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Nothing's scarier than silence in "We're All Going to the World's Fair"
An analysis of a slow-burn, coming-of-age horror that asks the most important spiritual question of our times: “What if the internet's a demon we summon into our lives by posting on it?”
It’s so trite. I shouldn’t even write it. Okay, fine: We’ve never been more connected. We’ve never been more alone.
What else is there to even say about the horrors of this, the defining paradox of modern life? Well—according to We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, anyway—nothing.
It just wants you to feel them. Like really, really feel them.
This isn’t an examination of the dreads and anxieties our over-examined modern life, it’s an embodiment of them. Fair bears all the hallmark symptoms of our times: the ineffable loneliness; the self-perpetuating alienation; that alone-but-never-quite-alone feeling. Its silences ring with the ultrasonic hiss of the world’s billion devices. That we’re left wanting more from these silences—more clarity, answers, more scares, more anything—is a feature, not a bug.
Is she…? Is he…? What specifically is the thing we should be most afraid of here? Which of these realities is the most horrifying one?
We’re up at 2 am, texting these questions rapid-fire, and the film keeps replying with that same goddamn Jack Nicholson GIF.
A waking, very-fucking-real-feeling nightmare
With its first scene, Fair gives us the blueprint for how it plans to torment us. It wants us to keep guessing at what’s about to happen, and grow more and more uncomfortable when nothing much does.
Will the World's Fair Challenge be, in some supernatural sense, real? Will shadows leap meatily out of dark closets? Will we get a series of creature encounters featuring practical-if-we’re-lucky, CGI’d-if-we’re-not effects? A ghost story whose story we wont remember?
Sorry, Charlie. Fair’s nerve-racking effect is built upon our unfulfilled expectation that it’s going to be another paint-by-numbers indie horror. During long bouts of uninterrupted quiet, it wants us to brace for the screech of a jump scare that does not come. What are we to do with all of our compounding dread?
It’s only when looking back that we’ll realize there were horrors lurking in all these silences. They didn’t burst into frame. They spread like black mold in the walls our own mind. Some weaker part of me hoped the would film ruin itself with some dumb twist: “There it is!” Some writhing shadow manifesting like poured smoke through a glitching pixel on a screen. Something to relieve the tension, to release me (and Casey) from what was really going on here. Some cheap trick to allow me to forget about the movie like so many lesser indie horror flicks.
Better luck next time, bucko! This is a waking, very-fucking-real-feeling nightmare! I haven’t been able to scrub it from my mind!
There is a world outside of Casey’s bedroom. But considering what we see of it during the title sequence, we also don’t want to spend much time there.
Not quite suburban, not quite rural. An all-too-familiar, copy-pasted blandscape, in which mostly carless highways stretch towards mostly empty horizons; in which the mostly carless parking lots outside the big-box stores are the only seeming shared public spaces. Casey rakes a stick across a fence in the rare (only?) instance where we see her away from her laptop or phone. It couldn’t feel lonelier.
Except of course it could. Because from here on out, we (mostly) see Casey scrolling through, staring into, and searching for connection in the loudest, most perfectly engineered amplifier of loneliness there is. And honestly, given where she lives, we’re kinda relieved.
At least online, something cool could happen.
We’re drawn into Casey’s inner world, where she’s been looking, for a long time now, to make something—anything—happen. We understand why she’d sign up for “the scariest MMORPG of its kind,” but we worry about what she’s getting herself into.
What IRL people there are in Casey’s life exist, functionally, as background NPCs. In fact, the only actual people we see in her offline world exist as a faceless crowd, gathered to celebrate the New Year: a pixelated smear of shadows seen from a physical distance, and through the added distance of Casey’s cellphone camera.
The actual only other person in her life, Dad, is an intruder. He bamfs into Casey’s world (in Fair’s only diegetically earned jumpscare) to bang on Casey’s door in the middle of the night. After that, he’s a phantom: a bodily presence you sense ringing in the shadows of a home you thought to be empty.
Notice how this presence haunts every silence in that house thereafter. After Casey sneaks out to to tumble down the rabbit-hole of recommended videos, we brace for Dad to barge in, and for real this time. We lean forward, shoulders hunching, muscles tightening. We watch Casey the way Casey watches the world: alone, terrified (but curious), waiting (hoping?) for something to show up on screen, for something—especially the bad thing we know is coming—to finally happen.
Eventually something does: Player Two enters.
