The ghastly image of a goggle-eyed creature that triggered the so-called Momo Challenge — a viral social-media hoax terrifying children and parents alike — was born in a cluttered two-story studio on the outskirts of Tokyo.
The creator of the girl-like monster, Keisuke Aiso, seemed baffled by his newfound fame brought by the disturbing phenomenon amplified by unverified reports of children being enticed by the fictitious Momo into performing dangerous tasks involving self-harm, and even suicide.
“I have a small child myself so I can understand how parents are concerned,” the 43-year-old special-effects artist said.
“And while I’m glad that my work is being known around the globe, I’d like to ask whoever is behind the phenomenon to be more discreet in using the image,” he said, adding that the sculpture that sparked the craze no longer exists.
Aiso heads Link Factory, a small company based in Tachikawa, a suburban city in western Tokyo, that specializes in making props for television shows.
A longtime fan of the grotesque and the occult, he created the silicone sculpture that inspired Momo three years ago as an extension of a series of ghoulish artworks he calls the Grudge (onnen, in Japanese) Girls Collection.
Based on the ubume, a supernatural creature, or yokai, that appears in both Japanese and Chinese folklore as either a ghost of a woman who had died in pregnancy or a mysterious feathered creature that croaks like an infant and harms children, the 1-meter-tall figure with avian feet and human breasts was featured in an exhibition at Vanilla Gallery in Tokyo’s high-end Ginza shopping district in 2016.
His sculpture, however, attracted little attention at the time. It was relegated to being wrapped and stored outside his studio for nearly two years, left to the mercy of the elements. At one point, the sheets enveloping the figure unraveled, Aiso recalled.
“A neighbor taking a stroll saw the sculpture and said they almost had a heart attack,” he said.
By last year, the figure had been damaged beyond repair, and Aiso decided to do away with it, sending it off to the dumpster.
A week or two later, he began receiving hateful messages on Facebook telling him to be ashamed for creating such a hideous monster. Some even told him to die.
“I was confused about the commotion, but soon learned about the Momo Challenge,” he said.
This was around July 2018, when the phenomenon first began making the rounds on the internet.
Likened to the “Blue Whale Challenge,” a similarly unsubstantiated social media phenomenon dating from 2016 asking participants to engage in increasingly harmful conduct, the Momo Challenge was soon linked to numerous reports and rumors of youth suicides in South America, Europe, India, Mexico and the U.S., leading school administrators and police forces to issue warnings.
At the center of the online fiasco that fed on the anxieties of petrified adults was the haunting image of Aiso’s ubume. Unbeknownst to its creator, pictures of his artwork from the gallery display posted online had been cropped and used to propagate the myth.
The “challenge” is supposedly shared via social messaging services like WhatsApp, where the devilish face of Momo pops up alongside chilling messages and commands.
The mysterious trend once subsided, but was rekindled recently when rumors began surfacing in the U.K. that Momo was finding its way into children’s programs, including “Peppa Pig” and popular video games like “Fortnite” in videos posted to YouTube.
It also saw celebrities like Kim Kardashian take to Instagram, where she urged her 129 million followers to ask YouTube to take down the purportedly disturbing content.
Soon, Aiso began receiving a stream of hate mail again, as well as media interview requests.
YouTube, for its part, was quick to debunk the allegations that such videos had been posted to its service.
“We want to clear something up regarding the Momo Challenge: We’ve seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube,” it tweeted from its official account on Feb. 28. “Videos encouraging harmful and dangerous challenges are against our policies.”
Yuki Yoshida, a freelance writer and author of books on urban legends and unsolved mysteries, said the panic induced by the Momo Challenge may be a reflection of the fear harbored by the public toward social media as a hotbed of unmonitored violence and other unruly behavior.
But unlike last year, when the phenomenon was said to have manifested itself on social messaging services, he said recent reports appear to target video-streaming platforms like YouTube, perhaps taking its cue from “ElsaGate,” a term referring to outwardly child-friendly videos posted online that contain material inappropriate for kids.
“Interestingly, last year when the hoax made headlines overseas, it barely registered in Japan,” he said. “But this time around, it went viral as Japanese parents picked up on the scare. I speculate that unconfirmed reports saying Momo showed up on YouTube Kids, which many parents show their children, hit a nerve and rapidly spread safety concerns through parental networks.”
Yoshida also noted the eerie connection between the Momo Challenge, which supposedly preys on kids, and the ubume, from which Momo’s image is modeled after.
“Ubume is said to be a ghost of a woman who died during childbirth. Since it functions as a symbol of death during a process of paramount importance for the survival of all things living — giving birth — I consider the ubume to be the most important out of all Japanese yokai,” he said.
“Furthermore, I believe the primal fear it inspires is universal.”
Aiso, meanwhile, still doesn’t know what to make of the madness — the creator said he has received phone calls from overseas agents asking him to sell them the rights to Momo’s image for potential film productions.
“I just received a similar call from Mexico, and I’ve told all of them that I can cooperate,” he said. “So far none of them have gotten back to me.”
He recognized that there may be huge marketing potential in Momo, but isn’t enthusiastic in pursuing that, citing the sensitive nature of the topic that involves children and suicide.
“It would be terrible if I tried to monetize this,” he said, as a molded mask of Momo that his friend found and brought back as a souvenir from Mexico’s Day of the Dead festivities sat on his desk.
And while Aiso’s original ubume is gone, it could easily be reproduced. The plaster casts used to make the now-iconic figure are lying around somewhere among the tons of garbage piled behind his workshop, he said.
Still, that may be a bridge too far.
“I’ve received so many inquiries about this, but strangely no one has shown interest in wanting the actual sculpture.”