Hocus Pocus is the definitive Halloween movie.
Depending on who you are, that statement is less of an opinion and more of a fact. Whether it’s from constant airings on TV, popping up in movie theaters this season (which you can rent courtesy of AMC), or even a reunion that will bring the cast together again airing this week, the 1993 classic grew from being just another live-action Disney movie into a phenomenon unto itself. There are people who feel that Halloween isn’t complete unless they watch the film at least once, either with friends or with family.
And I’ve never seen it once in my life.
Well, that’s a lie. At least, it is a lie as of mid-October 2020. Alongside a handful of friends who describe themselves as the real-life Sanderson Sisters, they convinced me to go to a drive-in theater to watch the film with them. They had seen it too many times to count and I hadn’t seen it at all. But I was less interested in actually watching it to see if it’s a good movie, or even to see if it was worth the hype.
Usually, movies like these aren’t my bag because I’m a sad sack of joyless poop who found no love in Elf when I told people I hadn’t seen that movie either. No, instead I was more interested in trying to figure out this film works as an experience nearly 30 years after its release. Why the movie where Bette Midler walks around making a stupid face for 90 minutes? Why Hocus Pocus?
Part I: Reviving the Sandersons
Tradition is something that I find fascinating. It not only stems from a societal expectation but also from a personal one that is oftentimes steeped in reverence and custom. Some of these traditions are based on formality -because that’s how they’ve always been done in a society-. In America, we traditionally say “bless you” after a person sneezes but no one can really agree on the origins of why.
Other traditions are entirely subjective and unique to an individual. For example, a tradition I have every Halloween is to watch a bunch of horror movies while eating a box of Count Chocula. I’ve done that for years simply because it’s something I did back in college that has stuck with me. Things get more interesting when you specifically mention a holiday because of the memories and feelings associated with them.
Families have specific traditions for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, the Fourth of July, and yes, Halloween. Most of the time (but not always), these repetitions stem from childhood memories. We attempt to recapture that same feeling of magic and wonder like when we were kids, experiencing it for the first time. Those memories can be formative in establishing why we do what we do and behave as we do. It’s the basic premise of why nostalgia exists. In romanticizing our experiences and lived moments, we often gloss over the bad and try to replicate the good.
If you were a child of the 90s, you probably experienced Hocus Pocus in a family setting. It likely wasn’t in a movie theater since the movie actually performed poorly at the box office and with critics. It would be a stretch to say that the movie flopped, but it definitely underperformed against expectations. This stemmed from three key factors surrounding its release.
One: it released in July, three months removed from the holiday season. This was done, according to producer David Kirschner, so as to try and get ticket sales from kids with free time over the summer break. Two: it released the same day as Free Willy, which was the more immediate pop culture sensation. Three: that same Halloween season, Disney released The Nightmare Before Christmas, another certified Halloween classic. Needless to say, your memories of the film aren’t from its original theatrical run.
So if you didn’t watch it with your family in a movie theater, you most definitely saw it on home video or TV. In an honestly brilliant move, Disney decided to reair the movie on ABC and the Disney Channel every Halloween, adding it to part of its yearly rotation of Halloween treats. Since then, the movie has been shown multiple times a month every October, with 2020 having 14 showings of the film on Freeform for the “31 Nights of Halloween.”
If you saw Hocus Pocus as a child growing up, you probably did it on TV right as Disney Channel was reaching its height of popularity -thanks to the Disney Afternoon block and the success of shows like Gargoyles-. Repeat for years and, regardless of overall quality, any movie will be sure to endear itself to fans thanks to good old tradition. But that story doesn’t really offer up a full explanation for its explosion in popularity, especially during the Halloween season.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show famously bombed upon release, but thanks to the dedication of adult audiences at midnight screenings, the film is still being shown nearly 50 years after its original release. Horror franchises like Hellraiser, Child’s Play, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street also flourished and prospered in the 80s thanks to the frequency of their releases and the overall entertaining spectacle of watching people die in more creative and gruesome ways. By comparison, Hocus Pocus seems tame. It’s a standalone kids movie that performed middling overall and Disney essentially forced audiences to care about it through sheer determination.
