I was a teenager when Hocus Pocus came out. I am about six months younger than one of its stars and about a year older than another, and in 1993 I saw The Crying Game in the theatre. This movie was something I just saw as, frankly, the sort of thing my younger sister would enjoy. And she did, goodness knows. I remember actively cringing away from the “amok amok amok” bit, which annoyed me as a teenager. I’ll be blunt; it’s not less annoying now. If you’re a fan of this movie, maybe stop reading now.
On Halloween 1693, Emily Binx (Amanda Shepherd) is lured to the home of the Sanderson sisters in Salem, Massachusetts. They are Winifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary (Kathy Najimy). They are witches who absorb her life essence. Her brother, Thackery (Sean Murray, and you’d better believe we’ll get back to him), tries to rescue her and is turned into a cat. The Sanderson sisters are hanged, but they manage to cast a spell that they will be resurrected if blah blah blah something something virgin.
On Halloween 1993, Max Dennison (Omri Katz) has just moved to Salem. He scorns Halloween and the legend of the Sanderson sisters. However, his parents are going to a party at the town hall and insist that Max take his younger sister, Dani (Thora Birch), trick-or-treating. They end up at the home of his crush, Allison (Vinessa Shaw), and something something persuades her to go with them to the old Sanderson house, something something candle, something something virgin, Sandersons resurrected and trying to absorb the life force of all the children in the town.
In 2010, Sarah Jessica Parker discovered that she is a descendant of Esther Elwell, arrested, though never tried, in Salem, Massachusetts, for witchcraft.
In 2023, I discovered that Walt Disney is a descendant of Reverend George Burroughs, arrested, tried, and executed in Salem, Massachusetts, for witchcraft.
It’s not exactly news that this is an iffy portrayal of witchcraft and in particular Salem, Massachusetts. Najimy, in fact, was allegedly hesitant to take the role because she didn’t want to offend modern-day witches. It’s worth noting that I, for one, don’t much blame her. While she did well over 200 episodes of King of the Hill as Peggy, she’s still had a limited number of roles worth noting. If she’s on the nostalgia gravy train with this one, well, good for her. I streamed this on Disney+, so presumably she’s getting a penny or two from me, too.
But man, this movie angers me as part of a cultural trend, just for starters. The real story of the Salem trial is tragic. Walt’s ancestor was a minister. He knew that it was a strongly held belief that witches couldn’t say the Lord’s Prayer, for reasons, and he stood in front of the crowd at his own execution reciting it. Cotton Mather convinced the crowd that Burroughs had been justly convicted, and four more people would be executed after him. Nineteen people in all were hanged. Five are believed to have died in prison. Giles Corey was pressed to death.
In actual fact, we don’t know what caused the witch trials, not really. There are a lot of theories, from weird doctrinal disputes to inheritance battles to ergot poisoning. (I lean toward a combination of the doctrinal disputes and the inheritance battles with a healthy dose of Calvinist paranoia.) What we do know is that a lot of innocent people died. That we now exclusively make movies where there was real magic that was really harmful is much more offensive than I think a lot of people realize. It apparently made Sarah Jessica Parker think to realize her own connection to it.
Oh, I’ve written about this before. Will doubtless write about it again. But every Halloween, various of my friends start rhapsodizing about this movie. I always start with the fact that I simply didn’t like what I’d seen of it. I found it annoying and frustrating. The characters always pissed me off. But from there, I’d move on to how problematic the whole thing was. How unpleasant. How much of a betrayal, if I can be so melodramatic. Of Walt’s ancestor. Of Sarah Jessica Parker’s ancestor. Of our own Ploughman’s ancestor, in fact.
I think it’s possible to make jokes about tragedies, but honestly all we ever do with this tragedy is make jokes about it. How often does anyone outside documentaries talk about those harmed? There’s The Crucible and that’s it. And even The Crucible was using it as an allegory. The Sandersons are hanged, which I suppose is something I should give it credit for; hanging is historically accurate, at least. No mention of the fact that the day they were hanged was after the regular trials were ended.
Which is just a start to how extremely off all this is. Yeah, okay, hanging. That’s great. On the other hand, there is the time issue. (Halloween 1993 was a Sunday, even though Max was in school, and 2020 was the only full moon on Halloween between 1974 and 2039.) They have the Sandersons hanged on Halloween for reasons. But it’s Halloween after the witch trials had ended because they wanted it to be exactly three centuries.
