With the early Friday morning news that President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania tested positive for coronavirus, the discourse has become more unhinged than ever.
Twitter was a mix of jubilation, fear, bleach memes, and “thoughts and prayers.” But in the replies to the president’s 1 a.m. tweet announcement of his Covid-19 test results is something a little stranger: people posting demonic images of goats, demons, and spirits, alongside Punjabi language or Amharic script. Nominally, to English speakers, this script is supposed to look demonic or satanic, but this reaction is, of course, simply othering any language that doesn’t use a Roman alphabet.
Some of them are just jokes, like this one that’s a translation of Cardi B’s “WAP” lyrics alongside the Teletubbies traversing the morose plane of existence:
Others are creepier, like this one, which roughly translates to “The dead are resurrected day and night without anyone knowing. Take refuge in the madness you are about to endure, or you will be drowned forever in its cold teeth, as it points out.”
These are both in Gurmukhi, the name for the written script form of Punjabi, a language spoken by 125 million people around the world. Others are in Amharic, the second-most common language of Ethiopia, with nearly 22 million speakers as of 2007.
This one says, “When you cry to stop, you see all your loved ones being killed one by one, but nothing stops them.”
This meme format fits right in with the recent resurgence of Satanic Panic, a phenomenon where people collectively freak out over things they think are “evil” or “demonic” just because they’re kind of goth looking and unfamiliar—like that guy who jumped straight to assuming his Airbnb was being used for devil-worshipping rituals after finding some harmlessly spooky tchotchkes around the house.
Satanic Panic has been around forever—in the 1960’s and 1970s with the Manson murders and rise of interest in occultism, and in the 1980’s with accusations of ritual abuse against daycare centers and most notably, the McMartin preschool trial, where there were claims of witches flying and traveled in mysterious hot-air balloons, or flushed children down toilets or hid in secret chambers. Today, we see it in the form of the Illuminati, Pizzagate, Qanon, and sex trafficking panic—all with their own sometimes overlapping conspiracies about secretive, underground societies or satanic rituals. Then there was the Trump-endorsed doctor who said she believes in demon sperm. In 2017, Lana Del Rey invited people to join her in hexing Trump, and just a few months ago, people panicked over TikTok witches seemingly hexing the moon.
The cursed images meme didn’t originate with Trump, however—it’s been going on for a while, too, with people using the combo to freak out their tripping friends, for example.
If you don’t speak these languages, the creepypasta memes in response to Trump’s tweets seem like harmless Twitter jokes at first glance—this news comes after months of his downplaying the coronavirus pandemic’s severity, mocking the proven effectiveness of mask-wearing, and dragging his feet on safety measures, after all.
But as Mashable notes, they’re at the expense of people who actually do speak and write in these languages, and who have been asking people to stop for a while.
“I speak amharic and it upsets me how y’all have completely disrespected it and turned it into something it’s not. My language ain’t some demonic copypasta. It’s not funny. It never was,” Twitter user @tsukkiskys said in July.
“The satanic/occult imagery being used is inherently linked to a western understanding of Christianity. And to attach Amharic script to that when Ethiopia is one of the only African countries to have successfully escaped colonization, really really hurts,” another wrote.
And Twitter user @anxtiworld wrote that the meme format and jokes in Amharic “are feeding into that negative stereotype that deems all African languages as demonic and barbaric. ITS ANTI BLACK AND XENOPHOBIC! STOP!!”
The way people on social media have collectively lost their shit about Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis is a pressure release valve as we near the end of his first term, and enter a potential resurgence of a pandemic that has killed more that 208,000 people in the US under his leadership. But just like fatphobic jokes about the president are hurtful to many more people than their target, jokes that appropriate other cultures by stigmatizing them as creepy or demonic just aren’t worth whatever fleeting hit of dopamine posters get from the likes. Leave the hexing to the real witches.