Three Witches, One Movie 25 Years Later: Why Hocus Pocus Worked
I have memories. We were on vacation, and in a beach house. It was someone’s birthday, and we made a cake from a mix. There was a pelican outside. Escape from Witch Mountain was ending, and Hocus Pocus was starting. I thought from the previews that they looked like fun movies, pure magical comedies with music.
The assumption about the latter film was a mistake. The first ten minutes in, I couldn’t look at the film. Even ten years later, I will not watch the exact moment that still makes me shudder, when the three witches suck out a little girl’s life and leave her corpse in a chair. But I have seen the rest, enough to understand the film. In my defense, I was either seven or eight and hadn’t developed a strong stomach for horror.
Hocus Pocus came out in 1993. It premiered in the summer, when The Nightmare Before Christmas came out in October. Ironically, it had the Disney label while Nightmare had the Touchstone label because Disney executives feared that Henry Selick’s directing genius was too scary for kids. Yeah. Nightmare doesn’t have any dead children in it, or children dying onscreen. In any case, the movie was considering a “flop”.
The story talks of three real witches in Salem, who did sell their soul to the Devil for magic and eternal youth. (Note that in real life all the people accused were innocent, and no one sold their souls.) In the cold open, a youth named Thackery Binx finds his little sister missing. He and his friend Elijah realize that witches have kidnapped her; Thackery runs to rescue Emily while Elijah rushes to get help from the townspeople. Thackery arrives too late, and the witches turn him into a cat for calling their leader a “hag”. The townpeople manage to execute the witches, but three hundred years later, an “airhead virgin” accidentally resurrects them on Halloween night. Max, his little sister Dani, his crush Allison and Thackery in cat form have to outlast the witches before sunrise, and keep them from killing more children.
On the surface, it seems like a typical horror film. You have to survive the monster, which happened due to your . The fact that Disney released a survival horror film, and sold it as a comedy, was audacious. Even more audacious, said film became a cult hit, to the point where Disney is working on a remake and aired the “Hocus Pocus 25th Anniversary Halloween Bash” on October 20, 2018.
Hocus Pocus works as a movie because it balances some terrifying scenes with comic performances. The plausibility of the balance also matters; unlike in Sky High, another fun movie, the villains’ motives are consistent. They want to eat children’s souls to stay young and immortal. At the same time, their leader Winifred is vain and arrogant. She doesn’t mind dying several times, or putting off some pragmatic decisions, in favor of settling scores. Her sisters Sarah and Mary aren’t much better; Sarah desires any “boy” that moves, while Mary is feeble in confidence while sniffing out children. We understand everything they do in the film. Winifred curses anyone who calls her ugly, and she can make her sisters follow her lead.
The witches on the surface appear as typical Disney villains; they engage in slapstick, some banter with the heroes and among themselves. At the same time, they murder a child onscreen. Then they marvel over their sudden youth. It’s played lightly due to their happiness, and due to the music not having any scare chords when it happens, but it was the scene that terrified me as a kid. Then a few minutes later the Salem residents hang them, on actual justified charges of witchcraft and murder. Much later, they manage to lure all the children in Salem to their cottage, and plan to drain out young Dani’s life force.
Balancing Forbidden Fruit: Purity and Sexuality
The movie also talks about things you wouldn’t find in a kids’ film: sexuality and power. It’s not just that an “airhead virgin” has to light the candle on a Halloween on a full moon; it’s that purity and innocence is shown in a bad light. You would be hard-pressed to find this mentioned so prominently in a film.
We see this theme of purity as a bad thing present in the cold open: Sarah with her hypnotic singing lures a little girl named Emily to the cottage, sitting her in a chair before the witches feed her the life-taking potion. Emily looks cheerful and sweet, but also blank and vacant. Sarah’s hypnosis keeps her bound to the chair, not even reacting when her brother screams for the witches to leave her alone. This means she dies without realizing the danger she’s in, with her brother forced to watch.
