baba yaga vs. the terminator

‘Does anybody know any scary stories?’
A hundred hands shoot up.
The actor smiles, gestures to a little boy sitting at the front.
‘Yes?’ she says.
‘The Terminator!’
‘Well!’ she says, leaning back. ‘Hmm. I think that’s a little violent, don’t you? Anyone else…?’
Twenty minutes later they’re halfway through a piece based on the witch Baba Yaga, where she’s persuading a woman to make herself beautiful by rubbing her face with a cheese grater.
I glance at the kid who mentioned Terminator, but if he’s aware of the irony he doesn’t show it, leaning back in horrified delight as the cheese grater is produced and waved in the air, glinting cruelly in the assembly hall lights.

I don’t know what makes me think of this now. Maybe it’s because earlier today we were sitting having breakfast talking about good names. Jessie knows someone called Cat Whiskins, and someone else called Riddler Bear, either of which would make great characters in a detective novel; Eloise has a multicoloured knitted mouse she’s called Quench J Taylor (the J is silent, obviously); our family doctor was called Dr Hornet, and yes, he did actually wear a tight waistcoat of black and yellow stripes and came and went through the window. (Okay – lied about the waistcoat and the window. But he had a very waspish manner. When I was a teenager I went to him with depression; he told me to join the army).

Baba Yaga is undeniably a great name, too, packed full of meaning, as well as being very satisfying to say out loud. I mean, if you say it over and over (but probably not in front of a mirror), it does make you want to widen your eyes and smile. Maybe even treat yourself to a cackle. Apparently baba is Slavic for grandma or old woman – or even midwife / sorceress, depending how far back you go, and in which Eastern European culture – and yaga can mean abuse, evil woman, shudder, anger, or legendary evil female being, depending who you ask and how low the sun is at the time. Tradition has it that she rides around in a mortar waving a pestle, she lives in a hut raised up on chicken legs, and when inside ‘… may be found stretched out over the stove, reaching from one corner of the hut to another.’ (Wiki). And whilst no doubt we’ve all rented a place like that, in BY’s case it gives her an idiosyncratic buzz of authenticity whose comic weirdness only seems to heighten the horror of it all.

I love the fact John Wick’s nickname is Baba Yaga. Keanu Reeves rocks that abusive grandma look with acrobatic flair & beauty, of course, but I think the role definitely benefits from the darker resonances the ancient name carries. I’m sure The Babadook is a nod to the old Slavic witch, too, by the way. And one of the reasons that film was so creepy was that association between children’s fairy story and existential dread (or is it just me?)

Which brings me back to that Theatre in Education company all those years ago.
‘Does anybody know any scary stories?’ she said.
I think what she really meant was: ‘Does anybody know any scarier stories than this?’

The Terminator wouldn’t have stood a chance.

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