I don’t know what to expect.
While the term “creepypasta” is not used in Jane Schoenbrun‘s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, it definitely helps to know what it is in order to decipher what’s going on. The word is a catch-all for most horror related content on the internet wherein creators tell dark tales of violence, death, and the supernatural with the main goal of scaring their viewers. As many know courtesy of the so-called “Slender Man stabbing” back in 2014, these stories and characters can “come to life” if those interacting with them struggle to keep the line separating fact and fiction in focus. Has Casey (Anna Cobb) become lost in that blurred space where it comes to the latest online challenge? We can’t really know until she takes the plunge.
The film opens with her doing exactly that. Casey fires up her YouTube channel, tests a few introductory phrases, and adjusts her attic bedroom to ensure the ambiance is right. There’s a tear in her eye and quiver to her voice as she begins, the mystery and danger attributed to her chosen meme already leaving its mark. So, she repeats the words “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times, stabs her finger with a pin, wipes blood across her computer screen, and plays a strobing flicker video like many have before her, commencing what’s promised as “a change.” How this alteration will manifest itself remains unknown. She watches other accounts to prepare, ultimately falling down a rabbit hole of content meant to frighten and excite.
Schoenbrun presents most of their film from the perspective of computer screens. Casey is looking us in the eye when performing the ritual. Other videos play as though we’re in her head watching them. And, eventually, a second character known as JLB (Michael J Rogers) enters the fray to provide the makings of a Skype conversation that brings this teen’s experience into the broader scope of the “World’s Fair” community. The dark, grainy images place us into the drama as helpless voyeurs traveling through this web of content that’s simultaneously obtuse, incomplete, and often staged. Where another participant is shown digging something out from under his skin, however, Casey’s videos prove much subtler. Couple that eeriness with our ability to see her actions off-camera and authenticity becomes unquestioned.
Is Casey changing? Who are we to say? Meeting her as she readies to take the plunge guarantees we know little about who she is beyond a lonely insomniac prone to avoiding human contact—even with her own father. Her shift in demeanor is thus uncertain. The fear from the start gradually dissipates until Casey is seen dancing in front of her computer and letting out a shrieking scream in the process, but why? Is she becoming less introverted? Is it something that has been called from another plane of existence to possess her? Is it all an act? It’s tough to guess since the things she does onscreen are often juxtaposed with a rapid return to sorrow and isolation offscreen. It feels like she’s losing her grip.
In some ways we are too. Schoenbrun has intentionally sought what they call “cinematic dysphoria.” The film is inspired by their own experiences online as a teenager before learning what transgender and non-binary were. All they knew was that their body and their world didn’t feel real. Shifting that sense of unease from identity to creepypasta therefore puts us into our own unreality by not knowing if what we’re seeing is real in the context of Casey. Is she undergoing a transformation as a result of the challenge or is she in on the game? Is she being trolled by her own deteriorating psychological state or is she trolling us? This duality is what makes the venue so intriguing. And, in the case of “Slender Man,” so dangerous.
What makes it even more captivating is that we cannot know whether what we’re watching is actually removed from the screen at all. We assume that the scene where Casey goes to look at her father’s rifle before falling asleep to an ASMR video projected against the wall is “real.” She attempts to film herself sleeping in bed with her laptop only to close it and keep walking. As a later scene of her outside shows, however, she’s also filming with a camera on tripod. So, who’s to say that she isn’t being filmed twice? That she hasn’t gotten a friend to follow her around and help produce this multimedia story of losing herself to unknown powers? And when the perspective moves to JLB, has our perspective changed?
It leads towards an unsettling end wherein the lines between fact and fiction are consciously made whole again. But only maybe since we can’t be certain we’ve exited the bubble. Is Casey’s confusion and subsequent anger a product of embarrassment for not realizing she’s been caught inside a fantasy she didn’t know was there or frustration for having her momentum ruined by an outsider who couldn’t handle how effective she was at constructing said fantasy? Is JLB’s concern an authentic response to finding himself outside a comfort zone he believed was wide enough to go wherever the flow went or another piece to an elaborate puzzle meant only to fool us? And by choosing one over the other for their conclusion, Schoenbrun hammers home the duo’s built-in unreliability.
So much is therefore put on the actors’ shoulders. And while Rogers does very well to mirror Casey’s internalized pain, Cobb takes the reins in her first feature performance. Whether she’s fooling her audience, fooling herself, or truly falling apart, she is commanding our attention and earning our empathy. We fear that she may do herself harm. We fear that there may be no turning back. And perhaps those fears are founded—Schoenbrun’s finale makes it so we can’t really know. That’s the thing about legends and myths. They’re often born from experience and used as a means of explanation. A lack of answers can often just push an outsider into making up their own. Eventually the real Casey becomes rendered irrelevant, replaced by a brand-new truth.