How Hocus Pocus Helped Popularize Halloween Outside U.S.

Halloween as we know it was once considered a uniquely American tradition. But thanks to movies like Hocus Pocus and The Nightmare Before Christmas, that is changing around the world.

Bette Midler Sings I Put a Spell on You in Hocus Pocus
Photo: Disney

Hocus Pocus (1993) might be a well-known staple of the Halloween season now, and one that brings spooky magic to households all over the globe, but back when writer/producer David Kirschner conceived it, there was nothing even remotely similar out there. It really was one of the first films to fully export the USA’s colorful autumnal holiday of fear across the world.

Originally a much darker story that was conceived as a bedtime tale for Kirschner’s daughters, the producer was soon pitching the flick to studios as the quintessential Halloween movie. Leaning into the film’s original title of Halloween House, Kirschner even used Halloween decorations, such as a table strewn with candy corn and the movie’s soon-to-be infamous vacuum cleaner “broomstick” hanging from the ceiling, for his pitches to executives. 

Nonetheless, its status as a holiday classic is something of a Halloween miracle since Hocus Pocus was initially seen as a disappointment. Upon release it earned mixed reviews and a poor box office reception. Even so, the movie saw new life when it was released on VHS, quickly becoming a Halloween rental staple. And thanks to it being a Disney film, its distribution was wide, with the movie racking up more and more viewers thanks to repeat airings on the Disney Channel, ABC, and terrestrial UK channels in the run up to spooky season. Year after year, and generation after generation, the family friendly film became a cult favorite.

Along with the The Nightmare Before Christmas, Hocus Pocus has ultimately had a hand in promoting and popularizing American Halloween traditions around the world. Here’s how.

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An American Holiday

During an early moment in the film, Max (Omri Katz), tells his high school class that “everyone here knows that Halloween was invented by the candy companies. It’s a conspiracy.” Such cynicism is quickly blunted, however, when the girl one desk over, Allison (Vinessa Shaw), counters, “It just so happens that Halloween is based on the ancient feast called All Hallow’s Eve. It’s the one night of the year where the spirits of the dead can return to Earth”

Allison and Max’s first interaction with each other brings up two very important aspects of the Halloween we know and love today: its ancient origins and its modern celebrations. Today, Halloween is a global celebration full of distinctive imagery such as pumpkins carved into jack o’lanterns, witches riding brooms with black cats, ghosts haunting moonlit graveyards, and children dressed in ghoulish garb visiting homes with bags full of candy. But while it does indeed have ancient origins in the mysterious Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-een), a harvest festival to mark the end of the summer and usher in the terrifying nights of winter, as well as Northern European folklore and customs, the modern Halloween is largely an American invention.

Yes, Allison, the term Halloween is a shortened form of All Hallow’s Eve, but All Hallow’s Eve isn’t quite that ancient: it is a medieval creation, designed as a precursor to All Soul’s Day—a festival created during the dark ages to honor the Saints. When Christianizing the West, the Catholic Church found it easier to absorb remaining pagan festivities, such as the harvest, and repackage them in the name of the Lord.

It is likely that pagans would celebrate the start of the winter season with a harvest feast, but also with a feeling of impending doom as many would die during the winter period. Hence, it is a time to honor the dead and a time when darkness would bring out everything that goes bump in the night. 

When Scottish and Irish descendants of Celts migrated to the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries, they took their folk customs with them, which included celebrating “All Hallow’s Eve” (later shortened to Halloween), in order to maintain their cultures. Their pageants included fortune telling, mumming and guising, dances, poetry reciting and sweet treats, and the melting pot of culture of the U.S. proved a fertile ground for such a superstitious festival. The American Halloween was born soon thereafter, transforming into the festival we know it as today by the 20th century. 

Pumpkins, for example, are an American native. Before the infamous jack o’lantern came to define the season, turnips and other European native squash and root vegetables were carved into ghoulish faces for All Hallows that were said to represent the souls of the dead. 

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Meanwhile trick or treating has origins supposedly linked to ancient Samhain and the older folk traditions of mumming and guising that would occur on All Hallow’s Eve back in Scotland, Ireland, and other rural communities within the UK. Usually mummers would go door to door and sing a song or offer a dance (much like modern carol singing) in order to receive a traditional pastry called a soul cake in return.

But trick or treating didn’t become a regular nationwide phenomenon until after the Second World War (although the custom had been regionally established long before). And yes, Max, the candy companies caught on to this curious custom, capitalizing on the trend and creating treat-sized bars of their most popular chocolate especially for the occasion—-candy bars would also quickly replace homemade treats thanks to urban legends of hidden razors. 

