Hocus Pocus (1993) was standard watching fare in the nineties; plenty of millennials may still own their worn-out VHS tapes, or at least remember them fondly. For those who haven’t seen it, Hocus Pocus tells the story of a teenager who accidentally brings a coven of evil witches back from the dead on Halloween night. If you browse through any click-baity site, it would appear that everyone is still obsessed with this movie. But why do we love this movie so much? What is it about Hocus Pocus that makes it incessantly re-watchable for some of us, even as we age well into our 30s? John Hodgman said that nostalgia is the most toxic impulse. If this is true, then that would mean that movies like Hocus Pocus – which seem to persist in popularity purely due to nostalgia – should be terrible to re-watch. This isn’t the case though; the movie still holds up, for a few key reasons.
First: Bette Midler. It’s still a delight to see Bette Midler stomp around in full evil-witch mode. Same goes for Sarah Jessica Parker bouncing around idiotically. Since Hocus Pocus, Sarah Jessica Parker moved on to more arguably adult movies and the Sex and the City franchise. But she’s so wonderfully ditzy in this movie, it’s kind of charming to watch her 20 years later. Bette Midler, meanwhile, is just Bette Midler: brazen, scene-stealing, and occasionally scary (after a recent viewing, I understand why I was creeped out by her all those years ago: she is on-point as a witch). Kathy Najimy (whatever happened to our favourite nun from Sister Act?!) rounds out the trio of witches, and she’s so classically ‘90s here (i.e. cheesy). These three women anchor the movie, which also has solid performances by the young Thora Birch and a few other actors who will forever be associated as characters from this movie only.
Since this is a Disney flick, the score and the musical numbers are appropriately great. Midler brings the house down with her cover of “I Put a Spell on You.” Her version is catchy as hell, and you have to appreciate a choreographed musical number in the middle of a movie – it’s practically a ‘90s movie requirement. Parker has a little number too, reminding us that she isn’t a terrible singer. Also, being a Disney movie, the sexual innuendo is downplayed but it is definitely there. Re-watching it years later as an adult, I realized a few sex jokes that definitely went over my head in the ‘90s. Maybe this is the key to an endearing family movie – you need to add some stuff in there for the parents too, and for the children to enjoy as they re-watch it years later.
When you think about the film’s initial core audience (children under 12), this is actually a pretty scary movie for kids – but the terror only adds to its durability. The Sanderson Sisters are representative of a real time in American history, the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. Although those trials were a stain on American history, and didn’t actually convict any real witches, the witches in Hocus Pocus are definitely real, and definitely awful – the Sanderson sisters are hanged for killing a child and turning another child into a cat for eternity. That’s some pretty dark stuff for a Disney movie; but seeing how evil the witches can be raises the tension and provides real motive for the plot to resolve favourably for the good guys. In Hocus Pocus there are truly threatening bad guys (the Sanderson sisters, lovable as they may be) and this does wonders for the plot.
There’s one final, simple reason why this movie remains so endearing… it takes place on Halloween. And if history tells us anything, we will forgive a Halloween-themed movie for a multitude of sins; see Halloweens 3-7 or those cursed Halloweentown movies for reference.