Emma Grey Ellis
Momo is not coming for your children, but she may be coming soon to a theater near you. The creepy face, which became the center of a viral hoax that petrified thousands of parents earlier this year, is reportedly about to be the basis of a horror movie from Orion Pictures, Vertigo Entertainment, and producer Taka Ichise. It’s easy to see why. It’s Pennywise wishes he could stretch his smile that wide. There’s a freakishness to Momo’s over-taut skin and bulging eyes, and she’s not even moving. Oh, and did we mention she has bird legs? Momo won’t be the first meme character to make her way to the movies, but, for a lot of reasons, she might be the most likely to succeed where her predecessors failed.
Momo’s story starts in 2016, when Japanese artist Keisuke Aiso, head of Link Factory special effects company, created a sculpture he called Mother Bird and exhibited it at Vanilla Gallery in Tokyo. Mother Bird was always creepy, but she was innocent, artsy—and Instagram fodder. Spanish-speaking users found the images and they quickly became the inspiration for a creepypasta-ish urban legend on the Spanish-speaking web, linked to a mysterious WhatsApp phone number and messages encouraging children to commit suicide.
You’ve probably heard about this before. People, including Kim Kardashian, began reporting that images of Momo were being spliced into YouTube videos aimed at children, along with threatening messages telling kids to do things like hold knives to their throats. It was scary! And fake. Since its debunking, Momo has gone on to have several memetic afterlives. The best is Wholesome Momo, which uses the old-school image macro meme format to make Momo’s face spread affirming messages rather than awful ones. (Looking into Momo’s wild eyes and reading “You are loved” will never not be funny.)
Typically, the easiest way for a meme to move from internet fodder to money-maker is through merch. (Who among us hasn’t considered a Nyan Cat iPhone case?) That path wasn’t really an option for Momo because, well, she’s creepy. No one wants that face on a T-shirt. So she’s now being afforded the crossover option available to the most terrifying of memes: a horror flick.
The allure of the meme movie is obvious: It’s a mashup of what are arguably our culture’s two favorite art forms. Despite that, nearly every meme-inspired movie has struggled either in development or upon release. It can work. The best example is probably campy-fun shark flick The Meg, but that took two decades, and was actually based on a book. The meme was more that the internet refused to let the movie die. Zola, a movie based on the raucous 2015 Twitter thread about strippers and murder that made threading a relevant storyteling form, is reportedly still in the works at A24, but … it’s been five years.
The meme-to-movie journey that’s most comparable to Momo’s, though, is Slender Man, the oughties internet boogie man who tragically inspired real-life murder and a 2018 movie that was, in a word, dreadful. It would be reasonable to assume that Slender Man might have had a meme-movie chilling effect, especially for memes related to encouraging children to do violence to themselves or others. The people behind the as-yet-untitled Momo movie don’t quite see it that way. “That situation was a little bit different because there were proven incidents where children were harmed,” says Vertigo Entertainment producer Roy Lee. “But it is safe to say that the movie will not feature Momo being used to convince children to hurt themselves.” The precise plot, he says, is still TBD.
That leaves just two meme adaptation bugaboos: copyright and story. Too often, meme creators are left in the lurch while corporations glom onto their work and use it to sell products without giving the creator a cut. Kayla Lewis, alias Peaches Monroee, originator of the phrase “on fleek,” has become an internet culture cautionary tale for that reason. Delightfully, encouragingly, artist Keisuke Aiso will not share her fate. According to Lee, Orion Pictures has obtained the rights to the Mother Bird statue. “[Aiso] was very open to working together to make the movie as scary as possible,” Lee says. “I can see the possibility that we would have him create other new characters to populate the movie.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean a static image like Momo will make a compelling story (which was a real problem for Slender Man). But Lee and producer Taka Ichise are the masterminds behind The Grudge and The Ring franchises. Their success with past dark-haired creepies could mean they’re up to the Momo challenge.
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