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This piece was produced as part of the Virtual Writers in Residence program, run by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature office. Join Michael at 11am AEDT Saturday 3 December for a free online seminar all about The Frontiers of Internet Fiction! 

A still from 'We're All Going to the World's Fair'. A grainy image of young girl with her face painted fluorescent green, holding a small round object up to. her eye and leaning directly towards the camera.

Anna Cobb in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Image: IMDb

In the heady days of the 1990s, the Wachowski sisters offered a unique challenge to their actors during pre-production of The Matrix. Before stepping onto set, the entire cast and crew were required to read Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, an abstruse philosophical text that served as the conceptual basis for the script.

Though the film is widely considered a cyberpunk classic, when Baudrillard himself was asked in an interview about its connection to his work, he bristled at the comparison. As far as he was concerned, the Wachowskis had missed the mark entirely. Their primary error: drawing a clear distinction between the simulated reality and the real world underneath. ‘The actors are in the matrix, that is, in the digitised system of things; or, they are radically outside it, such as in Zion, the city of resistors. But what would be interesting is to show what happens when these two worlds collide.’

To me, this quote reads like an artist’s statement for Jane Schoenbrun’s 2021 indie masterpiece, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.

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We enter the film in the bedroom of a teenager named Casey (Anna Cobb) as she prepares to participate in a massive multiplayer online horror game. In a claustrophobic eight-minute webcam shot, Casey ‘takes the World’s Fair Challenge’—that is, she pricks her finger with a pin, tells the camera she wants to go to the World’s Fair, and then watches a series of flashing lights with an unblinking gaze. According to the lore, which is collectively created on the internet via web forums and YouTube videos, this ritual can lead to a wide variety of disturbing symptoms.

When she starts recording, an unconscious distinction has been drawn between the YouTuber and the teenage girl underneath.

This first scene establishes a clear divide between the artificial and the authentic: we see not the uploaded video but the ‘raw footage’, which includes Casey’s awkward rehearsals before the full take. The slow pace and lack of cuts (along with Cobb’s remarkable performance) gives the scene a verité feel. First the viewer meets the ‘real’ Casey as she makes her bed, picks up her stuffed lemur, and turns out the lights, so that when she starts recording, an unconscious distinction has been drawn between the YouTuber and the teenage girl underneath.

At the beginning of Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard presents a Borgesian fable about an empire whose cartographers create a map so detailed that it covers the entire territory, eventually becoming inextricable from the terrain underneath. When he imagines a collision between the digitised system and Zion in The Matrix, he is thinking of a narrative that tracks the fusion of the ‘territory’ and the ‘map’. If we think of the real Casey as the territory and her YouTube persona as a sort of simulated self, this is precisely what unfolds in We’re All Going To The World’s Fair.

When Casey connects with another YouTuber named JLB (Michael Rodgers), the film jumps from her home life into his, forcing the viewer to watch her ‘symptoms’ develop solely through the prism of the internet. Early on, she describes an increasing confusion between dreams and reality, a lack of control over her actions, and a feeling of disconnection from her own body. As the videos progress, her content becomes more and more unsettling. She walks through a cemetery and calls it her high school, hinting at the possibility of a mass shooting. With a smirk, she says, ‘My father keeps a gun in the barn. Thinks I don’t know where.’ Watching uploads instead of raw footage, we start to worry about her mental health. Is this still just a roleplaying game for Casey? Or is she lost in the simulation?

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Jane Schoenbrun has long been interested in online horror communities. In 2018, they released an archival documentary called A Self-Induced Hallucination about Slenderman, a supernatural character that originated as a creepypasta Internet meme (much like the fictional World’s Fair Challenge).

Upon the documentary’s release, Schoenbrun wrote an article for Filmmaker Magazine, explaining their experience with the online phenomena:

Like thousands before me I started watching YouTube videos, reading creepypastas, Wiki-entries, and MMORPG forum posts, all of them written in the first-person, most of them written by kids. I was fascinated by the agreed-upon premise underlying this creative movement: that contributors would never break character, that they would never admit that the experiences they were recounting were fictional. This allowed contributors and participants to immerse themselves, to live for a while in the fictional worlds they had invented together.

Schoenbrun went on to discuss a real-life event that haunts World’s Fair, a 2014 incident in which two 12-year-old girls lured a friend into the woods and stabbed her to death ‘to appease Slenderman’. (Later, both were diagnosed as severely schizophrenic.)

It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the ‘reality’ and the ‘fiction.’ Zion and the Matrix have fully collided. The map has obscured the territory.

This incident seems to haunt JLB as well. During a Skype call, as Casey becomes more explicit about an impending act of violence, he requests that they ‘go out of game’ for a moment. He tells her that he’s worried about her, trying to remind her that this is simply an MMORPG. At first she seems confused, asking the meaning of the acronym, but midway through the conversation, she shifts out of character, frustrated by his fear. ‘What did you think? I was actually going to kill myself? Or kill somebody else?!’ she says directly to the web cam, both to JLB and through the fourth wall to the viewer. ‘They’re just videos,’ she says emphatically. ‘What is wrong with you? They’re pretend.’ I couldn’t help but sympathise with JLB in this climactic moment. I, too, thought she might be lost in the World’s Fair, when in fact it was I who’d been convinced by her performance.

