How Hocus Pocus Became a Halloween Staple

Hocus Pocus was strongly criticized during its original release, yet has it endured as a Halloween favorite. Why?

Over the 25 years since Hocus Pocus was released, this daft family comedy has become a kind of Halloween staple. From the beginning of October, you’ll start seeing Hocus Pocus gifs and references popping up – and on Halloween night, you might even spot people dressed up as the Sanderson sisters. Watching Hocus Pocus is a comforting, nostalgic experience, especially for anyone young enough to have experienced it on TV as a kid.

But its reputation as a Halloween necessity is something it’s acquired over the years, because when Hocus Pocus came out, critics hated it. Roger Ebert gave it just one star, and complained that it lacked focus and structure; Entertainment Weekly’s Ty Burr gave it a C-, claiming that for Bette Midler fans, it was “depressing as hell.” Overall, on Rotten Tomatoes right now, Hocus Pocus stands at 33 percent rotten, which is pretty dire.

So what’s going on? Were the critics at the time just too grumpy to get it or have we learned to forgive the movie’s rough edges over the last two decades?

Well, I can’t be completely objective here. I remember my first glimpse of the film: I was visiting my family, and my cousins were watching it on VHS, but for whatever reason, my parents decided I wasn’t allowed to see it. Which, of course, just made me more determined to. When I finally did see it, I fell in love. I’ve seen it a lot of times over the years, so rewatching it now, in the lead-up to Halloween, wasn’t exactly hard work.

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I’ll try to wipe the nostalgia away, though: Hocus Pocus is, very clearly, a children’s film, and we’re all adults here. Right?

Okay. So the movie starts in 1690s Salem where the Sanderson sisters have abducted a little girl in order to suck the life out of her and regain their lost youth. The girl’s older brother attempts to save her, but the Sandersons catch him and curse him with eternal life – as a black cat. They manage to kill the girl, but soon a pitchfork-wielding mob is upon them, and they’re hanged as witches.

Just before they die, however, the witches manage one last spell: if, on a Halloween night when the moon is full, a virgin lights the black-flame candle in their house, they’ll come back to life. It’s an absurdly complicated set of rules, which is why it takes 300 years for the conditions to be fulfilled.

Cut to 1993 when a high school history teacher is taking way too much delight in telling her class about the evils of the Sanderson sisters. There’s one kid who’s really not impressed, though: Max Dennison (Omri Katz, of Eerie Indiana), a recent transplant to Salem from California. According to him, Halloween was invented by “the candy companies,” and all this stuff about witches and spells is nonsense. He doesn’t drop his cynical pose even when a classmate, Allison (Vinessa Shaw), contradicts him and tells him the real meaning of Halloween. He just tries to give her his phone number.

Already, we’ve met all of the movie’s major players. Except one: Dani, Max’s little sister, played by Thora Birch. She’s kind of the bane of Max’s life, small and loud and annoying, and her introduction is all of those things: she bursts out of Max’s closet to taunt him while he’s daydreaming about Allison. As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, she goes on to demand he takes her trick or treating that night. While Max is clearly struggling to come to terms with life in a new town, Dani seems determined to embrace it, and she’s having none of his cool teenager angst schtick.

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This is the point at which, as an adult, you realize what this film is about. It’s about siblings and the complicated relationships between them. Now, I don’t like to say that the late, great Roger Ebert was wrong, but I’m going to have to, because his criticisms of Hocus Pocus seem to be focused around the idea that it lacks structure. Yet if you watch carefully, you’ll see it’s an incredibly, meticulously structured film. I you wanted an explanation of the basic three-act screenplay structure, you could do worse than look here. It’s just over 90 minutes long, with each act lasting half an hour, and clear delineations between each one. Every stage of the hero’s journey is fulfilled, and there’s plenty of thematic mirroring going on.

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The obvious one, of course, is the mirrored relationship between Emily and Thackeray Binx, the kids we met in the prologue, and Dani and Max Dennison. Each brother and sister set is roughly the same age, and in each case, it’s down to the older brother to save his younger sister from the witches. But while the Binxes seemed to have a pretty strong relationship, Max just finds Dani annoying at the film’s start. His quest, then, isn’t just to save her from the witches; it’s to learn to love her.

