Happy Hallowmeme: Momo

Join us this October as we look into the horrifying meme-beasts that haunt the Internet and trace their roots back to literature and role-playing games. In this installment we meet Momo, a creepy bird-monster who encourages people to commit suicide.

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(In the interest of not terrifying any kids who visit the site, I changed the picture to something a little more abstract. You can view the original here.)

Momo, Mo Problems

Of the rogues gallery of meme monsters, Momo is the newest on the block. Momo debuted in 2016 on Instagram, but she had been around a lot longer than that. The picture of Momo, popularly characterized as a creature from a movie, a deformed person, someone who altered their features with plastic surgery, or just plain Photoshop...is in fact a sculpture:

The picture actually shows only a part of a Japanese sculpture. The author of the work is Keisuke Aisawa and was first exhibited at the Vanilla Gallery in Tokyo under the name "Guai Bird", inspired by a Japanese urban legend.​

The picture of Momo commonly used on the Internet is zoomed-in and cropped, perhaps to obscure the creature's origins. And Momo's origins matter, because the creature that inspired her is much older than even the sculpture, and provides a partial explanation for how Momo manifested in the modern world.

Real-Life Consequences

Memes are not simply urban legends. They can inspire copycat killings or suicides. Momo's fellow nightmare, Slender Man, is credited with one such attack:

On May 31, 2014, two 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin held down and stabbed a 12-year-old classmate 19 times. When questioned later by authorities, they reportedly claimed that they wished to commit a murder as a first step to becoming proxies for the Slender Man, having read about it online. They also stated that they were afraid that Slender Man would kill their families if they did not commit the murder...One of the girls reportedly said Slender Man watches her, can read minds, and could teleport.

We'll discuss the man himself in a future installment. Like Slender Man, Momo is credited with encouraging violence as part of the "Momo Challenge":

The "Momo Challenge" is a form of cyberbullying that spreads through social media and cell phones. After phone users are enticed to contact a user named "Momo" through social media network WhatsApp, they receive graphic threats from the user and are instructed to perform a series of dangerous tasks. The scheme may include hacking the phone.

Despite claims of a potential suicide epidemic, no one has been actually been confirmed as being harmed to date. The Independent provides some much-needed perspective. Momo:

...is just another part of the creepypasta corpus. Users add to those legends by writing new stories – and sometimes doing so in ways that are indistinguishable from real creepy phenomena. One of those stories appears to be the suggestion that Momo, or someone using the picture, has an account on WhatsApp. That WhatsApp will send strange messages to people who attempt to communicate with it, the stories suggested. It does appear to be true that at least one person was doing so: people online claim to have spoken with that account, and received messages ranging from creepy to outright aggressive. But there is nothing to suggest that the person controlling that account was anything more than someone looking to scare or annoy people.

Despite its Internet origins, the fact that Momo is rumored to attack children is rooted in Japanese folklore.

Will the Real Momo Please Stand Up?

The sculpture of Momo was inspired by the Japanese yokai known as an ubume:

An ubume is a bird-like creature that became a woman who kidnapped children once its feathers were plucked. Ubume were believed to be the spirits of women who died in childbirth, though they could also have died while pregnant. Either way, their attachment to their lost child lingered after death and gave them an insatiable need for one of their own, which they appeased by kidnapping one.

The ubume's nearest parallel in Dungeons & Dragons is the harpy, which is a curious blend of the foul harpy and the mythical siren. The mythological harpy was credited with befouling everything it touched, while the siren had a magical voice that drove men mad. The confusion lies in the bird-like nature of both.

Similar to the ubume, both harpies and sirens were depicted as a blend of woman and bird. The idea that a bird-like creature can attract others with its voice has an obvious parallel in bird songs. Sirens were traditionally associated with bird-women, and the transition to their form as a mermaid came later:

Pausanias mentions a singing contest between the Sirens and the Muses, after which the Muses pluck the feathers of the defeated Sirens as prizes; this may be a mythical explanation for how they took their more familiar form as mermaids.

D&D combined the ugly features of the harpy with the siren's song, creating a monster that ironically is more like Momo in the modern era -- a siren song, luring people to their doom over their phones.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

Faenor

Explorer
Its a good article, but please take the photo down. My kids come here and they need to sleep at night.
 

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