Nothing I’ve seen has captured the strange experience of being a teenage girl on the internet as perfectly as new indie horror movie We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.
It taps into a very specific type of teenage dysphoria, one where identity is a malleable, shifting thing. Who you are is a mix of your reality, the ‘you’ that you create in your mind and the one you’re designated by the strangers who find a way through the boundaries of your private world. It’s a feeling that time-traveled me back to the arrival of the internet in the family home, and the entire world of strangers, communities, and fandoms that appeared instantly like a magical kingdom I’d found in the back of a wardrobe.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which is available to stream now, opens with a simple but spooky premise: Isolated teenager Casey is recording vlogs in her room and is about to attempt the ‘World’s Fair Challenge’. It’s a YouTube viral trend that involves a Candyman-style incantation with supposedly occult results. To participate she has to repeat “we’re all going to the world’s fair,” whilst watching a video (which we never see, but lights her face ominously), after which she will begin to change.
Based on the videos uploaded by other players, which the film periodically shows us in montages, the exact nature of how the player is changed varies wildly, presumably based on their creativity in video editing apps. Because it’s all just a game, right? But as Casey begins to report her own findings to her audience about the effects of the game, she’s contacted by a man called JLB with a dire warning and an offer to help.
You’ve got melancholy
You wouldn’t expect a horror movie from 2022 to bring back the days of AOL and ICQ, but the emotions are the same. Being a teenage girl in those early days of the internet was liberating and empowering in a way that was intoxicating. It was before TikTok and YouTube, when sites were mostly plain text, chatrooms flourished and webcams were unheard of in a normal family home. You might be a kid with a cellphone, but it didn’t have a camera, and uploading a photo meant buying a scanner and forcing a vacation picture from the family album through it.
Weird girls that loved books and wrote bad poetry could thrive, creating perfect personas where they became the darlings of the chatrooms. With a cute moniker and our A/S/L, we weren’t turning ourselves into catfish, we were becoming mighty sea monsters.
While We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is very much about the internet of now, recreating that feeling of ignoring your body’s pleas for sleep to let some streaming site pour endless videos into your eyeballs. It perfectly distills that feeling of teenage transformation. As Casey uploads a variety of increasingly unhinged videos, it’s never clear how much is pure performance and how much is genuine distress, or when one suddenly becomes the other. It also took me back to that time when you suddenly realize men don’t see you as a child anymore, but something else, which was both exciting and terrifying. Online in the late ’90s you could get high on the at-a-distance attention of people you never had to meet, while still wrapped in the cotton wool of your childhood home.
Casey’s sinister savior appears like every man you met in those chatrooms. Patriarchal one minute, wheedling the next, building as much of a fiction from his own desires as any glorious lie you typed into a chatbox. He’s fascinated with Casey and she has a power over him even as he’s trying to play the role of the rescuer.
Hiding just beyond that though, like some mid-’40s Slenderman in the woods, is the knowledge that if they were to meet in real life his protective spiel would turn into something else entirely, and any sense of control would slip through her fingers.
Video killed the AOL star
In the early chatrooms days, once you’d declared your A/S/L—declarations that were taken as gospel because what else was there?—it was never long before the men in the chatrooms started to target you with questions or compliments or attention, marking territory with verbal cues as if you couldn’t just disappear with the click of a mouse, change your handle, and be back as an entirely new girl in minutes.
The real casanovas might present you with the chatroom equivalent of a rose, @}–,–’–. In private messages, the men that wanted to talk about our sexual experience, how they wanted to “cybersex” with us, to ask us questions we only understood because we’d read got hold of mom’s bonkbuster novels, were 10 a penny. The ones that were stranger and scarier were the ones that started that way and then quickly descended into confessions about their wives, their jobs, their children, swearing we were the only ones that understood them. The need came off them in waves, and felt more dangerous and suffocating than the sexual nonsense we heard shouted on school buses and playgrounds anyway.
In the movie, JLB feels like a stand-in for every guy called Fred who wanted me to tell them it was all going to be OK. Everyone wants to shock you with filth when you’re an adolescent girl, but being asked to be the whore and the angel and the therapist by a man who is the same age as your dad was truly shocking.
For teenage girls, for women, for anyone the world wants to berate and possess, the online world has changed and become something else entirely in 2022. The creepy ARG-inspired moments of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair have already happened with Slender Man, while hoaxes like the Momo challenge sent parents into a pearl-clutching panic—and honestly, you should worry more about your offspring eating Tide Pods for clout than vaguely demonic online rituals.
Having a personal brand starts as soon as you get your first smartphone and upload a selfie. From that moment there’s no escape, your peers, your predators, and the world can reach you through the internet at any moment of the night or day. For Casey, there’s very little sense of a life beyond the one she’s uploading in chunks for her unquantified audience. No parent intervenes beyond a single angry rebuke shouted up the stairs, no friends stop by to giggle over the weirdness of it all, and she’s not texting or scrolling through Instagram. Both her real life and her online life have narrowed to focus entirely on the World’s Fair Challenge.
Whatever your gender identity, age, or familiarity with social media trends, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair should be essential viewing for horror fans. Beyond its personal resonance for the ICQ veterans among us, it’s one of the few movies about the internet that doesn’t entirely embarrass itself by the end. I’d never want to spoil the movie, but it never does what you expect it to, and never takes the easy, obvious path to its conclusion.
In the end we’re just another of Casey’s viewers, whether we’re seeing the videos Casey makes, her interactions with JLB, or raking our eyes across the bedroom in the background, looking for clues to who she is away from the icy glow of her laptop screen. The truth is that you won’t find her identity there, or in the videos she makes. She’s still building it one idea at a time, and you’ll only ever see what she wants you to see.