Is Semitic Scary?: Aramaic and the Horror Genre

15 12 2006

The scene is a disused medical laboratory, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, on a scientific installation on Mars. Beakers are broken on the floor and a blinking neon light swings slowly from the blood-spattered ceiling. Shadows lurch and sway in the corners of the room and we hear the distant sounds of struggle and dismay. The soft noise of eating emanates from a nearby grill and I shudder at what vile creature may be feeding within. The PDA of a missing doctor is uncovered, lying abandoned on the floor, although the doctor’s body is nowhere to be found. The contents of the PDA, among other things, reveal his observations of certain patients who had undergone the developing process of teleportation. Paranoia, dementia, psychotic episodes. I am sitting on the edge of my seat as I listen to the doctor’s spoken diary: this is frightening stuff. One of his patients, a man, had been babbling for days in an unknown tongue – assumedly gibberish. After a chilling pause, the doctor informs us that the language turned out to be…


Players of games by ID Software will most certainly recognise the above as a scene from Doom III. Renowned for its visual splendour, this final (?) installment in the Doom series takes place on a scientific outpost on Mars. The plot, in many respects, is a familiar one. Having developed the ability to convey matter via teleportation, scientists unwittingly unleash a host of demons from the nether regions of Hell itself. The game is certainly creepy, not to mention graphically violent, and thoroughly immersive. One of the means by which the developers ensured that the player would truly be involved with the game was by fitting the character with a PDA. With the push of a button the game-play is put on hold and the character, a nameless marine from Earth, holds up his PDA and displays the digital contents. These include the messages that have been sent to him by his immediate supervisor, information that he downloads from various computers throughout the game, and information from the disused PDAs of dead scientists throughout the outpost. It is in relation to the content of the other PDAs that the game is most disturbing. We are made privy to the emails that they received from friends and loved ones, as well as their spoken diaries in the events leading up to their ultimate demise. In this one instance, however, the developers tried to add a touch that, while possibly making the game frightening for some, only served to make me smile.

Until this point, the game had me entirely on edge. What was going to leap out of the cabinet at me? Who was I about to encounter in the following room? Previously I had been fearing a flesh-eating zombie or a psychotic demon, but now I’m simply expecting an ancient Aramean. And, well, that’s just not very scary. No more frightening than had the doctor informed me that the patient’s language turned out to be Welsh. Should I be scared? Is there actually something scary about Aramaic? Why else does it seem to feature so much in relation to demons in our popular culture?

There are maybe a couple of reasons for this, not the least being the fact that all Ancient Languages seem to receive this sort of esotericising treatment. The ancients were so attuned to the nether-regions of our world; they were so in touch with angels and demons; surely they knew what they were all talking about? Clearly they weren’t just scientifically-untrained and ignorantly superstitious: who could even imply such a thing? No, the speakers of Greek and Latin, Sanskrit and Aramaic, must have been supernaturally gifted and we should therefore associate any and all of these languages with the knowledge of some supernal reality. So runs one line of thinking in any case, and one that has certainly contributed to this phenomenon. And yet, despite the pervasiveness of this school of thought, Aramaic does seem to receive especially creepy treatment, over and above the treatment given to other languages within the corpus of ancient texts. Why?

Well, the only other reason that I can come up with is that second Temple Jewish literature, composed in Aramaic, speaks of angels and demons by name. The impact of this literature upon our culture has been immense, mostly because of the influence that Jewish apocalyptic had upon Christianity. As Judaism became increasingly legalistic, focus was taken away from prophesy and asseverations regarding the death of the latter were made, to the exclusion of the entire apocalyptic genre. Texts were simply not included in the canon (preserved, for the most part, within the Ethiopic canon of Biblical literature) and the marginalisation of this genre altogether resulted, ultimately, in the ambiguous status granted to the so-called Qabbalah.

Christianity, on the other hand, was still a growing religion and prophesy, for the time being, was considered to be very much alive. While the church was later to clamp down upon dissenting voices raised in ecstasy (although late enough for the geographically-distant Ethiopia to have fortunately missed out on such a decree), the genre thrived in early Christian communities. This was also encouraged by the inclusive nature of such texts: while the legalistic texts of Judaism stressed a covenantal nomism, the apocalyptic literature was much more egalitarian in its purview. To this end, rather than focusing upon figures like Moses and Joshua, most of this literature was concerned with pre-Torah individuals like Noah and Enoch.

The demonological nature of many of these texts, coupled with the influence that they had, through Christianity, on Western civilisation, was enough to ensure the relationship between Aramaic and Hell in the popular psyche. Names of angels and demons from books like Enoch continue to be used as proper names for evil spirits in films, books and computer games – despite the fact that they originally bore semantic value within their languages of composition. Speaking for myself, I’m just happy that when I finally go to Hell I’ll know what they’re all saying.




7 responses

19 12 2006

Just your luck, when you get to Hell, it will turn out that they’re all speaking Welsh.

19 12 2006
Simon Holloway

Actually, I’d always secretly assumed Hungarian.

21 12 2006

Yes, but have you heard Polish?

21 12 2006
Simon Holloway

Ha! I think the issue, Conrad, is the language spoken by the demons themselves, not just who holds the demographic majority down there.

My, this thread is starting to turn…

20 02 2007
Tansen Panesar

Hahaha! What a way to be eternally tortured, at the hands of a demon with a novel welsh or east european accent.

“you vill feel pain my friend”

9 07 2007
mr nightmare

sorry to be bad to all of you but actually what is this crap you are all talking about!I actually hate people like you that think they are so cool to be from a vealthy country!i speak hungaryan, romanian, german, french, and english(duh)!
Oh and guess what, I don’t think I made half as much mistakes in this text as you did!!!You nice people with so cool accents…

The Nightmare

13 11 2007
Tansen Panesar

Aah, ur mum.

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