Momo – the story and the picture – are utterly horrifying. And that's just about the only thing anyone can know for sure.
The story is linked with a bizarre and chilling photo, as well as a series of stories that are just as sinister. The picture is being used by people on WhatsApp who trick young people into extreme behaviour that includes taking their own lives, according to those reports.
It has led to warnings from the police, telling children to be careful and their parents to look after them. Many include the image, and suggestions that it has some sort of unknown power.
But it is not clear whether the warnings are talking about something that actually happens, or are just an urban legend. It at least appears that the story began as a meme, even if it has now morphed into something more real.
Where did Momo come from?
The picture appears to have begun as a work in an exhibition. And the tales about the WhatsApp account seem to be real – but the work of someone attempting to wind other people up.
Momo – or at least the image associated with her name – began life as a sculpture created for an art exhibit in Japan, in 2016. It was created by a special effects company called Link Factory, and was shown off in public.
The picture shows what appears to be a statue, of a young woman with long and thin black hair, a strange face and the body of a bird. It began being shared online in August 2016.
What is the Momo legend?
But it didn't acquire its current meaning until it was shared on the "creepy" subreddit, where it quickly became popular. From there, the image shot to popularity across other parts of the internet – with people attaching new chilling stories to it as they shared it, in an attempt to increase the sinister feeling of the image.
As such, it 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.
That, in turn, seems to have prompted warnings from the police, including in South America where the story began. Reports from Argentina suggest that Buenos Aires police are investigating one death and its possible relation to the Momo "game".
The Spanish national police tweeted to say that the reports might sound like something out of a video game but that they were best ignored.
Is it real?
It is impossible to know how legitimate any of those reports are – while the story has been connected with one suicide, it is not at all clear whether that is true or if the reports are simply the result of moral panic and fear. There may have been someone using the image who bullied or led a child astray – but that is a specific case, unrelated to the image and probably not connected to other people using it.
After those police warnings, the story has been written by a range of British tabloids over the last week, many of which make little reference to the meme itself and suggest that the Momo phenomenon might be purely real.
Some of those reports link the meme to the "blue whale suicide game". And it seems to be functioning in a largely similar way, though not as those reports suggest – it seems that the original case was either invented or existed in an insignificant way, but that confusing reports led to fears about what was going on.
None of this is to suggest that creepypasta or stories of this kind cannot be dangerous. The story of two girls who tortured and nearly killed their friend in the name of the fictional Slenderman character is warning enough. But there is no suggestion that the Momo story has had anything like that effect, beyond unverified reports in the tabloids.
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