Talking Points

The technohorror genre grows up

Fear — they say — is a response elicited by things we don't understand. We're afraid of flying, because we don't grasp aerodynamics. We're afraid of the spider in our bathtub, because we don't know if it's a species that can hurt us. We're afraid of computers, because, who knows? Maybe one day they'll have a mind of their own.

Decades ago, the latter bloomed into a full-fledged subgenre of horror preoccupied with contemporary anxieties of isolation and alienation, accelerated by advances in technology. "Technohorror is not merely a form of pure technophobia, but instead is a form of creeping, pervasive dread born of symbiotic uncertainty in our relationship to technology and our shifting perceptions of what it means to be human," explains Daniel W. Powell in his book, Horror Culture in the New Millennium.

But while technohorror began as a genre obsessed with the perils of digital life (think of the dated hysteria of 1992's Lawnmower Man, or 1995's The Net, or 2002's Feardotcom), movies like Jane Schoenbrun's terrific narrative feature debut, We're All Going to the World's Fair, are blazing a new path forward — one that stems from a deep understanding of technology, rather than ignorance and fear of it.

We're All Going to the World's Fair premiered this week as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and introduces us to Casey (Anna Cobb, in her fantastic feature debut), a high schooler who decides to join the "World's Fair" challenge. Sitting before her computer screen — our frame into the scene — Casey pricks her finger and chants "I want to go to the World's Fair" three times, then watches a strobing video that's supposed to, in some ominous way, transform her. She proceeds to record video diaries about her experiences as the challenge progresses; they're never watched by more than a handful of people, but still manage to catch the attention and concern of a fellow World's Fair obsessive who goes by the anonymous initials JLB.

While traditional technohorror uses an outside-in perspective to evaluate digital life — whether Nightmare Weekend or Kairo or Stephen King's exceptionally dreadful novel Cell — We're All Going to the World's Fair is a creation of the inside out. That means more than just that Schoenbrun (who wrote, directed, and edited the film) has a vocabulary that includes "creepypasta." Rather, like several other recent movies (Unfriended: Dark Web and Cam being other greats of this new generation), World's Fair truly "gets" how people use the internet to forge their identities, reach out for connection, and play-act different versions of themselves.

The creeping sense of dread stems not from an alarmist fear of what a teenage girl finding her way on the internet might do, but knowing exactly. Unlike technohorror of yore, the answer doesn't involve robots bent on world domination, or demons that pass through phone lines, or serial killers lurking on the other side of chatrooms, but the draw of online communities when you have no one in your hometown, and the internet strangers who fill the void of friends.