Or is that simply what she wants me to believe?

Maybe these final lines are a defence mechanism that arises the moment Casey wakes up from the dark fantasy of the World’s Fair. Maybe the game had in fact clouded her conscience, the spell only snapped when JLB asked her to break character. The very fact that we don’t have definitive answers to these questions ties together all the film’s conceptual threads. In these final scenes, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the ‘reality’ and the ‘fiction.’ Zion and the Matrix have fully collided. The map has obscured the territory. Similar to the ending of David Cronenberg’s 1999 film, Existenz (in which the viewer cannot determine whether or not they’ve truly left the video game), we cannot definitively determine whether or not we’ve left the World’s Fair.

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Baudrillard was not writing exclusively about the media, and Schoenbrun is not writing exclusively about the internet. The book and the film both tap into a deeper truth about the very fabric of our society.

The first feature film Schoenbrun produced was an anthology project called collective: unconscious, in which five filmmakers adapted each other’s dreams for the screen. In the opening monologue, hypnotherapist Daniel Ryan says, ‘The core principle of hypnosis is that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. And we can see this most clearly by examining the common and everyday trances that occur in our lives.’

In the 21st century, we live in a world of increasingly fabricated realities, of self-induced hallucinations. As digital life blends with physical life and internet subcultures splinter off into increasingly niche ideologies, the trance states become more noticeable (and often more ridiculous from the outside). The obvious example here is QAnon, in some ways another sort of massive multi-player online roleplaying game, which has entered the realm of right-wing American politics. The confusion between reality and fiction in these communities has especially profound consequences when its devotees are driven to violence. Take Edgar Maddison Welch, who fired a semi-automatic rifle in a pizza restaurant he believed was at the centre of a Hillary Clinton-led child trafficking ring. Or Robert Eugene Crimo III, who opened fire on a crowd during a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois. Crimo, it turned out, had an extensive presence in online alt-right circles that collectively fantasised about exactly this kind of event.

To call World’s Fair a simple warning against the dangers of living in fiction would be a disservice to its complexity as a work of art.

And this, of course, is nothing new. People have long committed atrocities inspired by societal fictions, their victims flattened into mere signs and symbols. World’s Fair, despite its narrow boundaries, shows this process unfold, either in Casey or in JLB or in us. Watching the film, we as viewers can’t help but get lost in the characters’ internet-induced confusions. We experience all the discomfort and anxiety that arises when the lines between reality and simulation start to blur.

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To call World’s Fair a simple warning against the dangers of living in fiction, however, would be a disservice to its complexity as a work of art, and a disservice to Schoenbrun’s brilliance as a filmmaker. Underneath the horror, there’s something else strange and beautiful happening here.

While some critics were frustrated by the film, lamenting its failure to ‘close the loop’ on certain key questions, the majority applauded its most essential ingredient: the lack of life outside the internet. ‘If her surroundings are any indication—a nondescript, sparsely populated frosty town of empty roads and soulless strip malls—you can hardly blame her to look for excitement and a sense of belonging elsewhere,’ writes Tomris Laffly on RogerEbert.com. In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw puts forth an even bleaker reading. ‘There are no in-person dialogue scenes in this film: it shows us an atomised world, everyone alone in a weirdly untenanted universe, like the survivors of some terrible apocalypse or neutron bomb that kills people yet leaves buildings upright and the traffic moving.’

After our introduction to Casey, the film’s credits sequence offers a series of what look like establishing shots for her home town: a Best Buy, a KFC parking lot, an intersection, and a shuttered-up Toys ‘R’ Us. Every image is drab concrete and American decay. Against this sad backdrop, the map, or the internet, or the World’s Fair—I’ve started using these terms interchangeably—becomes all the more appealing.

If we stick, for the moment, with Casey’s assertion that she was never lost in the World’s Fair, but rather using the game as an avenue for self-expression, I can’t help but marvel at the constellation of art pieces she creates. Despite the fact that we see almost nothing of her daily life, she does manage to show us her world through the prism of this MMORPG. The shots of American decline in the opening could be taken directly from Casey’s videos, one of which features an AutoZone, shot from across a busy road.

In another video, Casey sings and dances in front of the camera, finally resembling a more typical depiction of her generation. But in the middle of the song, she lets out a sudden blood-curdling scream—the only jump scare in the movie—then returns to singing and dancing again, as if nothing happened. This is her existence. A song on a screen with an indescribable terror bubbling up underneath.

What’s so truly horrifying about Casey’s videos is that they are real. Presumably, this character does in fact fantasise about hurting her father, and maybe even hurting herself. I can imagine she would in fact feel, in this digital age, disconnected from her body—similar to the other YouTubers taking the World’s Fair Challenge, who claim to feel no pain, who have turned to plastic, who pull raffle tickets out from underneath their skin. Herein lies the allure of these creepypasta stories: they give teenagers a space to grapple with the angst of 21st century alienation. Through the medium of the World’s Fair Challenge, she and the rest of the community manage to express the condition of modern life, of dissatisfaction and isolation, of living in a map without a territory. Whether Casey is ‘acting’ or not, she seems sincere when she says, ‘I feel it though. I think I’ve always felt it. This world wasn’t real. It’s just some kind dream I need to wake up from.’

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is available to stream on Shudder, and to rent or buy on other digital platforms.