What are your Halloween traditions? Do you dress up and go out? Stay home and carve pumpkins? Buy a stack of sweets and then eat all them yourself, with the curtains drawn and the lights switched off so the neighbours’ kids won’t bother ringing the doorbell? Whatever your own personal plans for this October 31st, you’re missing out if you don’t include an annual rewatch of Kenny Ortega’s 1993 witchy comedy Hocus Pocus.
That’s a sentiment I’m pretty sure Aaron Wallace would agree with. His new book, Hocus Pocus In Focus: The Thinking Fan’s Guide To Disney’s Halloween Classic, is clearly a labour of love. Over thirteen chapters, Wallace examines the film from various different angles, including how it fits into the horror genre, whether its portrayal of witches can be considered feminist, and what, exactly, is up with all that talk of virginity in a PG movie, but there’s one argument he comes back to time and time again: that Hocus Pocus is a film that’s worthy of study.
He probably wouldn’t meet much resistance here. Even if you’re not personally a particular fan of the film, this whole site is founded on the principle that pop culture is worth thinking about and talking about, whether or not the film, or book, or TV in question can be considered capital-A Art. But it’s an argument that clearly does still need to be made in this case, because Hocus Pocus hasn’t really been given an awful lot of respect over the years.
When it was released in July 1993, it received generally terrible reviews. Entertainment Weekly called it “depressing as hell” while Roger Ebert gave it one star and condemned it as a confusing mess. But over the years, it’s begun to be re-evaluated as audiences who saw it as kids grew up remembering it fondly, and it’s started to gain cult momentum. After years hiding in the back of Disney’s wardrobe, it’s come out to play: it turns up on TV every October, and you can’t throw a rock at the internet without hitting a nostalgic thinkpiece about the movie’s place in the seasonal canon.
But is there really that much to say about it? Well, Wallace’s book is proof that there’s lots more going on in the movie than trick-or-treating. He’s clearly enthusiastic about his topic, but more than that, he’s terrifyingly knowledgeable about it – and about Disney in general. The tone of the book is academia-lite; it’s accessible and smart, packed with fascinating stories, facts, and analysis. For instance, did you know there’s a reference to Gypsy in Bette Midler’s version of I Put A Spell On You? Wallace not only points it out, he delves deep into what it means, drawing parallels between Gypsy’s Rose and Hocus Pocus’ Winifred in a way only a true fan of the Divine Miss M could manage.
Some of his arguments seem less credible than others, but his writing is generally persuasive enough that by the end of any given chapter, he’ll likely have convinced you of the validity of his perspective. And the thing with this kind of pop culture criticism is that you don’t always have to agree with everyone’s theories in order to enjoy reading them, anyway.
Hocus Pocus In Focus is published by Pensive Pen Publishing, and, ah, well, yeah, it’s pretty clear that it’s small press. The illustration of the Sanderson sisters on the front cover is striking, but it’s nowhere near as slick as you’d expect, and there are a few odd things going on inside, too. The most baffling is the decision to shove all the footnotes from every chapter together at the end of the book, instead of putting them at the foot of the relevant pages, forcing the reader to flip backwards and forwards constantly (or just give up). Wallace’s tendency to lace his sentences with pop culture references probably needed to be reined in a little, too, because the constant mentions of unrelated figures like Adele and Harry Potter get wearing pretty quickly.
But all of that’s pretty easy to forgive, and the fact that Wallace got actress Thora Birch and screenwriter Mick Garris to write the foreword and afterword gives the book an added dash of authority and star power. If you’re already in the cult of Hocus Pocus, Wallace’s depth of knowledge about the film’s creation, subtext, and reputation will delight you; if not, well, I’m not sure we can be friends, but I hear it’s going to be on TV soon…
Hocus Pocus In Focus is available in paperback from Amazon.