Hocus Pocus (1993)

hocus pocus

“Hello, I would like my book. Bonjour, je veux mon livre”

The Scoop: 1993 PG, directed by Kenny Ortega and starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy and Thora Birch.

Tagline: It’s just a bunch of hocus pocus!

Summary Capsule: What would make a great holiday kids’ adventure? Why, playing the Salem Witch Trials for laughs!

Louise’s rating: Funny, colourful, and seriously scary if you’re eight years old.

Louise’s review: Halloween’s a funny day. Growing up in the UK twenty years ago, I knew the date and that it was meant to be a spooky night, maybe with a turnip carved into a face, but I didn’t celebrate it at all. It simply wasn’t a big thing in Britain at that time. We didn’t dress up, we didn’t have Halloween parties, we didn’t trick or treat, or decorate our houses, or have special black, green and orange icing on cupcakes. We had Guy Fawkes Day a.k.a. Bonfire Night on November 5, instead, and while I never burned an effigy of a Catholic terrorist/freedom fighter (Catholics don’t dig that part) I always loved the traditional firework displays and the toffee, hotdogs and jacket potatoes around a massive bonfire. So, I didn’t have Halloween, and I didn’t miss it. However, I knew there was a different way of doing the last day of October, because of two reasons. I will give them the codenames Hocus Pocus and Casper. In these movies, Halloween was massive! Parties, costumes, jack o’lanterns everywhere. In school! In neighbourhoods!

Then I moved to Philadelphia for two years and I discovered that while Halloween was not quite as beautiful as it was in the movies, it was still rather important. There was a costume competition and a bake sale in school, we sent little cards, and I went trick or treating for the first time. When I moved back to the UK, I was surprised to see that Halloween seemed to have followed me. I’ve been back in my own country for fifteen years now, and the Goth Christmas has just grown and grown over that time. Parties, costumes, trick or treating (even though very few people actually have anything to give trick or treaters, and mainly just say, “What, are you begging? Jog on, weirdoes.”), cards, bake sales, merchandise, specially themed X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it. As a religious person who is meant to *actually believe in stuff,* I think I should probably avoid aggravating any angry and unquiet spirits by getting rowdy in a toga or a onesie or a sexualized Super Mario overall. November 1 is a holy day in my Church, and Halloween is the vigil for that. I’m not going to go all “It’s actually Hallowe’en, All Hallow’s Eve, donchaknow” and superior, but I’m still slightly pulled between two worlds with regard to it. I also have a slight anti-American regret that Guy Fawkes Day has rather lost out in all this, but I say that very quietly, because I know it’s unfair.

It’s taken me a while (yeah, three paragraphs, hurry up – the editor), but I’m now ready to say that while I’m not convinced by the virtue of Halloween, I do love Hocus Pocus because it captures brilliantly my wonder at my first autumn in America. The look of it – the autumnal forests, the big houses, and of course, the Halloween celebrations. I realize that this is particular to me, and any Americans who read this may not recognize at all what I’m talking about or the world in Hocus Pocus as anything like their experience, but it’s very real to me and a big reason why I enjoy it still after so many years.

Max is a typical teenager who has recently moved from California to Salem, Mass. with his parents and kid sister. It’s a bit of a culture shock, and while he’s found a pretty girl to pester with his phone number, some big boys have earmarked him for menacing and pushing around. On Halloween night Max happily finds himself in a position to act cool in front of the pretty girl in question, down at the spooky 1600s house museum, but he unwittingly unleashes an evil back upon the unsuspecting town… Bette Midler, SJP, and the chunky nun from Sister Act, the witchy Sanderson Sisters. They’re back from the dead for one night only, but if they can take the lives of Salem’s kids, they’ll be young, powerful and evil forever! Bette Midler plays Winifred – redhead, bully, brains of the outfit, toothy, selfish, planning to shaft her sisters as soon as she can. Kathy Najimy plays Mary – brunette, wisecracker, conciliator, the unlucky one, with a nose for children. Sarah Jessica Parker plays Sarah – blonde, dumb, sexy, sweet singing voice, hungry, right all along, punchbag, actually a sadistic predator. Max, his new squeeze and his kid sister, together with immortal black cat Binx and a sympathetic zombie, must keep Winifred’s spell book out of her long-nailed hands long enough for the dawn to finish her off.

One aspect of the story has some tragic power. The prologue of the film relates how the Sanderson sisters were initially caught and hanged in the late seventeenth century – they attempted to perform the forever-young-and-beautiful spell using a local child, but her brother raised the alarm. The child died, and the brother came out the other side as the immortal black cat. For the main bulk of the story, then, the talking animal is actually under a huge burden of guilt dating back three centuries, when he failed to adequately protect his vulnerable family member. As we watch, we can think that the Sandersons may be defeated, but nothing is going to make that first failure go away. I really, really like the lyrical fairy-tale treatment this subplot receives, complete with slow, mysterious music and a blond actor I liked the look of in my innocent youth. A moment when a witch lands in the farmyard is Cool, no doubt about it, and the whole prologue does feel genuinely seventeenth century. Binx’s personality as a cat is a convincing mixture of smart-ass teen, wise old man, 1690s and 1990s.

