-fueled fire. 

To be perfectly clear, Schoenbrun does not follow an anti-internet creed in their work, which they expressed in a Filmmaker article from 2018; they point to the atrocities carried out in the name of fictional texts throughout history, alleviating the internet’s sole culpability in perpetuating delusions: “We find ways to insulate ourselves from reality, to live lives dependent on fictions — personal fictions, historical fictions, societal fictions, religious fictions. This is a coping mechanism I think, and almost certainly an innate human impulse.” 

Most evocative, therefore, are moments when the viewer watches the malleability of Casey’s mind as it’s shaped by the fictitious World’s Fair videos that other users upload — videos that the viewer cannot readily discern as real or fake. Casey watches a video in which a boy who took the challenge can no longer feel his body. Shortly thereafter, in her next YouTube upload, Casey convinces her viewers that she also can’t feel her body, due to the challenge. 

Our positioning as viewers allows us disturbing access into how Casey’s views are shaped, but more chillingly, Cobb’s performance leaves the viewer questioning whether the game is real or fake — can she actually not feel her body? Has the internet convinced her that she can’t feel her body? If she whole-heartedly believes the game is true, then, well, isn’t the game real? 

Schoenburn’s analysis of comforting delusions sparking real-world horrors through an extremely specific corner of the web invites topical, poignant conversation during a time when similar internet forums cultivated a coup against our nation’s capital. However, the film itself feels incomplete, never fully articulating the precedents and chief components of the aforementioned forums, which easily ostracizes the viewer. The time spent in long walks or long stares at webcams for a horror effect could be better allocated toward filling gaps in the creepypasta echo-chamber knowledge, which leaves more confusion than driving exploration into how delusion is cultivated. 

That said, stellar, unshakable, tentpole visuals have been seared into my brain and morph endlessly with me in my distance from the film: Casey staring up at a projector of prolonged, mesmerizing nighttime ASMR with her sloth stuffed animal held tightly to her chest; Casey lying on the floor with her now torn-up sloth, toothpaste all over her face (she destroyed her coveted stuffed animal for the webcam livestream just moments before, as a part of the “game”). The once comforting sloth becomes an eerily destructive emblem, not unlike the internet itself.

These scenes — accompanied by Alex G’s soundtrack of haunting, bleak youth in suburbia (a blend of his previous sound on albums House of Sugar and DSU) — are devastating. They are loneliness and depression seeking an outlet. They are a teenage girl in the middle of anywhere in America seeking a source of comfort and a reason for her suffering.  

“World’s Fair” leaves me with deep, intense excitement for the future of film. Finally, for once, mediums like ASMR and YouTube channels are depicted with deep, precise knowledge and understanding of these online communities, not an archaic, oversimplified, grossly inaccurate “Dog with a Blog” account of these spaces. 

To see online forums and rabbit holes reflected back onto you with spine-chilling accuracy through cinema — through CINEMA! Cinema! Who would’ve thought. 

Schoenburn bears the torch of accurate, artistic, ground-breaking representation of internet forces, and that’s a future of film that I’m enormously excited for.

Daily Arts Writer Samantha Cantie can be reached at scantie@umich.edu.