Hocus Pocus: Putting a Spell on All Ages

Ah, Hocus Pocus. A shining example of how artistic media can flop dreadfully at first, only to fly high through the sky (pun intended) later. (Even putting a spell on the box office in 2020.) First impressions clearly aren’t everything…or, at least, not always what they seem.

Before we get started, Hocus Pocus is streaming on Disney+!

Hocus Pocus has reached such a status of “hidden film people love” that it even gets randomly referenced in not only non-horror but also non-Disney and even non-Halloween-related media. It’s one thing to see it played over and over each October on Freeform’s 31 Nights of Halloween: Freeform’s a Disney-owned TV station, and the film’s popular enough to get people to tune in, so why not play it and get viewers as well as new fans who either catch it randomly or are recruited to the coven by friends who are already fans? It’s an entirely different surprise to be watching, for example, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on The CW, and hear Hocus Pocus get its name dropped right in the middle of an upbeat, quirky song about friendship.

Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) says, "Awww, I love Hocus Pocus!" in the song, "Friendtopia," from the TV show, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."
Friendship, best friendship, dystopian totalitarian government…“Hocus Pocus.” This is a logical progression.

Could other movies besides Hocus Pocus have had their names dropped in “Friendtopia”? Of course. But there’s something about Hocus Pocus—because of its history, because of its reputation, and because of how it is as a film on its own—that volleys it from a fun horror comedy to a bonding experience that brings people together (and not just because of Sarah’s siren song).

Part of this is likely because most of the film takes place on Halloween, making it an easy fit for Halloween hangouts, parties, movie nights, etc. However, there are plenty of other movies that take place on or otherwise revolve around Halloween that don’t get the same attention, and there are movies that don’t even mention Halloween that are dubbed “Halloween movies” and earn places in many people’s annual spooky season film rotations.

Also, since Hocus Pocus was so overlooked during its initial theatrical release, finding it on TV, home media, or streaming feels like a real discovery, and when people unearth a new discovery, it’s no surprise that they’ll want to take it upon themselves to share it with others and spread the word about it.

However, Hocus Pocus has gained such momentum that not only does it have the aforementioned frequent airings on Freeform in October and domination at the 2020 box office, but also anniversary specials, constant conversations about and rumors of a sequel, merchandise galore, a presence at the Disney Parks around Halloween, and so much more. And yet, despite this exposure, the film’s popularity hasn’t died down. If anything, it’s become more fervent, as reflected in the increasing attention it garners with each passing Halloween season.

So while these are factors, there’s far more to this phenomenon than the fact that Hocus Pocus takes place on October 31 and that it was overlooked in theaters in 1993. The film isn’t brought out each year as something people “ironically” enjoy, but as a hidden gem people genuinely love. Thus, it’s something about the actual content of the film that draws people in.


Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler) raises her arms and says, "'Tis time!", in the film, "Hocus Pocus" (1993).

Let’s dive into our spellbooks to unlock the recipe that makes Hocus Pocus’s brew of comedy and horror so enticing to “children” of all ages.

The Comedy

The comedy comes from the characters’ personalities and relationships. The protagonists know they could die (or worse) tonight at the hands of these witches or their zombie servant, but Max and Dani are brother and sister, and Max is trying to impress his crush, Allison. Even without the witches and stray zombie, there’s going to be sibling bickering and awkward attempts to look cool.

Max and Dani also lean towards deception, which brings its own comedy. Dani’s initial act of speaking like the Sanderson sisters after first meeting them doesn’t last long, but Max takes up the mantle and runs with it.

These kids may not have the magic, experience, or spellbooks crafted by Satan that the Sanderson sisters have, but what they do have is knowledge of the modern world. But it’s not just their use of the world of 1993 that’s funny, but the way they go about it. It’s one thing to light a lighter near a sprinkler to set them off and catch the witches off guard. It’s an entirely different matter to declare yourself a powerful being and say…

Max Dennison (Omri Katz) says, "I summon the Burning Rain of Death," before lighting a lighter next to a ceiling sprinkler, in the film, "Hocus Pocus" (1993).
1690s problems require 1990s solutions.

The Sanderson sisters are exactly that: sisters. Thus, they’re going to bicker. Individually, Mary Sanderson (Kathy Najimy) constantly acting like a dog and putting on a goofy voice out of the side of her mouth is great fun. Sarah Sanderson (Sarah Jessica Parker) has a loopiness and lust that’s more subtle (sometimes) in comparison but is a delight to pay attention to, whether she’s frolicking in the background, eating a spider, or giving a suggestive one-liner. Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler) is the “head witch in charge,” but, upon closer inspection, really shouldn’t be. Winifred’s stubbornness and tunnel vision cause them problems and, eventually, their downfall. But along the way, her frustration, desperation, and theatrics around every other emotion, sometimes one right after another, are hilarious to behold.

So with the characters themselves bringing all the humor, whether through intentional wit or unintentional daftness and over-dramatics, is there any room for “horror,” and if so, where?

The Horror

Hocus Pocus has a plot that, on paper, seems quite chilling, and the film does take its own plot and darker supernatural elements seriously. These witches have successfully sucked the lives out of children in the past (one of which is depicted in the film’s opening scene), so it’s not unreasonable for the witches, the protagonists, or the audience to think that they can do so again. These aren’t empty threats from inept villain wannabes. The Sanderson sisters were even hanged for their crimes.

