In Denver on Tuesday, President Obama shook hands with a man wearing a horse head mask. In doing so, he provoked much concerned speculation over how a masked man (woman? child? tower of cats wearing a trench coat?) could get so close to the leader of the free world without a guy with an earpiece intervening. He also gave one of the Internet's oldest, weirdest memes its most glorious day in the sun.
After all, who'd've thunk a mask that once disguised the faces of naked Japanese Internet-chefs would one day end up … here?
No one knows for sure just when the horse head mask morphed from a novelty into a full-fledged meme. Even Seattle novelty dealer Archie McPhee — purportedly the original retailer of the latex mask, which began as a Halloween costume — writes it off as a "creepy" thing that has popped up all over the Internet. But Internet things, as we know, rarely just pop up on their own — and this one had its fair share of accelerants.
In 2003, the short-lived Japanese anime Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu (not to be confused with Full Metal Panic!, Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid, or half a dozen shows of similar names) introduced a bizarre character called Pony-man — a horse-headed villain who pursued schoolgirls with a hairbrush, of all things. (A sample of translated dialogue: "He forced her to the ground, brushed her hair lightly, and tied it up to a pony tail." Eek.)
Pony-man easily could have disappeared into the cultural void, as so many other bits of anime weirdness presumably do. But the horse masks were already on the market, and so pony-man kept cropping up.
Two years after Full Metal Panic aired, Lonely Planet.com recommended wearing a horse mask while traveling in its Guide to Experimental Travel. (Said reference is now selling for 70 cents on Amazon, which possibly indicates the wisdom of vacationing with stupid masks.) And not long after that — post-Drew Barrymore and post-MTV, but pre-middling stand-up career — the comedian/actor Tom Green donned a horse mask for an episode of his Internet talk show, Tom Green's House Tonight.
But before the horse mask could truly become a (sub)cultural mainstay, it had to go back to its weird Japanese roots. In 2008, a performance artist named "Wotaken" filmed himself cooking/eating psychedelic mushrooms, naked, while wearing a horse head mask and dancing to the Final Fantasy soundtrack. Nearly 2 million people have watched what the original uploader called "possibly the most disturbing thing I've seen on the Interweb."
The rest, they say, is history: a million copycats, and a lot of new horse mask manufacturers, embraced the mask as a vehicle for Internet shock and silliness. There's the Scottish man known as "horse-boy," hilariously caught by Google Street View in 2010. The German busker who calls himself "Neigh-Kid Horse" and plays guitar in only his mask and his underwear.
Is the horse mask still cool and quirky now that even the Dad in Chief is down with it? Perhaps it's time for the Internet to embrace a new costume. May we suggest … the squirrel?
Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog at WashingtonPost.com, writing about Internet culture.