That’s enough about sadness and tragedy, and poetical allusions to all the colonial-era legends you’ve ever heard. What are we really here for? A Halloween party! Oh, the camp! Oh, the ham! Oh, the colours, the music and the cliches! Oh, the useless, useless adults, and the righteous comeuppances, and the funny lines and background antics, and the sheer Monster Mash of the thing! Also, if you’re eight years old, the same age as kid sister character and the age I was when I first saw the movie, oh, the scares! These are nasty witches (pace any practicing Wiccans who read this) and they’re after children, on a night when children are all out on the streets in the dark anyway. There’s a deserted, cobwebby house which turns into a lair of wickedness, there are zombies in a cemetery, and there are attacks on Max’s home turf. Yeah, you heard that right. The witches don’t stay in their own home, no, they go to our characters’ home and frighten them there as well! Of course, if you’re not eight years old, then it really is nothing but pure anadulterated Goth Christmas – smiling skeletons, jolly pumpkins, friendly ghosts, and plenty of sweet things to eat.

Hocus Pocus it may be, but there’s no “just” about it. It is a terrific sleepover treat. Have fun. Stay safe tonight.

Louise, Heather and Courtney – even the Addams family considered them black sheep.


  • That’s a tiny Thora Birch (Dungeons and Dragons, The Hole, American Beauty) as kid sister Dani.
  • Keep an eye out for all the mad things Sarah does when no-one’s watching her.
  • Count the number of times Max is virgin-shamed.
  • Winnie’s performance of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ makes reference to Elton John’s song ‘The B—h Is Back’ and the Sondheim musical Gypsy.

Groovy Dialogue

Winifred Sanderson: You know, I’ve always wanted a child. And now I think I’ll have one… on toast!

Sarah:Come little children, I’ll take thee away / Into a land of enchantment / Come little children, the times come to play / Here in my garden of magic.

Billy Butcherson: Go to hell!
Winifred Sanderson: Oh! I’ve been there, thank you. I found it quite lovely.

Allison: It says to form a circle a salt to protect from zombies, witches, and old boyfriends.
Max: And what about new boyfriends?

Ice: Gee, we don’t get any smokes from you. We don’t get any cash. What am I supposed do do with my afternoon.
Max: Maybe you could learn to breathe through your nose.

Winifred Sanderson: WHY? Why was I cursed with such IDIOT sisters?
Sarah: Just lucky, I guess.

Winifred Sanderson: Oh look, another glorious morning. Makes me SICK!

Max: Let’s light this sucker and meet the old broads.

Max: Welcome to High School Hell. I’m your host, Boris Karloff, Jr. Ha ha ha ha ha!

Master’s Wife: Aren’t you broads a little old to be trick or treating?
Winifred Sanderson: We’ll be younger in the morning.

Winifred: Don’t get your knickers in a twist! We’re just three kindly old spinster ladies.
Mary Sanderson: Spending a quiet evening at home.
Sarah: Sucking the lives out of little children!

Winifred Sanderson: My ungodly book speaks to you. On All Hallow’s Eve, when the moon is round, a virgin, will summon us from under the ground. Oh Oh! We shall be back, and the lives of all the children of Salem will be mine!

Winifred Sanderson: Sisters, All Hallow’s Eve has become a night of frolic, where children wear costumes and run amok!
Sarah: Amok! [dances around] Amok, amok, amok, amok, amok…

Dani: It’s a full moon tonight. That’s when all the weirdos are out.

Sarah: Dead man’s toe! Dead man’s toe! Dead! Dead! dead!

Winifred Sanderson: Well, tell me then, what do you call this contraption?
Bus Driver: I call it… a bus.

Dad: It’s not dad. It’s Dadcula.

Dani: This cat here, Binx, right? He can talk. My brother’s a virgin: he lit the black flame candle. The witches are back from the dead and they’re after us. We need help.
Mom: How much candy have you had, honey?
Dani: Mom, I haven’t O.D.’d. I haven’t even had a piece. They’re real witches, they can fly, and they’re gonna eat all the kids in Salem. They’re real!
Mom: All right, let’s just find your father.

Winifred: Unfaithful lover long since dead. Deep asleep in thy wormy bed. Wiggle thy toes, open thine eyes, twist thy fingers toward the sky. Life is sweet, be not shy. On thy feet. So sayeth I!

Billy Butcherson: Wench! Trollop! You buck-toothed, mop-riding, firefly from hell! [to Max] I’ve waited centuries to say that.
Max: Say what you want; just don’t breathe on me!

Winifred Sanderson: Oh, cheese and crust! He’s lost his head! Damn that Thackery Binx!

Sarah: What is this place?
Mary Sanderson: It reeks of children!
Winifred Sanderson: It is a prison for children.

If you enjoyed this movie, try:

  • The Witches
  • Casper
  • Home Alone


  1. Fun bit of trivia: the filmmakers originally got James “My Heart Will Go On” Horner to write the movie’s music. He eventually passed on it, but not before writing “Sarah’s Song,” which is still in the flick.

  2. If it would help, you might look at Halloween as an acknowledgment of older, wilder times, and older, wilder beliefs. It needn’t necessarily detract from your own; it’s just a tip of the hat to days gone by, a bit of wild frivolity before (in your case) getting down to more serious business. It’s the same reasoning behind the various Mardi Gras/Carnivals/etc. happening right before Lent – one last blow-out before the heavy stuff happens. Also, since you happen to live in the UK, you could view it as an authentically British (or, at any rate, Celtic, which falls under the same general purview) holiday that has its roots in the days when your early ancestors were fighting off the Romans. Roots of the nation! National pride! Eat some candy for national pride! Woohoo!
    Admittedly, I say this both as a confirmed polytheist and an American. But the theory is sound, nonetheless.

  3. Speaking as a fellow Catholic, I see Halloween as some harmless fun (except of course for the punks who see it as an excuse to commit vandalism) for which there is no particular reason to get worked up over.

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