Showing Him on-screen this early into the story may be Fair’s biggest shock. But the movie is more interested in making us sit in the deep-seated unease that follows. Wait… if we’re already seeing the monster in broad daylight… what type of horror movie is this? Who is this guy? What does he want? Why is someone with a house and life this nice playing an alternate-horror reality game?
Again: Sit with it. Feel it.
We watch, alone
Fair’s most noteworthy visual storytelling device is the sheer number of lenses through which we watch Casey’s story—and then not just her story—unfold.
We watch through laptop cameras, phone cameras. We look at computers watching with their webcams. We watch videos of NPCs (to Casey) documenting their World’s Fair Challenge. Then, we watch Casey watch these videos. This has the effect of making us imagine how some stranger might watch her World’s Fair Challenge videos. We watch Casey watch Him. We watch Him watch Casey. We watch Casey look at herself through the plastic eye of a stuffed animal she just destroyed. This raises questions: How does she see herself? How would she like to be seen? Would she like to be seen at all?
Each of these added lenses only magnifies the claustrophobic loneliness of these characters. Each new point of view and person introduced in this story summons another presence to ring in the film’s silences. Eventually, this had the effect of making me aware of my own watching. Notice, during the more unsettling story beats of the story, that we watch these characters alone—not watching someone else, not recording something to be watched, not being watched by another character in the story.
It’s just them. And us, the viewer.
How does that make you feel?
This is the source of Fair’s horror.
Once we become aware of how the movie is forcing us to watch any given events—through whose eyes it’s making us consider this story, whose inner world we’re sitting in—that’s when the gooseflesh doth ripple.
Here’s an example that most clearly illustrates the effect: Fair shows us one moment twice, that oneiric sequence of Casey doing the initiation. It hits totally different the second time around.
The first time we watch this, we’re there in the room with her. Our eyes are Casey’s computer’s camera, and the lens’s gaze stays fixed in a long, unblinking take. Meanwhile, our eyes (as viewers) dart around the room behind her, scrutinizing every shadow for the first, unmistakable movement of the ropily-limbed entity that’s definitely, definitely in the room with her. We’re only one shot in, and we’re still suspicious that this film might be a schlocky found-footage flick.
The second time we see this shot, it’s near the end of the movie, we’re no longer in the room with her. And our gaze belongs to someone else.
Through whose eyes are we watching this time? Perhaps His. Perhaps through the eyes of some lurker, who’s been poking around in the same horror MMORPG subreddit as Casey, who’s been lonelily researching the World’s Fair Challenge, and who’s be considering the initiation themselves. (How might they feel watching her, a stranger to them?)
We don’t have to fight to keep our eyes fixed on her face. Sure, the room behind her is codec-crushed, full black. But even if it weren’t—even if we there were shadows to scrutinize—we’d no longer expect monsters to come bursting out of them: We know she’s alone in that room. And now that room, which we were once in with her, has the ocean of the entire internet between us and it.
Why—as we view a sequence we’ve already seen, in which we know nothing shocking or schlocky happens—why—as it really starts to dawn on us the likelihood that nothing shocking or shlocky will likely happen at all before these end credits roll—why does this make us feel more terrified?
Perhaps, like me, this is the moment you become aware of yourself watching this movie. You start to notice the silence of your own physical room; to glance at its darkened corners. You feel the devices in the room with you. Their microphones. Their cameras. Their silences. You hear the tinnitus-like ringing of bodily presences that shouldn’t be there with you.
Waiting for something to happen
Where do Fair’s overlapping alternate realities end, and its real reality—the one Casey and Him share online but out of character—begin? What’s everyone’s real motivation, in-game and out? How IRL scary did we get here, anyway, and would we have rather it be of a different flavor?
Depending on how you answer those last two questions, the final moments of Fair might leave you frustrated. And we don’t really get clear answers to the first questions, but it’s no matter: These aren’t the questions I found myself haunted by—still haunted by—months later.
Those manifest in the film’s final scene. Why give that character the movie’s final lines? To whom does that character imagine themselves speaking? Who might hear it? Who here is haunting whom? He, her? She, him? The internet, both of them?—all of us? All of us, ourselves?
Notice the silence after the last mouse click. Notice who else is watching: just us.
You can live alone in pretend reality for a long time. Maybe forever. But once you share your delusion with someone else, that fantasy only lasts as long as everyone else stays committed to the kayfabe. This is why the kind of horror movie Fair is is way more horrifying than the kind of horror movie it isn’t: The real thing beats make believe every time. When the terrible thing you’ve been waiting for finally starts to happen, it’s always already too late: You’re alone, and there’s no such thing as stepping out of game.
And what then?