But the struggle that Hocus Pocus inevitably faces is competition. Not just from traditional horror movies that prosper during this time of year, but other family horror films. Movies like Beetlejuice, Nightmare Before Christmas, and the myriad of Addam’s Family films all carry the same, wholesome, aesthetic charm that Hocus Pocus has. Its competition isn’t even from more kid-oriented horror movies like Coraline, but rather its own contemporaries in terms of genre and tone.
So what gives? Why is it that Hocus Pocus stands above the rest?
Part II: Okay, Let’s Talk About the Movie
Set in the town of Salem in the early 90s, our story revolves around three children, two of whom are brother and sister that have just moved from LA. 300 years prior, three witches were executed and swore they would be revived once a virgin lights what is known as the “Black Light Candle.” Soaking in the mysticism and reverence for Halloween that Salem has, the kids all enter the home of these witches -known as the Sanderson Sisters- and one inadvertently lights the candle. With the witches revived, the kids now need to stop them from stealing the life energy from kids before the sun rises.
While I wouldn’t call the movie dated by any means, Hocus Pocus is a film that almost 1,000% could not be made today. I know that Disney has been trying to cook up a sequel for years now (and may actually be doing one soon… MAYBE), but don’t think for a second that any continuation would resemble the original. While I was watching the film in my car, I was impressed by just how blatant the movie was in referring to the main character as a virgin. It was also super weird seeing virgin used as a negative character trait, but that’s just the modernist perspective talking.
What people have to understand is that all forms of entertainment are made to reflect the current time. As trite as it may be, you better believe that parents would be up in arms if, GASP, someone said a character was a virgin in their PG movie! I don’t mean to say that “back in my day” kids were made of sterner stuff, but the movie never really does anything special with it. Calling Max a virgin is no different from giving him a lightning bolt scar, a golden ticket, or making him “the special.” It’s what distinguishes him as unique and makes him stand out all the more.
Make no mistake, the one area where Hocus Pocus succeeds is in creating probably the perfect recreation of Halloween. Kids and adults running around in costumes, trick or treaters filling the streets, puns and jokes based on the time of year. This movie just reeks of Halloween and puts it at the forefront of its design.
While horror series like Halloween may use the holiday as a backdrop, it really doesn’t care about the holiday itself. With the exception of the first and third movies (which are primarily set on All Hallows Eve), there’s not much of an identity to most of the franchises or films that general audiences would associate with Halloween. It’s simply a date that conjures scary imagery from audiences. You can find some exceptions that go all-in –Trick ‘r Treat-, but Hocus Pocus is by far the most effective in extracting spooky charm from this date.
Unlike most films that center on Halloween, the film isn’t even close to being scary. It’s a Halloween movie, not a horror movie. It’s an important distinction to make with Hocus Pocus as, while it does borrow several horror tropes (evil witches, child sacrifice, purity/virginity), it never tries to make them terrifying. It merely takes what children are most familiar with about similar films (for the most part) and presents it in a package that anyone can watch.
It’s almost adamant in how not terrifying the movie attempts to be. Sure, the film is a family comedy and really shouldn’t have any overly spooky or scary moments in it, but don’t forget that kids’ movies back in the 80s and 90s almost seemed to relish in dropping tiny little nightmares into their runtimes. Remember the tunnel scene in Willy Wonka? What about Pee-Wee meeting Large Marge? Even Disney took some fun with scaring the shit out of children with Sid’s demon toy-spider-thing in Toy Story.
Even bringing that up, the few opportunities Hocus Pocus has to scare children, the film takes the high road and chooses not to. A cat just got run over by a car? Give it a magical sound effect! Witches being hung at the gallows? Let them crack jokes while they’re up there. Children getting prepared to be sacrificed? Add some puns and some action scenes to the mix. Christ, even Nightmare Before Christmas had more scares than Hocus Pocus, and that movie features a jolly skeleton singing about Christmas!
It’s not like the film is really trying to hide what it is. Hocus Pocus knows that it’s playing with a limited budget, so it cranks up the absurdity. The sets are small but chock full of personality and details. You have the Sanderson’s shack in the woods, the graveyard, all of the costumes that everyone wears: it never tries to overstep its bounds, yet it never degrades into camp for the sake of camp. It never knowingly winks to the camera that something goofy or ridiculous is happening as everything is played straight by all involved.
