Dir: Jane Schoenbrun. Starring: Anna Cobb, Michael J Rogers. 15, 86 minutes.
Have you ever heard of Candle Cove? Rummage through the internet for long enough and you’ll find people reminiscing about it, an old American children’s show from the Seventies. It was about a little girl, who made imaginary friends with a band of pirates. Their nemesis was called the Skin-Taker, who had a ragged cloak, glass eyes too big for his skull, and a hat made of… what was it again? The flesh of children? Wasn’t there also an episode where all the characters just screamed and screamed, nothing more?
Candle Cove never existed, of course. It’s a horror story, first set out in a series of fake forum posts by illustrator and horror aficionado Kris Straub in 2009, and one that’s since been expanded upon by others across the internet. It’s one part of a larger phenomenon known as the “creepypasta” – a form of collective online storytelling that blurs the line between reality and fiction. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, the directorial debut of Jane Schoenbrun, is a film about creepypastas that also feels like it could be a creepypasta itself, unfurling with the same unhurried dread.
Here, Schoenbrun builds a story around a fictional “World’s Fair” challenge, in which participants repeat a phrase three times, prick their fingers, and watch a short video full of flashing colours and ululating sounds. We see Casey (Anna Cobb), a lonely teenage girl and confessed horror fan, work through the steps. She scrolls through videos of what supposedly happens next: the feeling of Tetris being played inside your body, your limbs turning into plastic. We know almost nothing about Casey. We don’t see her school life, her friends, or her family. We do know that she is isolated and scared – the minute she sees car lights shine on her house’s driveway, she runs upstairs to her room and locks the door, sitting frozen in silence while footsteps rumble outside. An adult voice is heard only once, screaming at her for staying up until 3am.
All Schoenbrun really allows us to see is the Casey that exists in front of her webcam, dutifully documenting her descent into madness, whether it’s real, unreal or potentially a demonic possession. In one scene, she pauses a frenzied dance routine only so she can let out a few blood-curdling screams. In another, she marks her face with glow-in-the-dark paint so that she can blend into the constellation stickers on her bedroom ceiling. Cobb’s performance is totally inscrutable – remarkably so. It’s the great, uncertain terror of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair: are Casey’s eyes always tear-flecked because she’s sad? Is this what a cry for help looks like on the internet? Or is this a young artist indulging in the possibilities of storytelling?
The film’s perspective is limited largely to what Casey can see on her computer screen. But cinematographer Daniel Patrick Carbone otherwise captures Casey with an eerie, voyeuristic quality whenever the camera breaks away from it. That lends itself to the second, more disturbing element at the heart of Schoenbrun’s film: Casey is soon contacted by a much older man, JLB (Michael J Rogers), who sputters and wheezes over their Skype calls like a nervous gamer boy. He says he’s worried about her, and about the doors she’s opened by taking on the World’s Fair challenge.
We, as the audience, are immediately suspicious of JLB’s intentions. But We’re All Going to the World’s Fair doesn’t quite go where it’s expected, or hit the most obvious talking points. It offers something all the more intriguing – a last-minute twist that forces us to reexamine what we’d already accepted as either truth or fiction. Is Casey really who we think she is? Could there be a monster under your bed? A killer in the shadows? The very best folk stories, creepypasta or not, always end on a question.