The rise in trick or treating and costume parties was also encouraged by local governments as it helped dissuade youths from their more destructive All Hallow’s Eve custom of Mischief or Devil’s Night, aspects of which can still be seen with TP-ing front yards and egging houses. 

Hocus Pocus and Going Global

In the UK, you might hear older generations complaining about Halloween, complaining that “we never had this American stuff when I was young!” but while many of the customs hailed from Ireland, Scotland, and the Celtic nations, they are right. It took a few decades for the likes of Trick or Treating and elaborate costume parties to become commonplace outside of the U.S. 

In the early ’90s, if you were lucky enough to be allowed to go trick ‘r treating in the UK as a kid, you’d be even luckier to actually find some folks who were prepared with treats to hand you (unless you were lucky enough to grow up on an estate with a large population of children and adults happy to cater to them!). Books and magazines related to the season were few and far between in comparison to today. I managed to score a small paper leaflet-like American book full of Halloween party ideas, crafts and recipes that dated to the early ’80s that I carried with me like a bible. 

Nobody decorated the front of houses past perhaps one or two measly carved pumpkins. While many people would hold a Bonfire Night party (with a significant lack of health and safety) and would deck their houses out for Christmas, such enthusiasm for Halloween was unacceptable. It was denounced as a silly holiday for children, and treated as such – kids costumes were available but expensive and adults were not easy to get hold of, unless you wanted to go all out and visit a proper party supplies and costume stores, so most were make-shift or a simple mask or witches hat and broom. The most common celebrations were small-scale neopagan goth “Samhain” adult parties, kids gatherings with bobbing apples and scary stories or simply a good old movie marathon.   

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But in 1993, Hocus Pocus captured the imaginations of British kids, presenting them with the quintessential Halloween watch, and the aspiration to capture the season just as the film had. We wanted what we saw on screen: a real All-American scare fest, with activities town-wide for adults and children alike, and ever since then we’ve been striving for it. 

Everything that Halloween is today culminates in Hocus Pocus. Set in the “witch city” of Salem, Massachusetts—a tourist destination that has characterized itself around the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s, and which has capitalized on the resurgence of “witch culture” through the popularization of the Wiccan religion. The real-life Salem features “haunts”—houses decked out to the max with Halloween decorations, front yards featuring six-foot skeletons, fake gravestones and more—pumpkins on doorsteps, the regular trick ‘r treat ritual of candy giving, receiving (and stealing), a real haunted house, costumes galore, witches, a black cat, a zombie, graveyards and of course, terrifying folklore (that turns out to be true). And after seeing Halloween on screen in all its spooktacular glory, could you blame us Brits for embracing a festival so morbid? We invented “goth” after all!

While Hocus Pocus hit theaters at the least Halloweeny time of year in the U.S., fighting for attention against the likes of Jurassic Park and Free Willy at the summer box office, in the UK and Europe the flick was released in cinemas at Halloween. 

As well as seeing the release of Hocus Pocus, 1993 was unofficially “the year of Halloween”. Before this seminal year, there was the Trick or Treat scene from E.T. (1982), the very un-kid friendly Halloween slasher movie franchise, and a sprinkling of television show Halloween holiday specials. 1993 saw the release of television movies The Halloween Tree and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s Double Double Toil And Trouble, as well as another Disney project, deemed possibly too scary for children, The Nightmare Before Christmas. The latter blended Halloween with Christmas and suggested that Oct. 31 bears a holiday worthy to sit beside the likes of Dec. 25. 

The generation who were kids during this Halloween-heavy year, and those who would grow up on the movies’ repeat airings—primarily millenials—have taken it upon themselves to inject the magic of the movie into Halloween every year and bring up their own children to love the seasonal holiday too.

Being a Disney project, Hocus Pocus (and of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas) had a reach that many films wouldn’t have and could be exported to every corner of the globe. But the beauty of Hocus Pocus is that it also contains adult humor that has helped keep its cult status alive. It’s not just an enjoyable nostalgic trip, you actually still enjoy the ride as an adult, meaning those of us who loved it as kids find a whole new reason to enjoy the camp romp through Salem almost 30 years later. And we’re the same generation who have been anticipating and watching its sequel.

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Halloween expert Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, tells us, “Hocus Pocus has had a remarkable resurrection over the last few years,” primarily thanks to its 20th and 25th anniversaries, which reminded millennials of the magic of the film.

As writer Christina Cauterucci said in her op-ed, entitled ‘It Just Isn’t Halloween Without Hocus Pocus’ in 2013, “Why is this movie, which I only saw once or twice while I was in the target age demographic, so much more fun to watch as a grown-up? Like most children’s films these days (Pixar’s especially), Hocus Pocus serves up a heaping helping of adult humor that went way over my head back in the early 90s.”

