There’s a dull hum in my ear that I fill with rain in the evenings. The sound is hard to pin down; subterranean and immediate all at once, thrumming like a distant police helicopter doing rounds over a crime-spree-in-progress, or an irregular whooshing heartbeat that isn’t my own. When I lay down to rest, I nestle a small wireless earbud into my right ear, and I start the eight hour and twenty-nine-minute YouTube video titled ‘Immediately sleep in old wooden villa with sound of rain in misty forest – Rain sleep’, auto translated by the YouTube algorithm from the Spanish title it was originally uploaded with.
I’ve relied on sound to sleep for the past 15 years, whether it be through obscure rambling videos on YouTube, ASMR or white noise. The overwhelming anxiety that once struck me at the thought of having to sleep in pure, undiluted silence – the place where that dull hum returns to me – has mostly subsided, but the white noise of rainfall is still a comfort I return to each and every night. Many of us seek comfort from digital spaces now as a matter of course, almost without thought; our emotional realities shifting effortlessly, soaking our lives with abstracted representations of reality, like rain through an earbud.
When we meet Casey (Anna Cobb), the protagonist of director Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021), she’s staring at us through her webcam, searching for that comfort. The light of her computer screen falls across her brow and cheeks, alighting her eyes with the promise of some elusive emotional truth. “Hi guys, Casey here; welcome to my channel, today I’m going to be taking the World’s Fair Challenge,” she declares, with the steely resolve of a child perched at the top of some dark, foreboding staircase. What follows is a demonstration of memetic community in motion; Casey has been swept up in something akin to an elaborate online role-play movement, where participants of the World’s Fair challenge post about the ‘symptoms’ of their ‘transformations’ after inducting themselves into the challenge with a Bloody Mary-esque chant; “I want to go to the world’s fair, I want to go to the world’s fair, I want to go to the world’s fair” Casey intones to her webcam in the opening moments of the film.
This form of online communal ‘consensual delusion’ is core to the sort of storytelling that fires the engines of games like The World’s Fair Challenge and its ‘real-world’ counterparts, online communities centred around creepypasta storytelling; lodestars onto which writers, illustrators, and storytellers of all ages converge onto a single narrative project. Countless characters and series exist in this form, like The Backrooms, Jeff the Killer, and perhaps most influentially, Slenderman; an allusion by the film made all the clearer by Casey’s ongoing struggle to maintain the boundaries of what falls within her World’s Fair roleplay. Here, Schoenbrun references directly the 2014 case in which two 12-year-old girls stabbed their friend nineteen times – non-fatally – in what they described as an attempt to ‘appease’ the fictional character of Slenderman.
We can feel World’s Fair draw this out in Casey as well; she scrolls through posts by the game’s other participants, searching for an indication of what the World’s Fair game may have in store for her; using these posts as a lens through which she can try and understand the game, and by extension, herself, an attempt to wrangle a pervasive disassociation she has lived with her whole life. In one moment, Casey describes her sleepwalking as “like I was also awake at the same time… I was aware of my actions, but I couldn’t control myself,” something that isn’t just frightening to Casey, but strikes her as beguiling and attractive, as though parts of herself remain a hidden to her, like a mystery she is on the cusp of solving.
In a video titled ‘I can’t feel my body!’, a man runs on a treadmill while slapping himself on the face; Casey watching on, rapt. The next morning, Casey vlogs about her own symptoms, having internalised an online stranger’s personal interpretation of what his transformation may mean. “My whole body’s numb, I know I should be cold right now,” she says, sat in her snow sprinkled backyard, “but I don’t feel anything.”
Stories told through the screens and found footage of a film's world are nothing new, least of all to horror movies. The ingenuity of this framing lies in showing our protagonists at their most disarmed; they peer into the light of their screen as they rifle through sordid file archives, personal search histories, and the digital miscellanea that computers scrape from us each time we interact with them; films like Searching (2018) view this through the eyes of a frantic parent in the wake of their child’s disappearance, whereas films like The Den (2013) and Megan is Missing (2011) harness a kind of reactionary fearmongering tone to tell of acts so debased they exist online via encrypted digital spaces.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair doesn’t hinge solely on this affect; Schoenbrun’s camera (sometimes in the hands of Casey herself), wanders liberally, at one point following Casey out into the midnight snow of her father’s property, and into a nearby barn. Here, Casey settles onto an old couch, and watches the YouTube creator Slight Sounds ASMR as she too addresses the camera mere inches from the lens; hushing and settling her viewer, brushing her hand across their view, commiserating with them in a whispered tone, reassuring them that they’re awake now, and the nightmare is over. The camera lingers here; allowing us a moment to feel towards the comfort that this video offers Casey, Schoenbrun creating a view into the mind of this young girl through her most intimate of media-habits. The scene isn’t without a sinister edge; Casey’s video is abruptly interrupted by a still of her own face, warped and black-eyed, and before settling in front of the screen, she unpacks her father’s hidden assault rifle, running her hands along the weapon.
The exact appeal of ASMR videos – which I have been watching before the genre even had a name – like those of Slight Sounds ASMR, and others, eludes me. These self-soothing mechanisms come in many forms and genres, but all seem to derive from a crowd-sourced yearning for comfort and calm. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair inverts this relationship. There is no obvious promise of comfort in the game’s community, and as another player later states of his content on the subject, “this is an in-game channel, for serious players only, so if you message me, I hope that you’re ready to get scared together,” but the games subtext is one of transcendence and self-actualisation – whatever that may mean for the player – through a type of performance that certain players of the game demand.
The World’s Fair Challenge creates a new reality; an unplace for its players in which they are not only shifting into new versions of themselves but crafting and guiding one another throughout. Schoenbrun began writing World’s Fair before she knew she was trans herself but came to that realisation by the time writing was finished. There are allusions to a queer awakening within Casey too, a desperate searching for transformational change – perhaps the unnamed ache that drew her to the World’s Fair in the first place – but the game complicates things for Casey; risking the obfuscation of a true queer reality for her as the World’s Fair filters her journey through frames of shame, danger and the threat of out-of-control horror.
When we eventually meet self-styled lore-master of the game, JLB (Michael J. Rogers), in the film, we are struck by his isolated existence. Like Casey, he lays on the bed of some unseen child, engrossed in the testimonials, vlogs, and short films by other creators inspired by the World’s Fair challenge. He sits dimly lit in his cavernous McMansion living room, sipping on warmed milk as he sketches shadowy faces. The only facets of his life that we see are in service of the World’s Fair challenge; any and all creative energy he has goes into the crafting of his own heightened version of reality.
“Why are you talking to me?” Casey later asks of JLB. “I want to try to help you, if I can, but I need to know if you’re telling the truth… I need you to promise me that you’re not making it up,” he responds.
– Nicholas Kennedy