Words by Jada Gordon
Graphics by Aspasia Celia Tsampas
For every holiday, there is a film that encompasses and embodies the very spirit of the occasion. For Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life and Home Alone, etc. For Easter, it’s The Ten Commandments, and for Halloween, which has some of the most diverse film options, there are slasher movies, cartoons, and paranormal films. All of these films fulfill the desires of Halloween lovers. However, one film seems to never go out of style. It lives in the hearts of Millennials and stays relevant in the cultural zeitgeist, Kenny Ortega’s Hocus Pocus (1993) is the quintessential Halloween film.
For those who don’t know, Hocus Pocus is about the Sanderson sisters, three witches in Salem, Massachusetts who live off the souls of young children in exchange for youth and beauty. In 1693, they feed off the soul of the young Emily Binx, killing her in the process. Her older brother Thackery tries to stop the witches but they turn him into an immortal Black cat and he must live with the guilt of not saving Emily. Before their execution, the Sanderson sisters cast a spell on All Hallows Eve so if a virgin lights the Black Flame Candle they will reappear. Thackery, now a cat, guards the house to ward off people who might try to summon the witches.
Three hundred years later, Max Dennison, with his sister Dani, and crush Allison in tow, lights the Black Flame Candle. And that’s where the fun begins.
Hocus Pocus was released on July 16, 1993, to a mix of predominantly poor critical reviews and reception. The film lost Walt Disney Pictures over 16.5 million dollars, although it stars film and Broadway icon, Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy of Sister Act and Sister Act 2, and at the time up-and-coming actress Sarah Jessica Parker. The weird time of release (a Halloween film released in the middle of summer?) was due to the studio not wanting the film to compete with their other Halloween-based film, the equally iconic The Nightmare Before Christmas. Despite this, Hocus Pocus has maintained a cult status for many years, running every Halloween on the Disney Channel and Freeform.
The film has spawned two fictional books, a scholarly analysis book, a 25th anniversary Halloween Bash that reunited the cast, and an alleged long-awaited sequel. What makes this movie so quotable? What makes audiences come back to this film year after year? What has made this film a cultural phenomenon in the already iconic Disney film lineup? Here’s why Hocus Pocus never gets old.
The Sanderson Sisters
Winifred, Sarah, and Mary Sanderson are the main antagonists in the film. Their girl power, camaraderie, and overall performance make this film memorable and quotable all the way though. Winifred, played by Bette Midler, brings the evil, funny, and alluring charm that makes her so fun to watch. Her control of the sisters, her vocal talent that weaves in and out of the movie (look at her rendition of “I Put a Spell on You”), and her larger than life spirit commands the screen time and time again. Midler goes from an evil, youth-hungry witch to an emotional wreck in five minutes. She makes being evil look so damn fun that we almost want to root for her until we look through a more realistic lens and remember Winifred and her sisters are preying on young children for their spirits. This is a classic showcase of Bette Midler’s range of both comedic and musical talent.
Sarah Sanderson, played by Sarah Jessica Parker brings a sultry, yet playful charm to the group. Sarah maintains a balance of naiveté with her sexual, playful charm. She’s only as sexy as a Disney film can get but still pulls it off well. She manages to walk this line with every man she meets in the film. This is done with such fun, flighty, and flirty energy that it’s delightful and at times makes you forget that she is yet again preying on young children, especially alluring them with predatory energy. We can’t forget that Sarah Sanderson is over three hundred years old luring young children to their demise, but the charm shines through. This culminates when Sarah Sanderson sings “Come Little Children” to lure the children to the Sanderson home to have their souls taken by the witches.
*Fun Fact: Sarah Jessica Parker’s relatives were accused of witchcraft and narrowly avoided being burned at the stake in the 1692 Salem Witch trials although she was innocent. *
Mary Sanderson, played by Kathy Najimy, is quirky, funny, and has a keen sense of smell. Mary’s sense of smell helped the sisters find potential victims to be under the Sanderson spell. She was the butt of the sisters’ jokes, a victim of Winifred’s nasty retorts and abuse, and was the perfect quirky character between the other two vastly different sisters. This displayed Kathy Najimy’s strong comedic chops. Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993) came out the same year as Hocus Pocus, so this was a good year for Kathy Najimy. Her character, Mary Sanderson, was well developed and Kathy Najimy held her own between Winifred and Sarah. Her love for food along with her keen sense of smell brought a dash of extra quirky humor at times where Winifred seemed to snap. Mary Sanderson was a good counterpart to both Winifred and Sarah when needed and it’s hilarious to watch every time.
Kenny Ortega Directed It
Kenny Ortega is Disney royalty at this point. He’s a noted director, producer, and choreographer at Disney with an expansive filmography, television, and concert work. He’s worked on numerous projects with Disney such as: Newsies (1992), The Descendants trilogy (2015), The Cheetah Girls 2 (2006) (arguably the best one), and most notably the High School Musical trilogy (2006), where he choreographed and directed all three films. Kenny Ortega has choreographed tours for Cher, Michael Jackson, and Gloria Estefan and choreographed classic films like Dirty Dancing (1988). Also, he has won multiple Primetime Emmy Awards for his work. Hocus Pocus was another classic film he has under his belt. He directed and choreographed this film although it’s not a musical. He incorporated movements from their in-sync walking (which are funny), their calming circle, and their iconic rendition of “I Put a Spell on You” which is definitely one of the biggest highlights of the film. Kenny Ortega added his special touch to the film that elevated Hocus Pocus.
*Fun Fact: “I Put a Spell on You” was not originally going to be a part of the movie until Kenny Ortega added it. *
“I Put a Spell on You”
“Thank you, Max. For that MARVELOUS introduction” Winifred stated before singing going into the rendition of the classic song “I Put a Spell on You”, made famous in the ’50s by Screaming Jay Hawkins. For context, Max, Dani, and Allison run to the town’s Halloween party to inform the adults of the Sanderson sisters’ return. There, no one believes them, and that leaves the adults open to be put under the Sanderson sisters’ spell. The words take on a literal meaning because they do put a spell on the adults so they won’t get their kids, leaving the sisters’ open to feast off of the souls of their children. This all sounds insane and traumatic but the film makes it fun and joyous in ways Disney has perfected. Winifred added lyrics such as “It’s been 300 years/ right down to the day/ Now the witch is back and there’s hell to pay” to play with the legend of the Sanderson sisters which the town romanticizes and the hell the parents are going to pay because of their return.
It’s a Story about Sibling Love
Past the haunting, witchy aspect of Hocus Pocus, the film is a story of siblings and the love they share. Thackery feels eternal guilt for not rescuing Emily, so with Thackery as a cat, Binx does everything in his power to save Dani. Binx also makes sure Max realizes how lucky he is to have a sister. Dani may come across as annoying but she is an eight-year-old girl that wants to be close to her brother. Max and Dani have gone through a shift, both physically and emotionally. They moved from Los Angeles, California to Salem, Massachusetts and that’s a huge shift for any child. Max is in the throes of being a teenager and coming into his own. Dani is still stuck in her girlhood and is attached to Max and how he used to be. So, when he pushes Dani away, it’s because he’s frustrated with change within and outward. But, by the end of the movie, they are far closer to each other than either expected because they’ve learned something new about themselves in the experience. So, in true Disney fashion, this story is about siblings, love, and how we should never take the people in our lives for granted.