Morton agrees.

While speaking to Den of Geek, the author notes, “Hocus Pocus might also be one of those films that has a special nostalgia for those who are the right age. I saw it as an adult and didn’t really like it much (I agreed with most of the critics in 1993), but that’s so often the case with adults seeing films intended for children. That’s probably another part of its increase in popularity: those who loved it as children are adults now and sharing it with their children.“

In fact, the hype around the sequel just proves how lasting the magic of Hocus Pocus is, and perhaps thanks to the fact that its magic transcends the real film—it has brought life to a new generation of Halloween lovers who have solidified the festival’s legitimacy.

For example, just give Hocus Pocus a quick search on the millennial favorite Buzzfeed, and you’ll find endless quizzes, behind-the-scenes retrospectives and tributes to Hocus Pocus. There’s even one quiz to decipher those older millennials and Hocus Pocus lifers, from the young ’uns

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A.V. Club ran a piece for the 20th anniversary of the film, commenting that “it stands out from a host of other films from that era because it embraces its silliness, and then goes the extra mile to make sure that silliness is executed well.” And that’s the crux of it. Who doesn’t love a touch of good old-fashioned silliness when it’s cold, dark and miserable outside the window?

Halloween: The Holiday That’s Here To Stay

Appearing on the podcast Post Mortem, writer/producer David Kirschner explained that “at the time [he pitched Hocus Pocus] the Halloween industry was almost a billion-dollar industry and there were no films out there for families. Since then, it’s become a 10 billion-dollar business.”

Of course, it isn’t just Hocus Pocus that is to blame for Halloween’s globalization, but its success as a film has paralleled the popularity of Halloween across the pond. The more success Hocus Pocus has seen, subsequently finding its feet as a cult film, the more Halloween has evolved and established itself as a seasonal holiday alongside Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Christmas. 

In 2017, National Geographic ran an article entitled, “Love It or Hate It, Halloween Is Going Global” that read, “Halloween is spreading around the globe like a zombie outbreak” and reported that “Forty-six percent of U.K. consumers spent money on Halloween in 2016, shelling out a total of 310 million pounds.” In fact, according to Statista, Halloween has overtaken Guy Fawkes night in terms of popularity when it comes to celebrating one or the other in the UK, and the decline in fireworks sales and increase in Halloween partyware in supermarkets has reflected this.

In 2020, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, spending in the UK had reached a whopping £536 million, and last year it peaked at £607 million. It is estimated that by 2023, spending will reach £777 million—three times the amount spent in 2013, which was £230 million. It’s estimated that last year approximately £25 million was spent on pumpkins alone—that’s a lot to spend on a forgein gourd that had nothing to do with Samhain! 

Disney has seen to it that Halloween has taken off in Japan too thanks to their Tokyo resort while Germans are also fans of the festival, with constant increases in celebrations amongst young people since the ’90s. 

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In the last few years, retailers like TK Maxx and Homesense (the UK equivalent of TJ Maxx and Home Goods) have seriously upgraded their Halloween homewares and the demand has drastically increased, with consumers purchasing everything from large front yard props to crockery and candles as early as June.

Social media groups share eager Halloween hunters’ most wanted items and provide help for other shoppers in order to score their “in search of” pieces. Popular items this year include The Nightmare Before Christmas tea towels and, naturally, Hocus Pocus cushions adorned with the Sanderson Sisters Witch Museum logo. For these Halloweeners, these two ’93 cult kids films have shaped their understanding and love of Halloween, remaining firm favorites some 29 years on.

It’s no surprise then that in 2018, the 25th anniversary of the Sanderson sisters’ first resurrection, viewings of the film shot through the roof. The teaser trailer for Hocus Pocus 2, released in July of this year, reached 43.6 million views and despite scathing reviews, many folks across the UK are holding Hocus Pocus parties to celebrate the sequel’s release. 

These days we are blessed with a whole host of new Halloween-centric films to enjoy every spooky season that capture the spirit of the season: from child-friendly movies like Casper (1995), Corpse Bride (2005), Frankenweenie (2012), Monster House (2006), and ParaNorman (2012) to more adult ventures like Trick ’r Treat (2007). 

We’ve got costumes and homewares in supermarkets, Halloween inspired clothing on ASOS and other major retailers, parties, balls, movie marathons at local cinemas, and more. We’ve finally succeeded in creating Hocus Pocus-style Salem in every town, in every city, in every country, and there’s no signs of it stopping. What’s next? Halloween haunts all over Yorkshire and children running amok in pumpkin patches in Somerset?! The pumpkin patches have already begun to pop up… Ahh, wouldn’t the Sanderson sisters be proud.