Even Bette Midler with her ridiculous faces, and Sarah Jessica Parker and her turn as, what can only be described as a lovable idiot, all commit to their roles and never try to intentionally play it up for humor. They embody their characters. This is how they would act and because of that, hilarity ensues. Granted, it does feel weird that the Sanderson Sisters start to make jokes about modern-day situations that they couldn’t possibly know about, but that’s just something that comes with the territory of kids movies. Logic is pushed aside in favor of humor, which I can only shrug at. I mean, I get it. Gotta do what you gotta do to get some laughs in.
It’s also a fairly brisk movie, clocking in at just over 90 minutes. The average running time for a movie nowadays is well beyond that, usually closer to two hours, so seeing a movie that hits the ground running, doesn’t stop, and doesn’t overstay its welcome is a treat for me. Sometimes, you just want something quick, simple, and easy. Hocus Pocus delivers all of that. The format also fits in perfectly for syndication, lasting just a little bit longer than what an average prestige series episode on HBO lasts. It’s efficient and gets the job done.
Part III: Relight That Candle
A few days ago, I created a poll asking people to explain to me why they think Hocus Pocus lasted as long as it did in the annals of Halloween films. The number one response I received was, unsurprisingly, nostalgia. People grew up watching the movie on Disney Channel, kept watching it over the years, and now as adults, they watch it as a tradition with their friends and family. Unlike other cult classics that are strictly aimed at older audiences, Hocus Pocus is, and always will be, a family film.
As much as I may associate Halloween with horror fare, I know that’s just my personal perspective on the holiday. There’s something special about watching a film that bottles an aesthetic or a mood so wonderfully that you want to experience it every year. It would be one thing if the movie was an infamous cult classic that wasn’t very good, like Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, or Troll 2. Hocus Pocus isn’t bad in the slightest, though. It’s a good movie that just had everything working against it when it released.
As is the case with all nostalgic properties, it was only a matter of time until Disney decided to revive the Sanderson Sisters one more time for a quick buck. While very little is known about the project, Hocus Pocus 2 has been tossed around for years and apparently has officially gotten the green light for Disney+. It’s set to reunite the Sanderson Sisters once more, original actresses and all (minus director Kenny Ortega, who has been replaced by Adam Shankman).
I say apparently because, for the life of me, outside of some vague-ish sources from Disney executives saying they were interested in it or the cast saying that they would be game, no news has come about since it was announced. Or at least no updates in any capacity that shows Disney is actually serious about it. The company did attempt to get a TV series off the ground, but that spiraled and collapsed in on itself as fast as you think it would. Hefty salt is required here, but I personally think it’s only a matter of time until they do so.
Like most attempts to monopolize nostalgia, this sequel is probably going to backfire. Oh, it could be good, but let’s be real honest with ourselves here: will it? Will it really? It definitely won’t be able to recapture the same tone, style, or even mood of the original film. That’s not just because of the differing tastes from the vastly different decades, but because it’s almost impossible to replicate anything more than once.
One of my favorite horror movies is Silence of the Lambs, an absolute horror classic that is still, to this day, the only horror movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars -unless you want to count The Shape of Water as a horror movie-. The cast was tremendous, the direction was impeccable, and the horror was sublime. However, nearly a decade later, a sequel film titled Red Dragon was made that brought Anthony Hopkins back to his delicious portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. With a change of supporting cast and new advances in cinematography and technology, it just couldn’t recapture that original spark.
Hocus Pocus is, like most cult classics, one of a kind. It can’t be replicated and attempts really shouldn’t be made. Disney will obviously try, but like a wise man once said, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Hocus Pocus has survived on television for 27 years and shows no sign of slowing down, drawing in new and old fans every single year. Why mush it up with a sequel that will, regardless of quality, always be viewed unfavorably to the original?
The niche that Hocus Pocus made for itself works. It never tried to be anything special and was unremarkable when it first released. Now, it’s the hottest movie every Halloween season. We don’t need to revive the Sanderson Sisters again just to catch up with them. Let the memories and the traditions that we have cultivated and developed for most of our lives go uninterrupted for a few more years.