When they get to Allison’s house, her parents are having some sort of costume party wherein they are, I suspect, dressing up as people from the Sandersons’ era. It’s the only version that makes sense. But they’re dressed up as people from later in the eighteenth century, not the end of the seventeenth. Including Allison, who’s barely involved in the party and changes clothes as quickly as possible. Sure, okay, it’s the ‘90s and it’s hardly surprising that the children are out alone, but also every parent in town seems to be either at the town hall party or Allison’s parents’ party.
Apparently, Jason Marsden dubbed the voice of Thackery Binx because Sean Murray sounded too ‘90s. I hate to tell them this, but he looked too ‘90s, too. He and Omri Katz had extremely similar haircuts. Also, you know, white was all but impossible to keep clean and that shirt shredded almost immediately. And he went on to play the guy who shared a keyboard on NCIS because more typists equals hack faster, so there’s that.
Sure, some of my problems with this movie came from simply knowing too much. The Sandersons’ costumes bothered me because I know exactly how expensive that would be—velvet? In seventeenth century Massachusetts? Oh, I wouldn’t want them wearing black dresses, either; Puritans found black to be ostentatious because of how expensive it was to dye things black. But they’d already be on the outs with the other people in town because of that clothing, and there’s no way to survive in that time and place while being on the outs with your neighbours.
But also, and I know I’m making no friends, here, this movie simply isn’t good. Its plot doesn’t hang together well. There’s a running thing about hallowed ground, but the witches just hover above it on brooms, and there’s no problem with that. They’re perfectly okay with being within the cemetery so long as they aren’t on the ground, and even then, it was okay for a couple of minutes. Characters consistently make about the worst possible decision, and we’re supposed to just go along with that.
So okay, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that the Sandersons’ ages can span literally twenty years (Bette Midler was born in 1945, Kathy Najimy in 1957, and Sarah Jessica Parker in 1965), especially with a mother who’s a literal witch. It’s still jarring. Further, their appearances make you wonder about their fathers—do they all have the same one? Do they have three different ones? What in the name of Gods is going on with Winifred’s teeth? Are there actual chipmunks in her family history? It’s part of making it a kids’ movie, but bleah.
The weirdest part of the movie remains the casting of Garry and Penny Marshall, actual literal siblings, to play husband and wife. At least they aren’t ever required to show affection, I suppose, but it’s really unsettling if you know who they are. Her angry outburst when she sees him dancing with Sarah is creepy. The scene also makes me wonder how the sisters were ever smart enough to have made pacts with the Devil, because they’re fooled by an old suburban dude in a chintzy Halloween costume.
I did like the effects when Thackery is a ghost, which made a lot more sense when I saw people credited as “Pixar.” I find it amusing that it was about a ninety percent or higher public domain Halloween. There’s a kid dressed as Mrs. Potts—you know, that popular Halloween costume, Mrs. Potts—and an adult dressed as a program from Tron, and according to IMDb one of the adults is the flying clown from The Rocketeer, and that’s practically it. Except the three girls dressed as the Sandersons, and we never do get closure on their stealing the brooms. What happens later?
The movie’s beliefs about California are just bewildering. Max seems vaguely surprised at how all-out Salem goes for Halloween, but as established I’m about the same age as he is, and I lived in LA County, and believe me we did at least as much for Halloween as Salem did, depending on where you lived in the county. In fact, it’s my understanding that the real Salem is as much above the movie’s rendition of it come Halloween as most of LA is from the “we don’t celebrate it” version Max implies. Because, you know, there’s no heavily Mexican Día de los Muertos influence on LA Halloween, just as no one in LA believes in witches and ghosts and spells and things. Why isn’t that cemetery crawling with tourists, especially with the sisters’ having been actually executed exactly three hundred years earlier?
I could keep going, but this is already the longest Disney Byways I’ve ever done. I also know I’m going to make a lot of people angry, because this movie inspires a lot of devotion in people. I will be accused of over-thinking again; it won’t be for the first or last time. But this movie is cruel to the dead of Salem and inaccurate to history and simply bad. Your fondness for Bette Midler singing “I Put a Spell on You” with changed lyrics doesn’t do anything to that.
I am seriously considering offering the audio file of my viewing of this as a benefit on Patreon, or you can pay me for it on Ko-fi. You can also see my annual Spirit Halloween Store trip, which is fun for me if no one else.