By EMILY GAGNE
I’ll never forget the day that my dad told me he didn’t like horror movies.
We were settled in to watch Evil Dead II in the basement, Dad sitting in his beloved leather recliner while I lay comfortably on the couch, excited to see what was next for my favourite horror himbo/current crush, Ashley “Ash” Williams. I thought things were going well until Deadite Linda started prancing around the woods. As if on cue, my dad gave me a strange look, got up from his La-Z-Boy and never came back.
The next day, I asked him why he left so suddenly, why he didn’t want to finish an arguably great movie with me. It was then that I was told the hard, unflinching truth. While he took me to the theatre to see all those shitty slasher sequels and supernatural snooze fests, he never liked them as much as I did. In fact, he was only in it to spend time with me.
This should have been a sweet moment, a reminder that sometimes, those who love you will engage with things they don’t care about just to make you happy. But at the time, it felt like a bitter betrayal. This thing that I thought we connected with, that we shared just between us, was false, a white lie to maintain the status quo. Once again, I was a little weirdo, a loner in my pursuit of comfortable darkness.
Of course, as an adult, I have come to see this admission for what it was, a father trying to be real and open with his daughter while also honoring his own wants and needs. But to my younger, less mature self, it was heartbreaking in the same way it must have been for Casey (Anna Cobb) to hear the truth from JLB (Michael Rogers) in WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR.
Like many others, I was haunted by Jane Schoenbrun’s stunningly sad film when I saw it in theatres last year. Not only did it tell a devastating story of a young woman’s immersion into an online horror game, but it also offered what I found to be a cutting commentary on the limits of loneliness and the endless search for some form of connection in this disconnected world. It hit extremely – perhaps even dangerously – close to home, taking me back to a time I thought I wanted to forget.
In WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR, teen Casey (Anna Cobb) is mainly seen through the lens of her computer and phone as she documents the process and aftermath of taking the “World’s Fair Challenge.” According to lore, anyone who follows the steps of this viral game (which includes saying “I want to go to the World’s Fair” several times in a row) will go through a series of changes, with other “players” sharing disturbing videos documenting physical and emotional transformations that can only be described as unreal.
Despite the uncanny quality of some of these first-person accounts, it’s clear that Casey is at least somewhat invested in the possibilities of this game and the idea of the loss of self – so much so that when she receives messages from a stranger calling himself JLB saying “YOU ARE IN TROUBLE” and “I NEED TO TALK TO YOU,” she takes the bait. The lonesome duo quickly forms a brief virtual friendship that involves exchanging theories and information through private chats on Skype.
When I first watched WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR, I worried about Casey, wondering why in the hell she would take this stranger and his absolutely haunting avatar seriously, but then I remembered how alone I felt as a young person, how I lived for any semblance of connection I could find. Sometimes this led me to toxic friendships or staying up too late talking to acquaintances who had nothing better to do than painfully personalize their screen name on MSN messenger. Other times, it caused me to believe in things that I should have known were a sham – everything from the magical healing powers of Proactiv (which actually ruined my skin, not the other way around) to the most popular guy in school having a crush on me (he didn’t).
It’s easy to assume that there’s something darker occurring between JLB and Casey when he reveals himself to be a middle-aged man who seemingly lives alone in an obscenely large house. After all, the guy spends far too much time in a bedroom fit for a young boy, his clunky monitor plastered with cruel etchings from characters in the World’s Fair universe. Is he a pedophile using a popular trend to groom outcast kids? Or is he, like Casey, simply a highly creative hermit in search of something or someone to live for?
The last act of the film sees Casey act more and more erratically as she loses herself in the pursuit of the World’s Fair under JLB’s watchful, warning eye. She shares a video of her dancing to a pop song before breaking into a sudden, supposedly unprompted scream, along with another heart-wrenching clip of her ripping apart her beloved stuffed sloth, Poe. What is perhaps the most disturbing, however, is the video where she walks the streets of her small town and talks about taking her father’s gun and killing him and herself.
People like to call teens, especially teen girls, overdramatic. But the truth is, figuring out who you are is an ongoing and grueling process, and your teen years are the true start of this, at least on a conscious level. That time is messy, emotional and challenging for everyone, especially when you are taking it all on without any support to speak of.
Watching Casey act out during the climax of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair might be frightening to some, but I find it strangely cathartic. As someone who spent a lot of her young adulthood battling undiagnosed mental illness and bouts of unwanted social seclusion, I remember retreating into myself when I really wanted to scream at the top of my lungs. Much like Casey, I spent many weekend nights in my room staring into some sort of screen, losing myself in the simulated worlds of The Sims and Rollercoaster Tycoon after self-imposed marathon study sessions and anxiety spirals. Surely, if there had been something like the “World’s Fair Challenge” back then, I would have fallen for it, too, daring myself to read and watch more about it until I couldn’t take it anymore.
I may not have had the “World’s Fair Challenge” at Casey’s age, but I did have something equally escapist – an unbridled passion for film. I would beg my parents to go to the video store every Friday, renting half a dozen movies at a time, usually a mix of horror flicks and women-led sob stories. When I wasn’t holed up in the basement sorting through my stack of rentals, I was going to the multiplex, my whole family sitting down for broad comedies, action flicks and acclaimed dramas, while the gross-out stuff (everything from Dracula 2000 to Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo) was reserved for my dad and me.
As he was working hard to build his business from the ground up, I didn’t see a lot of my father when I was a kid, so many of my earliest memories of him are of these independent trips to the cinema. I recall, for example, him taking me to see American Pie 2 and covering my eyes at the nude scenes even though I had already seen the movie (including the boobs) with my older cousins. I also remember us going to see Scream 3 in theatres, which was a truly life-affirming event for someone who had obsessively watched the first two films on repeat at home. I don’t remember him expressing that he enjoyed either of these films, but I remember that I enjoyed seeing them with him.
Would Casey have fallen prey to JLB or the “World’s Fair Challenge” if her dad, a figure only heard and not seen in the film, took her to horror movies (perhaps a Paranormal Activity sequel) sometime? I can’t say for sure, but I do know that Casey wanted, nay needed, more attention than she was getting at home.
Whether JLB’s intentions were pure when he first interacted with her, he gave Casey hope in her highly isolated world, not to mention a reason to keep going, to keep creating. And so, when he breaks the news that the “World’s Fair Challenge” is not real but is in fact a widespread RPG, he also breaks her heart, sending her still-developing brain into emotional overdrive. Suddenly, she is living in a true horror movie of her own making, harshly reminded that real life can be even more harrowing than the scariest of stories.
We don’t know what happens to Casey after her last video is posted. The final scene of the film sees JLB share a sweet but suspicious story of meeting up with her at a café sometime in the near future. While a part of me wants to believe that Casey is still alive and well, I know the truth is likely much, much darker. Still, I love that Schoenbrun lets us live in this place of unknowing, keeping the fantasy alive for those who need it while also allowing for a more cynical reading if you dare to go there. Like the “World’s Fair Challenge” itself, the movie is an exercise in imagination, an invitation to interrogate the inner recesses of your mind in the same way Casey explores the darkest corners of the internet.
Sure, I sometimes wish my dad had never told me he didn’t like horror movies. It would have been nice to have maintained that fictionalized reality into adulthood, perhaps even for the rest of my life. Ultimately, I’m just glad he made time for me and my interests at a time when I was struggling – perhaps beyond his understanding – to be seen, heard and understood. Because as We’re All Going to the World’s Fair suggests, sometimes playing pretend is just what you need to get through reality.