Photo: Sundance Film Festival

The Democratized Dysphoria of ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

This is not an essay. This is an allegory.

In Jane Schoenbrun’s film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, a young teenager inducts herself into an internet ritual — a creepypasta MMORPG that revolves around the idea of the World’s Fair. Essentially, you say the phrase “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times, you prick your finger and rub the blood on your computer screen, and you watch a short video of flashing lights. This inducts you into the World’s Fair, and will cause your body to change in strange ways. The results are different for everybody, but one thing is certain — you will change.

Or, at least, that’s how the story goes. In the film, the World’s Fair is nothing more than a game, a form of communal storytelling. Other people will share their stories of what happened to them when they joined the World’s Fair, and how their bodies changed. Some might even shoot videos, and use special effects to make their symptoms seem more realistic. They all tell their own narratives to keep the meta-narrative alive.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s all a narrative. A ruse, something you buy into because you’re invested in the story, and you want to see what you can add to it. It’s a lie, but it’s a lie that we all agree upon.

Casey, the film’s protagonist, is an isolated person. She is never seen physically interacting with anyone in the film. The closest thing we get to a physical interaction on screen is her father yelling at her from the other room to turn down the volume. The only other person she communicates with is JLB, a middle-aged man who has an incredibly creepy fascination with Casey’s transformation. He frequently calls her on Skype, always concealing his face. He sends her edited videos of her in her sleep, claiming that she is changing, and she doesn’t even know it.

Casey, of course, buys into the narrative. It’s just a part of the game, after all. She records videos of herself and uploads them to her YouTube channel, documenting the effects that the challenge is having on her body. At one point, she records herself dancing and singing along to music. She does this for about a minute and a half, and then, seemingly involuntarily, she begins screaming. A deafening, volatile scream. She is changing, and she can’t control it.

Her changes are, admittedly, less intense as compared to some others. One case involves a man who has a blue infection on his arm that dispenses arcade tickets, echoing the man’s desire for a plush of Stitch from Lilo and Stitch when he was younger. Another involves a woman with hyperfeminine beauty whose skin is turning into plastic. She poses in front of a mirror, pristine and perfect, with accessories like a Barbie doll. She is, in a sense, the feminine ideal, but an ideal that has been processed and manufactured. Something that, in the real world, is impossible to achieve. Incidentally, Casey’s dad is introduced when he interrupts Casey while she is watching the video of the plastic woman. The distant and unsympathetic father figure is instantly intertwined with the hyperfeminine ideal — he is an opposition to it.

Casey tries to film herself in her sleep one night, but she decides against it, deriding the endeavor as something silly and childish. She goes outside to her father’s shed, where she finds a shotgun. This shotgun, we find out later, is integral to Casey’s plan to kill her father. She lies down on a couch in front of a projector, and starts playing an ASMR video. The video shows a woman calming the viewer down after a bad dream. “Sometimes, you wake up from the nightmare, and you still think it’s real,” she says. “Relax,” she says. Curiously, other than Casey, there are no other named female characters in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Casey doesn’t have a mother — only a father. The two women with the most screen time besides Casey are the plastic woman and the ASMR woman. If but for a fleeting moment, feminine role models. Maternal beacons, like lighthouses on a dark voyage at sea. Beckoning. Reassuring. “Sometimes, you wake up from the nightmare, and you still think it’s real.” Sometimes, the nightmare is reality, and femininity is the only solace.

At what point does the World’s Fair stop being a game? What I mean is, when does it start to not only become real, but take the place of reality? When does what the game dictates become literal? Casey is isolated from all forms of face-to-face interaction — even JLB is just a profile picture on a Skype call. The only faces she sees are the faces of the players of the game. People she doesn’t even know. A collective mass of people changing, for better or for worse. But they’re changing, alright. By God, they’re changing.

And what does she know about change, anyway? It’s not like arcade tickets are spilling out of her forearms. She’s not plastic. She’s just plain old Casey with the distant father. Casey, who has no friends. Casey, who gets 32 views on her YouTube videos. Casey, who has nothing to show for all her change but a scream. A deep, guttural, involuntary, terrifying scream.

It’s all a game, until it’s not.

In her final conversation with JLB, Casey name-drops the concept of strange loop theory. For those unfamiliar, a strange loop is a concept proposed by Douglas Hofstadter. It is a hypothetical hierarchy that circles back upon itself, so that as you rise higher and higher through the ranks, you will eventually end up where you started. Likewise, Casey finds herself descending deeper and deeper into the World’s Fair, uploading videos and showing her symptoms. At a particularly jarring point in the film, she uploads a video of herself violently destroying a stuffed animal that she’s essentially had since she was born. Ripping apart the person she used to be. After she snaps out of that violent rage, she coddles the remains of the animal remorsefully. Regretting her own destruction.

After descending far enough into the World’s Fair, Casey finds… herself. Just herself — the person she was all along, but that she was too afraid to embrace. That her father stopped her from embracing. Ripped apart, and brought back together again. The same, but not quite the same. The strange loop circles back.

Sometimes, the nightmare becomes real, and you just learn to live with it.

Filmmaker-ish. Critic-ish.