'We're All Going to the World's Fair' Has Its Roots in the Deep, Dark Internet

Director Jane Schoenbrun was inspired by creepypastas and dangerous viral challenges for their new movie.

we're all going to the world's fair
Utopia
Utopia

There is an internet adage about online self-expression called Poe's Law that goes something like this: It is virtually impossible to tell from the tone of someone's text on social media whether or not they're being sincere. Anyone can post anything online, truth or fiction, and without any indicators to the contrary, their words can be seen as sincere just as easily as they can be taken as parody. This is the lens through which director Jane Schoenbrun conceived their new film We're All Going to the World's Fair, which follows a young teen girl who becomes embroiled in a viral internet horror challenge.

For those who are expecting something like screenlife horror movie Host, World's Fair is a different creature entirely, focusing instead on the bizarre, grimy, beautiful, and fascinating culture of the internet rather than supernatural scares. Schoenbrun, who is nonbinary, is preoccupied with forms of online self-expression in all forms, and the ways in which the things we see on the internet have the power to warp reality. They wrote their own wiki for the "World's Fair challenge" that young Casey (Anna Cobb) records herself entering in the opening scenes of the film, reciting a phrase and performing a ritual, promising to document on video any "changes" she feels or sees in herself. The film has a limited release this weekend in New York and Chicago and will go nationwide and on-demand on April 22, and HBO Max has picked up the rights for, likely, a streaming release later this year. 

Because the film draws from so many niche interests from the digital world, Schoenbrun took us through a number of their influences while creating the dreamy, creepy story of Casey and her fellow World's Fair challenger, a man who goes by the initials JLB (Michael Rogers). No stranger to creepypastas, online challenges, and manufactured internet personalities—Schoenbrun previously made an archival documentary about viral internet boogeyman Slenderman—they were more than happy to describe the online phenomena that got under their skin.

_9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES9

The Reddit community r/nosleep is notorious amongst internet denizens for its catalog of scary stories written by users trying to out-creep each other. Most are written in first-person and claim to have actually happened, either to the original poster or to someone they "know," and are, for all intents and purposes, treated as fact, in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. Some of these stories, nicknamed creepypastas, become famous in their own right. One of these Schoenbrun describes as "the Ulysses of creepypasta."

One of the core rules, literally in [the r/nosleep] disclaimer section, it says, "Everything is true here, even if it's not." The idea being that you can't say, like, "A ghost just killed me, I just happen to be writing that." You have to say, "I'm pretty sure I just saw a ghost." And then somebody else could say, "Holy shit, I just saw that ghost, too, and I took a photograph of it," and share a doctored photograph. The way that this space conflates truth and fiction, I think is really, really, really interesting. But it's also one of these mediums that—the classical period of creepypasta on the internet, which I'd say is kind of over now, around the era of Slenderman and Jeff the Killer, or whatever—it can feel a bit like a one-trick pony. There are only so many ways you can take that idea and do something fresh with it.

And then I read _9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES9, which was a novel written in the comments of various random Reddit posts on various subreddits. Someone would ask a question about, like, how to make a good smoothie. And the first sentence of the response would have something to do with that question vaguely, but would be a first-person story written by either the author themselves or in some places without any context, a member of the Manson cult, or somebody fighting in World War II. And if you clicked through to the user, and read all of these posts in reverse chronological order, what you eventually discovered was this hyper-complex fantasy novel that is, I'd say, as inspired by Thomas Pynchon as it's inspired by Lovecraft, and that is hyper-engaged with questions about what the internet is, why the internet is, and how it's changing reality. It eventually becomes the work of metafiction concerned with itself.

It blew a door open to me about what you could do with the narrative structures of the internet. The idea of Reddit posts as something that needs to have a narrator but not always necessarily the same narrator was really fascinating to me. The algorithms section of my film, where the story is given over to this stream of various perspectives, was really drawn from that. When you read it in the form that it was created, it feels like a shattered piece of glass, like there was something whole that is just shattered across the internet.

And _9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES9 is totally anonymous. No one ever took credit for writing it. People thought it was viral marketing for Stranger Things at the time, because it was coming out around the same time and had similar Lovecraftian undertones, but it clearly wasn't. It was a deep, deep work created by somebody out there. There are all kinds of fan forums of people treating it like any other conspiracy theory where they're trying to figure out secrets within it and also trying to figure out who the actual author was, and this idea of anonymity and creative work that feels almost dangerous because you don't have the proper context for it is super influential to the film.

Kati Kelli's Girl Internet Show

Before YouTube and TikTok hype houses were crawling with Instagram-faced teens and 20-somethings making money off of viral content, there were the video channels you stumbled upon, whether by word-of-mouth or by letting the nascent algorithm take you wherever it went that day. While putting together an internet-based video series called The Eyeslicer, Schoenbrun came across the work of Kati Kelli and her YouTube channelGirl Internet Show, which she ran out of her childhood bedroom for 10 years.

We came across Kati's work and helped her make a short film, what she thought of as her first short film, and which I thought of as her five hundredth short film, because she had been making this amazing, really challenging, and really subversive work on YouTube. She had basically been running what feels like a variety show that she was hosting out of her childhood bedroom, where she plays lots of different characters. As the work goes on, it gets more and more complex. There are certain themes that she keeps returning to. A lot of the work is about sexuality and gender and parasocial relationships. It's also incredibly funny. It's clearly influenced by Tim and Eric, The Amanda Show, Eric Andre, that Adult Swim maximalist comedy, but it also feels incredibly personal. It's very engaged with what World's Fair is engaged in, which is this question of: How much is this me, and how much is this a performance?

