The Best Movies of the Year: We’re All Going to the World’s Fair Holds Up a Mirror to Existential EmptinessMovies Features best of 2022
Of all film genres, horror seems like the one with the most cursed discourse surrounding it: We hear people talk about which movies are “elevated” or which can somehow be nominated in comedy categories because the genre is always dead on arrival when it comes to awards. People circulate debates online about whether a horror movie is any good if it’s not necessarily “scary.” The objective of horror, as Paste’s Jim Vorel argued in a horror-focused feature we wrote together a few years ago, is to horrify the audience. We’re in the midst of a significant boom period for the genre, on the big screen, on the small screen, and even in the indie space, where horror in 2022 also had some standout entries. Among them was Jane Schoenbrun’s directorial debut, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, a horror movie that right from the get-go gives you the full view behind the curtain, and despite some imperfections manages to tell a story that feels perfectly of our current moment.
I wrote about Schoenbrun’s approach back in April, and noted the most important thing about it, which is also seemingly contradictory: There’s really nothing going on behind the curtain. Horror movies fall into a million different subgenres, but one thing universal to them is that there is some threat, some external danger. Some movies explicitly try to make that external threat resonate with internal conflict: A creature that stalks you in the guise of people wearing creepy smiles, a UFO that is actually a wild animal and also kinda looks like the aperture of a camera. Maybe a creepy old VHS tape that preys on the voyeur in all of us. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair reveals right away that there really is no singular malevolent external threat.
Anna Cobb’s Casey is a kid living an isolated life and finding meaning through an online creepypasta community. She undergoes paroxysms of rage that destroy her cherished childhood teddy bear and seems to lose control of herself as she sleeps. In a sequence as foreboding as it is understated, another YouTuber begins to reach out to her from behind ghoulish looking walls of nightmarish text and anonymous Zoom avatars. It’s the kind of stuff that happens in a movie where the harmless chanting of a creature’s name in a mirror summons an actual demon, or obsession with the occult leads to seances actually working.
But that isn’t what’s happening at all. The movie tells us so: Casey’s interlocutor and fellow creepypasta obsessive is just some guy who, like her, is performatively keeping the story going to fill a void in his own life, one where we see that a nice house and an apparent domestic partner do nothing to make him feel he belongs, just as Casey’s father and (presumably) her school and community do nothing to make her feel like she belongs. This is not, I should stress, the end of the movie, but something like the end of the first reel. The movie keeps going, using the cinematic grammar of horror films all the same, and still being a horror film, one where the looming threat isn’t a hulking murderer or a spirit that makes you do awful things, but an emptiness underlying everything.
It was hard for me to pick my favorite feature this year, and was also hard for me to narrow down just a favorite horror flick: I variously debated using this space to write about this, Phil Tippett’s incomparable Mad God and Hellbender, the latest horror feature from the industrious studio-in-a-household Adams Family. All of them feel as if they could only have been made now, only have been conceived out of the anxieties of our age. All three have a handmade quality (quite literally in Mad God’s case), but We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is undoubtedly the least visually disturbing or even viscerally scary of the bunch. So why am I still thinking about it a year later? Why do I insist that me saying that is not an insult?
It’s been a profoundly shitty three years since everything in our lives became, whether we admit it (or not) or acknowledge it (or not), entirely about COVID-19. Safety and compassion and common sense have been systematically beaten out of us from every direction, and for many people it is still an unbearable, nonsensical time to be alive: My kids’ high school insists on holding unmasked indoor gatherings while large chunks of the student populace can’t attend or perform at them due to illness. I know I’m not the only one who feels shoved to the side by the broader, less careful majority: Fewer people are going to movie theaters, even after the pandemic has been declared “over,” and epidemiologists and doctors still sing their public songs of pleading and despair.
My top picks for horror this year articulated some of that weird, isolated desperation, each in their different ways: Mad God with its journey through a hellish society built upon and fueled by suffering, Hellbender with its lurid examination of an overbearing mother and the young woman she has sequestered. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is entirely about isolation, desperation, loneliness, and the bizarre ways we try to turn the emptiness of our lives into something, anything meaningful. The external threat in World’s Fair is that emptiness, a thing formless and omnipresent: It is the compassion of Casey’s father and community that is not there, the lack of intervention by professionals or friends who could help her but are not there.
Creepypasta is… well, not very good. It’s interesting primarily in what it tells us about the ways younger writers and creators are expressing the things that they find to be horrifying. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair manages to hold a mirror up, not just to that community of creators (some of whose work is blithely just slipped right into the movie) but to the animating influences behind why they’re telling these stories.
My other best horror entries of the year were more technically proficient and, yeah, way scarier while I was watching them. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is the one I’ve been thinking about the longest after the credits roll.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.