We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2022)
Written & Directed by Jane Schoenbrun
Reality is breaking down. By this, I mean humanity has fragmented into billions of hyper-individualistic pods, each of which often seems to be creating its own version of reality in its head. You can see this most prominently in the QAnon types who construct wildly elaborate fantasies of their childhood favorites not really being dead, that Trump is still the president, and the inevitable arrival of disease-curing medbeds. These are all real delusions that a significant portion of the American population is under now. The youth are escaping in their own way too. A TikTok trend a few months ago (or was it years? Time is also falling apart) had teenagers and young adults speaking with conviction about manifesting themselves into a parallel reality where they were students at Hogwarts. They would describe elaborate scenarios of having relationships with fictional characters they’d been reading about since they were children. I would look at this and say they were just lucid dreaming, but it was a version of tangible reality to them. We create dream realms because the systems we live under have done a shit job preparing us to face the horrors of the present moment.
Casey (Anna Cobb) is a teenage girl living with her father. Mom died years prior. She records herself taking the “World’s Fair Challenge,” a viral phenomenon that involves saying, “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times, smearing a streak of blood on your computer screen, and then watching a video of colored strobe lights. Casey concludes the video by saying she’ll update us on any changes. Casey’s grip on reality was already weak before the film began, but her plunge into the imagined horrors of what is happening to her is the catalyst that turns her into someone else. Casey talks of experiencing the same pull she felt when she used to sleepwalk as a child, and during a late night wandering, she finds her dad’s shotgun stored in the backyard shed. Eventually, Casey receives a video from JLB, who warns her that she is in trouble. JLB claims to have watched other World’s Fair challengers suffer from some dark presence and wants to keep monitoring Casey to ensure that doesn’t happen to her. But not everything is what it seems, and as we stick with Casey on this journey, we realize that reality will force its way back in.
With the Internet, the potential to influence people’s behavior is at its most dangerous levels, possibly ever in human history. Think of what was accomplished without the Internet, just plain old in-person speeches and pamphlet propaganda in places like Nazi Germany. American Red Scare sentiments have fueled a multi-generational incoherent reactionary movement for close to a century, from the fear-mongering at Eugene Debs to the McCarthy Hearings & blacklisting. The Internet makes the transmission of dangerous ideologies instantaneous and efficient. Recently a host of parents suddenly became aware that their middle school-aged sons were under the sway of a comically insecure guy named Andrew Tate, who was filling them with the most ignorant & laughable bullshit about women. The tendrils of evil snake into our homes via an invention that should have led to great human enlightenment.
I find a particular type of American, possibly Western, narcissism horrifically fascinating. Fueled by 1980s media fantasies, these people see themselves as aware of more truths than the average person. These truths might be that JFK Jr. never died, got plastic surgery, and is still alive. Or that Donald Trump has been an undercover agent for a clandestine group rooting out pedophiles in world governments. These are ludicrous ideas, but to the believer, they are liberating. They believe them, and now they are above the fray; they convince themselves they can see the “5th-dimensional” chess in which the big players are engaged. This false superiority leads to wildly unrealistic explanations for things in the world that serve a crucial purpose: they distance the believer from the oppressive reality of the present they are living in. It’s much more fun to imagine all your favorite celebrities who passed away will come back and bring an era that takes you back to when the world seemed less complex than it really is. The reality of the world is that a small group of people lucked into wealth & power, whether by birth or exploitation and are just going to keep seeing how far they can push the masses until they break, extracting as much labor as possible to fuel their accumulation of more wealth & power. It’s more thrilling to convince yourself Michael Jackson will emerge from hiding one day, and it will feel like 1984 again.
Internet challenges have long been a way to foster a sense of community among like-minded people. We likely can all remember the bucket of ice water challenge that seemed to be everywhere on Facebook. Or the Cinnamon Challenge or the Chubby Bunny one with marshmallows. These relatively harmless memes lead mostly to laughs and no real change in anything, at least on the surface. So when we talk about memes, we need to make sure we’re using the term, not necessarily referring to an artifact but the psychological construct that underlies it. A meme is “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation.” That non-genetic portion is essential; these cultural norms do not come out of our biology; they create social connections between people who may not otherwise share a bond.
The world that Casey inhabits is very similar to the ones I am most familiar with. These are the parking lot-blasted concrete landscapes of communities whose culture hinges on corporations. They may go to church on Sunday and love country music, but they are ultimately part of a homogenous mass. The memes that most affect their lives are restaurant logos and commercial jingles. Once, a school committee I was on discussed how to use a call and response phrase to get students’ attention in large settings like assemblies. Someone suggested the teachers say, “Mmmmmm,” and the students respond with “Red Robin” in reference to a popular American fast-casual dining chain. Most people don’t see anything wrong with this. The corporate presence has so skillfully folded itself into everyday life most people don’t notice.
World’s Fair is a horror movie not about a supernatural entity or evil curse but about the suffocating ennui of living in a capitalist nightmare. Casey has come to a point where the only way she perceives she can have a meaningful connection with another person is not to connect with people in her geographic area but rather to literally wound herself and share her pain with an internet community. JLB opposes Casey because he wants to derive pleasure from acting out a fantasy, while Casey desperately needs to lose herself in the nightmare because at least it makes her feel something. JLB inadvertently feeds that by playing a role in the game and eventually wants to pull back because it gets too scary for him. However, Casey has no interest in leaving because what waits for her outside the fantasy is just a void.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is not a movie that will satisfy every viewer. Its particular aesthetic is bound to repel many people, and that’s fair. Nevertheless, I was very compelled to watch this movie from the opening scene, and I couldn’t help but think about many former students around Casey’s age. I am lucky enough to stay in touch with some of them, and others I will likely never hear from again. I wonder how they weather this moment in America where the future is simply gone. The ability to imagine a brighter day is ebbing; instead, you survive day to day. To lose yourself in a total fantasy is hugely enticing; you can be the central character in a vast drama. Even if it ends tragically for you, it will be so dramatic that everyone will remember you, right?