Sarah Sanderson (Sarah Jessica Parker) says, "Listen. This is terribly uncomfortable," with a noose hanging loosely around her neck, from the film "Hocus Pocus" (1993).
Yeah, and I think it’s about to get even more uncomfortable…

They didn’t escape death at the last second and hide out in another dimension for 300 years: they were hanged, and they actually died. If not for Max Dennison, their bodies would’ve continued decomposing until another virgin lit that specific candle on a full moon on Halloween night. (With conditions that specific, it’s no wonder it took 300 years.)

Dani Dennison (Thora Birch) says, "A virgin lit the candle," in the film, "Hocus Pocus" (1993).
Out of the mouths of babes…

That quote from Dani brings us to our next topic. This is a serious plot perpetrated by villains who are a serious threat (sisterly spats notwithstanding). And it’s happening to kids who have no chance of any adult helping them.

So how does the film keep up its humor without cheapening the story and the stakes?

How They Mix

“Three witches who were hanged in the 1600s for sucking the lives out of children return from beyond the grave 300 years later to claim as many child victims as they can before sunrise in order to achieve immortality and eternal youth.”

Of course: the classic Disney family film formula!

Now might be a good time to mention that, according to my mom, Hocus Pocus is the first movie she ever showed me—which explains a lot, really. What makes Hocus Pocus seemingly so “kid-friendly,” even with its talk of virgins, “yabos,” and hell?

Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler), while hovering on her broomstick, says, "I've been there, thank you. I found it quite lovely," in the film, "Hocus Pocus" (1993).
Yes, I’ve heard it’s a real “hot spot.”

First of all, minus the witches themselves, the movie does revolve around kids and teenagers. Even the centuries-old Thackery Binx was bewitched while still a teenager. Whether it’s true or not, when people see movies that involve kids and/or teenagers, there’s often the assumption that the movie itself is safe for kids and/or teenagers. The film also isn’t overtly graphic or violent. When Thackery gets run over, he’s flattened, but there’s no blood or any open or exposed wounds, which both hints at his immortality before he explicitly reveals it and keeps it less traumatizing for children to watch. When Billy the zombie’s head falls off, you hear Billy grunting the entire time his head rolls away, which adds humor to the moment, and, once again, there’s no blood or any exposed innards.

What makes Hocus Pocus humorous is not only the hapless protagonists mixed up in it, who, while they do take their peril seriously, use the modern world to their advantage in comedic ways and bring sardonic wit to the proceedings, but also from the villains themselves. The Sanderson Sisters, who also take their side of the plot seriously, bicker and even play around the entire way not only like real siblings, but, ironically, also like children, from whom they so desperately want to drain life. When they’re feeling confident, they amuse themselves with quips, gleeful use of magic, and silly celebration at seemed victory.

Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler) flies alongside a car on her broomstick and barks through the open window, "Pull over! Let me see your driver's permit," in the film "Hocus Pocus" (1993).
“Permit”? Ouch. She doesn’t even think he has an actual license.

When things aren’t going well, the Sanderson sisters’ tantrums of anger, despair, or both are so wild that they’re hilarious.

Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler) cries, "She really hurt my feelings," to Sarah Sanderson (Sarah Jessica Parker), in the film, "Hocus Pocus" (1993).
Witches who’ve sold their souls to Satan have feelings, too.

The situation is serious, and the characters on both the good and evil sides take it seriously, but people make jokes. People get sardonic. People get dramatic. (Both in real life and in movies.)

Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler), while hovering on her broomstick, says, "Damn, damn, double damn," in the film, "Hocus Pocus" (1993).
And sometimes people swear. Both in real life and in Disney family movies.

And that is the answer. In the midst of the serious plot, the humorous characters, and the heart of the bonds of siblings and friendship, there’s more than enough for the younger set to enjoy without getting too scared, and more than enough for the older set to enjoy, while still enjoying what they already did when they were younger. There’s a reference to Satan marrying Medusa, but there’s also Mary flying through the sky on a vacuum cleaner. There are slapstick zombie chase scenes, but there’s also a child dressed as an angel saying, “Bless you,” that makes the witches scream in horror. There’s all the talk of “sucking the lives out of children,” but there’s also an out-of-nowhere, yet extremely apropos and even plot-relevant musical number (Okay, that part’s for everyone.)

Hocus Pocus is a movie everyone can watch together and genuinely enjoy. It feels more exciting and high-stakes than many “children’s” movies, it doesn’t shy away from its own plot elements, it’s packed with jokes and gags for all ages, it’s not too scary for non-horror fans, it’s a change of pace for horror fans who enjoy seeing the supernatural get played with (and not in the way Sarah continually suggests), it’s a surprise to those who haven’t seen it, and it can still provide new discoveries for repeat watchers. It truly has something for pretty much everyone. This makes Hocus Pocus the perfect film to conjure up every fall as Halloween approaches.

Unfortunately, it’s no wonder critics didn’t quite know what to make of such a film. Fortunately, viewers in the years since have figured it out for them. Once you find the specific hook, whatever it is, that gets you in particular into the film, Hocus Pocus works its magic. So it’s also no wonder that Hocus Pocus “puts a spell on” so many year after year.

Now…“Sistahs!” (And “brothahs” and siblings of all “gendahs”!) “Sing!”

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Written by Jamie Lee

Jamie Lee’s a writer, actor, singer, director, DJ (including hosting “Jammin’ with Jamie”), and more in film, theatre, and radio. Jamie Lee Cortese, despite loving horror and comedy and being an actor and writer, is also not Jamie Lee Curtis, though she understands where you might get confused. Visit her website at or find her on Twitter @JackalopeJamie.

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