One of the greatest Halloween moments in any movie occurs when Bette Midler first ascends the stage of a costume party near the midpoint of Hocus Pocus (1993). Up until that sequence, we’d seen the legendary actor/singer play Winifred Sanderson, the eldest of three witchy sisters, but now Winifred was about to become Bette Midler. Bathed in a pale green light, befitting the spooky Halloween atmosphere, Midler takes the microphone and, along with Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy, begins to belt a barn-burning cover of “I Put a Spell on You.”
To millennials of a certain age, it remains a Halloween anthem.
It’s also wildly different from what David Kirschner, the movie’s producer and co-writer, originally had in mind. For context, consider this: Kirschner’s first choice for Winifred Sanderson was Cloris Leachman, the perfectly deadpan, but severe, comedic presence of Young Frankenstein (1973) and The Last Picture Show (1971). Kirschner couldn’t even imagine there would be a musical number in Hocus Pocus. But that’s because it was almost a very different movie—one that would’ve been a little darker and more perilous for its young heroes.
In retrospect, it’s ironic that one of the great Halloween family movies was partially created by two writers who went on to become better known for adults-only chillers. For around the same time that Kirschner met young and aspiring screenwriter Mick Garris, who’d go on to pen the first draft of Hocus Pocus, Kirschner was also on his way to developing Child’s Play into a long-running slasher franchise. While the concept of Chucky, the murderous doll of every Child’s Play movie, was initially conceived of by writer Don Mancini, Kirschner has said he wanted to develop a killer doll movie of his own after reading the young adult horror fiction, The Dollhouse Murders, in 1983. He’d go on to produce almost every Child’s Play movie, as well as Bill Paxton’s woefully underrated directorial debut, the horror movie Frailty (2001).
Garris, meanwhile, spent almost his entire post-Hocus Pocus career in horror, beginning with his first draft of the script for The Fly II (1989), which in turn led to him creating multiple horror TV series like She-Wolf of London (1990-1991), Masters of Horror (2005-2007), and Fear Itself (2008).
In the early ‘80s though, they were just two young filmmakers with a nifty idea to make the ultimate Halloween movie that could be a seasonal favorite for kids in the same way families were still watching Miracle on 34th Street (1946) every December. The earliest incarnation of the idea emerged when Kirschner was sitting outside in the yard with his young daughter one evening. At some point in that darkness, a neighbor’s black cat ran past them, and the father began to invent a bedtime story for his daughter about how that cat was actually a boy cursed to live an eternity as a feline by three weird sisters. Eventually, Kirschner realized it could make for a pretty good movie.
He eventually took the idea to his pal Garris, who was already working as a writer on Amazing Stories, the popular sci-fi anthology series created by Steven Spielberg in the mid-1980s. And that’s where Hocus Pocus’ original spell was first put down on paper by Garris.
“My original story was scary,” Kirschner said during a live Q&A after a screening of Hocus Pocus, which was recorded on Garris’ podcast, Post-Mortem with Mick Garris. “And Mick brought it to a whole other level that made it so much better, but it was intended to be scary.”
While Kirschner and Garris remain coy about the details, we know the first several drafts of the movie were more about kids going on an adventure and going up against a relatively gruesome trio of witches. Given Garris is also a lifelong fan of Stephen King—having even directed King’s first screenplay not based on one of his literary stories, Sleepwalkers (1992)—it’s easy to even imagine it as something closer to one of King’s novels about young heroes, or other kid-friendly homages to King, such as the more recent Stranger Things.
In a separate interview Garris said, “What I had written originally was about 12-year-olds. The kids being younger and in more jeopardy. [It] was certainly something more explicitly frightening.”
This was the earliest vision for the movie, which Kirschner pitched as Halloween House to Walt Disney Pictures in 1984. Disney invested in the idea immediately, which also is likely why the finished film was so different. Because if Disney hadn’t gotten involved with the project… Steven Spielberg might have.
In a small reminder of how different Hollywood culture was in the 1980s, back in ’84 Disney was still recovering from lean years, both creatively and commercially, following Walt’s death. 1984 was the same year that Roy E. Disney brought in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells to revitalize Disney as a creative movie studio after several hostile takeovers were attempted, each with a plan to dissolve Disney’s movie productions. Meanwhile Spielberg was at the height of his powers as a brand name in family entertainment after creating Amblin Entertainment with Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall in 1981.
Hence why after getting Disney to buy into the then titled Halloween House, Kirschner and Garris failed at luring Spielberg on as a producer and possible director. Initially, it didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility since in addition to Garris writing for Amazing Stories, Kirschner had created the story of Spielberg/Don Bluth’s first big push into the animation realm outside of Disney: Amblin’s An American Tail (1986), which Kirschner also executive produced. So it seemed like a winning proposition when, as with Disney before them, Kirschner and Garris gathered Spielberg and his associates into a conference room covered in Halloween decorations, and with bowls of candy corn and cornucopias filled with autumnal vegetables.
“I remember this fantastic meeting… in the Amblin conference room,” Garris said on his podcast, “and the two of us pitched it to Steven Spielberg together.. and Spielberg loved it. And then he heard that Disney was involved and he said, ‘Wait a minute, what? I’m out of here, this is done.’ They were feeling very competitive for the family audience at the time between Disney and Amblin.”
Spielberg thought he had the bigger hand at the time of telling Disney no.
So Halloween House stayed exclusively at Disney where it would go on a nine-year journey in which 12 different writers would touch the story until it became Hocus Pocus, the Bette Midler movie with a musical number. The last bit is a credit to director Kenny Ortega too since he, unlike perhaps Spielberg or King, took one look at this material and said the whole “is a musical.”
A spell was cast.