You get the sense that she's using the work to, like any artist, say something visceral and personal that can't be said in another way. Kati's one of the most important artists in my life. She passed away in 2019 at the age of 27 and left behind this treasure trove of undiscovered video work. I have this new piece that I made with Kati's widower, a filmmaker named Jordan Wippell, where we've taken all of her videos and her home movies and constructed them into what we call a mixtape, like a feature-length piece that explores who she was as an artist and a person directly through the work and what it's saying and asking and interrogating. That would probably be the core-est influence on me and my own work and World's Fair specifically.

Blue whale challenge

As a mostly unregulated space in the US, the internet is home to plenty of things that many would deem morally reprehensible, dangerous, illegal, and downright frightening. While crafting a story about an internet phenomenon that seemingly comes from nowhere and is entirely controlled by the things people post about it online, Schoenbrun was particularly affected by tales of the "blue whale challenge," a suicide challenge that, like other internet-based urban legends, grew into a tulpa of our own making.

The thing that fascinated me about it is that it's essentially an urban legend. It's this myth that you go onto a pro-suicide forum, and request a moderator, and that moderator gives you a number of challenges that start off very innocuous, like "Watch a scary movie," or "Leave your house after dark." And, eventually, over 30 days, these challenges escalate to carving a whale into your arm and then committing suicide. Pro-suicide online forums are a real thing and a real space. But this idea of a place where a moderator will walk you through this process has never been documented or proven to be a real thing. There are some Russian tabloid articles about it, but it became a huge scare in Eastern Europe, in Japan, in the UK, in certain communities in America, almost like a Satanic Panic sort of thing where people were trying to keep their kids off the internet and out of spaces where this sort of social contagion could take hold of them.

Obviously, this idea is incredibly upsetting. This idea of a predatory homicide that's almost like assisted suicide is really, really dark. When I read about it, it basically ruined me for a week, because it felt so in tune with the way that power presents itself in a lot of these online spaces. This is something that my film is super concerned about, that relationship between JLB and Casey, which I think you could view in a lot of different ways, as very predatory, as queer mentorship, as some sort of dysfunctional roleplaying, or, in its darkest tones, something like this.

I didn't want to make a film about the blue whale challenge, nor did I want to make a film about the Slenderman stabbing, which is floating around the ether. To simply recreate those things in a true-crime form almost feels like you're lending it further power, this myth-building idea that the whole thing is sort of predicated on. The film is really engaged with these questions, more so than creating a cautionary tale or a horror film about the dangers of the spaces. It's more about interrogating what a kid is looking for when they're reading about the blue whale challenge.

alex g
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Alex G's music

The dreamy, synth-y score for the film was composed by songwriter Alex G, a purveyor of genres like "bedroom pop" and "slacker rock" that feel right at home in internet-exclusive spaces. He built his audience through indie releases on his personal Bandcamp, and has to-date released eight full-length albums.

Music is really, really important to me in my creative process. I listen to a lot of music while writing, and I tend to say to myself, "I want my film to feel like this song sounds." Alex G, who did the score for the film, I think was one of the founding ideas of the type of movie I wanted to make. I knew that I was going to make a movie for not much money. And I knew I was going to make a movie off the grid and in a homemade way, rather than trying to go through a traditional system, because I thought that that was going to be the way that I was going to be most likely to make a daring, provocative, personal movie that broke rules in motivated ways. And so from the very beginning of working on the movie, I was giving myself those restrictions and thinking really consciously about how to make something that I would think of as like a "bedroom film" in the same way that Alex makes "bedroom pop music." I really wanted the movie to speak with this sort of hushed intimacy that I feel in his music.

I also think that, though his music is mostly phone recorded and recorded in pretty lo-fi methods, that there is so much intention and craft behind it, that it's not tossed off because it's homemade. It's almost holier, in a way. And in my film, a lot of it we did shoot on professional equipment, but we had a rule where, if the character was recording herself on the Photo Booth application on a Mac, that's what we were going to record on. Finding craft in these sorts of lo-fi amateur tools was really key to me. 

the human surge
Ruda Cine

The Human Surge

In 2016, Argentine filmmaker Eduardo Williams released his feature debut The Human Surge, which Schoenbrun caught while in production on World's Fair. Williams' film, divided into three parts and set in three different places around the globe, focuses on the spaces humans move through, whether it's home or work or the natural world, in their search for connection and escape from boredom.

That film really moved me in its exploration of space in cinema, the language with which the camera was engaging with digital space. It felt so textural and it felt so physicalized. It's definitely a piece of slow cinema that is, if you watch it in the right context, quite immersive and visceral, and less about plot and more about the way that grass feels and sounds. I remember watching that and feeling really moved by the ways in which it understood the internet as an emotional space and a space of this dual connection loneliness thing and the way in which the internet has this tunnel underneath the natural world, but not different from the natural world.

the ambivalent internet
Polity

The Ambivalent Internet

Written by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online is an academic text that explores the idea of the Internet as a tool used for self-expression, rather than a force that moves its human users towards one end of the moral spectrum or the other.

This book, in particular, speaks a lot about this question of identity play on the internet, and how it is an ambivalent force, in this sort of Poe's Law kind of way, how it's not necessarily one or the other, good or bad, this binary of, "The internet is eroding truth and fiction, and so it has to be bad," or, "The internet is a place where we can have a utopia detached from all of the bad things about the real world." It can be both of those things, and many, many other things at the same time. This space doesn't quite know what it wants or what it wants to be, and ditto the people within it. This idea of identity play having a lot of different applications, some of them very abusive, and some of them empowering, really resonates with me. And the idea of ambivalence as a core tenet of how we all are using and interacting with the internet to create ourselves and create our world.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.