Hocus Pocus: Disney Needs to Scare Kids Again Like in the Original
As goofy as it is, the Halloween classic Hocus Pocus had an edge modern Disney movies should relearn.
I was not allowed to see Hocus Pocus when it opened in theaters in 1993. Even at the ripe and mature age of six, it was considered to be too dark, and worse still too scary, for the youngest of audiences. That was the conclusion our local newspaper’s critic came to, in any event.
The evaluation would’ve probably amused the writers who first began spinning Hocus Pocus’ bewitching web in the 1980s. Originally the brainchild of writer/producer David Kirschner (who would go on to help create Chucky and the Child’s Play franchise), the first draft of Hocus Pocus was penned by Mick Garris (future creator of Masters of Horror). And the pair initially imagined it to be a darker movie for a slightly more adolescent audience. At one point, it was even almost a Steven Spielberg/Amblin production, with a tone that might’ve been closer to something like Stranger Things than the unabashed family film classic it became.
Nevertheless, I didn’t see the movie until it was on VHS about a year later, and ready for another Halloween season. Twelve months older and wiser, I was deemed seasoned enough to enjoy a Disney confection with a spooky flavoring. And I did, from the scene of Kathy Najimy’s witch riding a vacuum cleaner to the instantly iconic moment of Bette Midler’s Winifred Sanderson singing “I Put a Spell on You” with Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as her witchy backup singers.
It is a perfect Halloween movie for children. Even so, there were a few moments where it was a bit intense for a seven year old. Indeed, the opening of Hocus Pocus clearly went through some heavy tinkering in the editing room given how grim the implications are when young 17th century Puritan Thackery Binx (Sean Murray) sees his even younger sister, Emily (Amanda Shepherd) killed. And Emily isn’t just killed at the beginning of a Disney movie—she has her soul sucked out by the three otherwise ostensibly goofy witches who stop the yucks long enough to murder a kid.
One senses there was coverage footage not used in the moment where Midler, Parker, and Najmy bask in being young again—or, at least, younger as Winifred qualifies—since behind them, crumpled beneath a frightful old woman wig, sits a used and withered Emily. There’s no close-up in the final edit of her fate, but it’s still there, sitting in a background where a child’s eye might wonder. Afterward, the three evil witches turn their attention on Thackery, damning him to take the shape of a black cat. Forever.
The prologue of the movie then ends with the witches singing and cackling as they’re hung by the neck until they are dead, and the parents of poor Thackery never knowing what happened to their son, or why that damned black cat is trying to follow them home.
I’d hardly call the beginning of Hocus Pocus a horror movie, even by kids’ standards. But it’s horrifying enough for its target demographic. It also creates immediate stakes for that audience. You can bask in Midler and her onscreen sisters breaking bad and running amok, amok, amok, but in the back of your head, their sinister endgame is clear. The movie’s core audience will not treat it only as a joke when they curse the room full of adults to “dance until you die.” They won’t laugh either when the Sanderson Sisters steal baby Thora Birch, who also plays a little sister, during the end of the movie’s second act. And when Parker sings “Come Little Children,” beckoning the kids of Salem to the same doom that befell poor Emily, there’s something, well, bewitching at work.
As has been well-recorded, Hocus Pocus was not the instant Halloween classic it’s now remembered to be. The sequences mentioned above were considered perhaps darker than typical Disney fare, while the rest of the movie is an all-ages haunted house spooktacular with the richest of oranges and blacks, and greens and purples, ever put into a seasonal spectacle for the whole family. Critics didn’t know what to make of it. Luckily, it found life on the Disney Channel as a perennial October staple year after year throughout the ‘90s, and that legacy has been passed all the way down to parents now showing their children the original movie on Disney+.
What’s striking about it today, however, is how it stands even further apart from modern Disney films. For starters, Disney films that are actual live-action adventures with kids embarking on heroic journeys, be they during Halloween or any other time of the year, have largely gone extinct. In 2022, Disney’s non-Marvel and non-Lucasfilm live-action output is relegated almost entirely to remakes of animated classics or, ahem, Disney+ sequels to old favorites.
In this context, there seems to be a trepidation to scare and an unwillingness to fully frighten younger audiences. Once upon a time, the classics of Walt Disney Animation Studios had no qualms about unnerving children with images of an old crone woman handling a poisoned apple that brings death in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937); nor were they concerned about what kind of terror Pinocchio (1940) would inflict when a grinning red-faced adult cackles at a crying donkey with the voice of a child—mocking how the transformed boy is doomed to spend the rest of his days in slave labor at the salt mines.
Ironically, Disney remade the latter movie recently where the aforementioned salt mine sequence is entirely glossed over, and there is no hellish moment with the coachman mocking a crying monster-child. The live-action remake of Pinocchio is also a dull, toothless affair that was rightly ravaged by critics for its relentless mediocrity.
But beyond the realm of remakes where Disney must find ways to sidestep the more macabre side of the company’s legacy, modern animated movies tend to avoid having villains all together now: Moana (2016), Toy Story 4 (2019), Frozen II (2019), and Encanto (2019) all featured villains who turned out to be just misunderstood innocents. And the last time one of these movies had a real nasty piece of work, the acutely subversive Prince Han in Frozen (2013), there were many parents and think pieces that lamented teaching kids a kindly stranger’s looks can be deceiving was too bleak.
Meanwhile Maleficent, once the Disney animated canon’s most deliciously wicked villainess, has been transformed into a soulless star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, with the character retrofitted into an unconvincing girl boss mold. Now she’s here to rescue Sleeping Beauty.
It is yet unknown how Hocus Pocus 2 will handle the return of the Sanderson Sisters nearly 30 years after Halloween night circa 1993, but call it a hunch that there will be no body count or scenes of cats being run over or big brothers having their soul sucked from their body.
This is a shame. Kids don’t want to be frightened, but most crave it all the same. While each child’s own needs and maturity is unique, generally most grew up loving being frightened or heartbroken by the Queen of Snow White, the evil stepmother of Cinderella (1950), or when Mufasa was killed by Scar in The Lion King (1994). As long as the line between reality and fantasy is clearly delineated, movies offer a safe and early space to cathartically deal with difficult emotions. Even when it involves being briefly chilled by something as silly as Bette Midler mocking an animatronic black cat, or later getting called a “Firefly from Hell” by a zombie named Billy.
It’s all just a bunch of Hocus Pocus.