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But that quest doesn’t get off to a good start, because Max puts Dani in danger when they go trick or treating. First, he lets her approach the school bullies alone while he loiters in the background, unwilling to get involved. She gets out of that situation unscathed, but then he makes everything worse by insisting on going to the old Sanderson house. Dani protests, but Max is so determined to impress Allison that he won’t take no for an answer. Plus, since there’s no such thing as witches, there’s no harm in poking around in their old home, is there? Even as Max lights the black-flame candle – in a nice inversion of horror conventions, it turns out to be Max, not Allison, who’s the virgin to light the candle since he doesn’t believe anything will come of it.

The arrival of the newly resurrected Sanderson sisters is seriously over the top, and very ’90s Disney. There’s something weirdly old-fashioned, even, about the way the floorboards glowing green as they rock. It looks like a fairground attraction. The kids take heed of all the pyrotechnics and hide, but when the Sandersons demand to see the virgin who summoned them, Dani pops up to take the credit.

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A lot of people who dislike this movie point to Max as one of the main reasons they don’t get on with it; he’s a bit of a wimp, and at this point in the film, it’s hard to like him. But that’s kind of the point. Once again, Max lets Dani walk into danger, thinking of himself first – it’ll take the rest of the movie for him to change into someone capable of putting his little sister first. It’s not that Max is unintentionally a rubbish character because of some flaw in the screenplay; it’s character development.

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Anyway, Max starts to get his comeuppance in this scene, as the witches zap him and throw him around the room; he also shows his first glimmer of bravery and smarts, using the same lighter he lit the candle with to set off the house’s fire sprinklers, distracting the witches with a “burning rain of death” long enough for the kids to escape – with the transformed Binx, now able to talk, in tow, no less!

Hocus Pocus Dani Thora Birch

Almost the entire second act is taken up with absurd comedy, as the witches chase the kids through modern day (well, ’90s-day) Salem, constantly bewildered by modern inventions. They’re afraid of asphalt, buses, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman with curlers in her hair, and a small dog. It’s broad comedy, for sure. The sequence where the Sandersons think they’ve met the Devil and misinterpret everything in his house is seriously silly, but there’s something innocently delightful about it all too.

Really, in spite of the Halloween imagery, and the fact that it’s about witches, it’s hard to classify Hocus Pocus as even a horror comedy. It’s pretty much just a comedy. For most of the movie, we’re told that what the Sanderson sisters do is kill children, but it’s hard to ever really feel threatened by them. Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) is stupid, easily distracted, and wildly flirtatious, while Mary (Kathy Najimy) is almost as stupid, greedy, and absurdly eager to please. Winifred (Bette Midler, on incredibly camp form) is the only one who seems a bit frightening, and simply because she’s so quick to anger. The three of them bumble around, confused and lost, and their incompetence lessens their creepiness.

That only changes as the film moves into its final act. After approaching a policeman who turns out just to be a guy in a Halloween costume (another of the inverted horror conventions Hocus Pocus does so well), the kids head to the big town Halloween party to try to get some adults on their side. But when Max interrupts the band’s set to try to warn everyone, Winifred seizes the limelight – and bewitches all of Salem’s adults. Her rendition of “I Put a Spell on You” is wonderful; it’s probably the film’s best scene, and certainly its most memorable. But it’s also a turning point in the story, because now, the kids are well and truly on their own. Either they stop the Sandersons or no one does.

There’s still a little way to go until the final showdown, however, including a false victory that was always my least favorite scene as a kid. Max, Allison, Dani, and Binx lure the witches into the high school and trap them inside an oven where they’re burned to death. Is this an appropriate moment to talk about real witch trials? It seems like as good a time as any. Hocus Pocus, like so many other movies, snags a few references to the real phenomenon, back in the 17th century and earlier, of witch trials. And according to a lot of these movies, there were real witches, really doing evil, who were caught and punished for their misdeeds. But, er, from our 21st century perspective, we know that isn’t what happened, don’t we?

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What actually happened is kind of complicated, but it boils down to a kind of religious and political persecution that meant awkward women living alone could be murdered by their community. It’s pretty horrifying, and there’s a reason we use the phrase “witch hunt” now to denote a campaign of unjustified harassment. As much as I love this movie – and I do, I do – there is a tiny part of me that finds the gleeful depiction of witches as evil, stupid women that even history teachers could giggle about a little bit distasteful. I’m pretty sure that isn’t what the disapproving critics of 1993 were worried about, though, so let’s set that aside.