Dani serves as a foil to Emily. Unlike Thackery’s sister, Dani is bratty, sassy, and rude. She also is right most of the time, such as when she tells of Max for lighting the candle. When the witches kidnap her, they have to tie her to a chair because Sarah’s spell doesn’t work on her. It’s unclear if the witches didn’t bother to target her, or if Dani’s will is that strong. Dani also mouths off to the witches, calls Winifred ugly, and bites them when they try to force-feed her the potion. She survives to the end of the film, partly thanks to her pluck and spirit and partly thanks to all the people who care about her.
Then we have the instigator of the plot: Max Dennison. Max’s virginity and purity is seen as negative. He knows nothing about Halloween, Salem, or flirting. Combine all of those three facets, and you get a nasty inciting incident. California native Max wants to impress his classmate and crush Allison, whose family maintains the witch sisters’ cottage as a museum and tourist attraction. His classmates and sister shame him, a fifteen-year old, for being a virgin, and he obviously wants to shed that title. While he takes his little sister trick-or-treating, he ignores hers and Allison’s warnings about the candle and lights it, to prove that it’s all just “hocus pocus”. Very quickly, Max learns that you shouldn’t just dismiss legends in Salem; the witches storm into their cottage, and nearly murder him and Dani. Binx in cat form chastises Max for his stupidity but allies with the kids to defeat the witches once and for all.
To defeat the witches, Max has to shed his purity. By that, I don’t mean he loses his virginity. But he has to learn to bluff, to fight dirty against them by using traps, salt, and finally self-sacrifice. Monsters don’t play fair, so you don’t have to play fair either. While Max is still a virgin by the end of the movie, he has become a proper adult.
The Threat of Power
The witches’ fatal flaw is their belief in their power. In the beginning, Sarah lures one child whose father happens to rally an angry mob when he hears what happened. She also has no discretion; Thackery is awakened by her, and sees a hypnotized Emily running off into the woods. This gives Elijah enough time to get help. Sarah doesn’t think through the consequences of being seen; neither do her sisters. As a result, they all get hanged, but laugh because if a virgin lights their candle, they can return to life. Winifred believes the candle is enough insurance; she doesn’t consider that Thackery, her immortal victim, would stop people from lighting it. The three hundred years mean that Then when the witches come back to life and retrieve their book, they take their sweet time luring children once they have enough potion for one child, and as many kids as they can have. Dawn comes too quickly.
In addition, while the witches learn to incapacitate the adults that would kill them, they aren’t so good at awareness of their flaws. Winifred’s vanity causes her to lash out at anyone who finds her ugly. Mary lacks the strength to reason with her sisters, and Sarah prioritizes finding boys to play with while she’s “beautiful”. They don’t know how to shed their flaws to grow into more competent beings. Again, they believe their power renders them invincible.
Max, unlike the sisters, accepts humility and responsibility for his mistakes. He is self-aware to realize that he has messed up, and has to improve to survive the night. On realizing the witches mean to harm his sister, he bluffs them long enough to get out of the cottage, with Dani, Allison, and the spell-book. He apologizes to everyone for bringing the witches back to life, and works to protect Dani and Allison. Max finally redeems himself when he prepares to exchange his life for Dani’s and save her from an airborne Winifred. Even though he doesn’t die, this ultimate sacrifice allows his friends to defeat the witches, and for him to earn Dani’s respect and declaration of love.
Tell Us A Story
Hocus Pocus went beyond the expectations for a Disney movie. It scared us, or at least scared me, while adding depth to its story. We had a horror survival film, mildly tamed for its younger viewers. Its characters changed and grew.
This is how you make a horror film for kids: you add the forbidden fruit that wouldn’t otherwise be allowed, by incorporating it as a narrative theme. You also terrify people by showing us that the villains’ goals have stakes, personal and large-scale ones.
Have a happy Halloween. Watch out for singing witches.