Besides in the movie, this witch-burning doesn’t work. The power of black-flame candle overrides the witches’ physical destruction, and soon they’re back for blood. Sarah takes to the skies to sing her lullaby to the town’s children, and suddenly, the movie makes the witches seem properly threatening. No longer bumbling idiots, they’re very determined to murder some kids.

They also kidnap Dani. With the clock ticking, the Sandersons only have until dawn to consume the life force of children or they’ll be sent back to whatever hell they were trapped in since their first deaths. The stakes are properly raised for the first time. And it’s at this point that Max’s transformation into a proper hero begins. With Binx’s help, he realizes how much his little sister means to him and sets off to rescue her. Using a similar trick to the “burning rain of death” hoax, he convinces the witches that sunrise is earlier than they thought, and when they collapse in horror, he grabs Dani and runs.

All very heroic, of course. But the movie’s not over yet, and the Sandersons aren’t defeated;  they’re just distracted. With just enough magic potion left to steal the life of one child, and hundreds of Salem kids lining up outside to be eaten, the film’s biggest contrivance kicks in: Winifred wants to steal the life of a specific child, and sets off after Dani. It’s very, very silly, because if she’d only murdered one of the other kids, she could’ve lived long enough to wreak her revenge later, but, well, this is a kid’s film, and it has already gone out of its way to show us that Winnie is more than a little bit irrational. So the kids and the Sandersons end up facing off in a graveyard, with sunrise mere moments away.

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It’s a frantic scene with lots of fighting and flying, and screaming going on. And just when it looks like all is lost – Winifred has Dani, and she’s threatening to kill her unless Max hands over the potion – our not-very-heroic hero finally proves himself. Rather than risk the witches getting to feast on Dani’s life force, Max downs the potion himself, effectively martyring himself to save his sister.

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This final scene is where another of Hocus Pocus’ mirrors becomes obvious. When Max downs the potion, Winifred laughs at him: “What a fool,” she says, “to give up thy life for thy sister’s.” The implication is that she would do no such thing for her sisters, whom she clearly regards as idiots. They hinder rather than help her (“Why was I cursed with such idiot sisters?”). And though Mary and Sarah often vie for Winifred’s approval, they don’t seem to like her very much, either. This is a film that’s all about sibling relationships, and the Sanderson sisters are another model, like the Binxes, that Dani and Max could follow. Tell me again how this movie doesn’t have any sense of structure?

Happily – because this is a Disney movie, after all – Max chooses Binx as his role model and sacrifices himself. Also like Binx, he escapes death, albeit as the sun comes up just in time to turn the witches to dust and restore safety to Salem. Max tells Dani he loves her, and they hug and it’s all set to be a straightforwardly schmaltzy ending… until Hocus Pocus throws in a bit of sadness to tamp down your sugar high. Now that the Sandersons’ curse has been broken, Binx is no longer immortal, and in being thrown from Winnie’s broomstick, he’s dead. Yet ven that turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because he’s finally reunited with his beloved little sister. Her ghost turns up to escort him off to heaven, and no, I’m not crying, you’re crying. Sniff.

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There’s so much more I could talk about. I haven’t even mentioned the appearance by the wonderful Doug Jones, playing a zombified former lover of Winifred’s for one thing, but if I kept going, I’d end up writing a book rather than an article, so let’s wrap up.

When it was released (in July 1993 rather than Halloween 1993, for reasons best known to Disney execs) Hocus Pocus was critically panned. But like the Sanderson sisters, it’s gone on to have a life after death. It started picking up momentum as soon as people could watch it at home, either on VHS or on TV. Several TV channels, including the Disney Channel, started running it annually in the lead up to Halloween, and it quickly became an October ritual for many people. It still shows up in the TV listings every year – and of course it does, because people watch it by the millions. As recently as 2011, a pre-Halloween airing saw it attract 2.8 million viewers.

The film does pretty well on DVD, too; it was released in 2002 and reportedly sells about $1 million worth of discs every October. A Blu-ray of the film was even released in 2012 for anyone who wants to see an animatronic cat in high-definition. So were the critics wrong when they denounced this as an overly silly kids’ film even Bette Midler fans couldn’t enjoy? For my money, yes – and for the record, even the Divine Ms. M has said it’s one of her favorite performances…

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