I had the pleasure of seeing Hocus Pocus on the big screen this year as a part of its 25th anniversary celebration. It continues to hold its place as one of my favorite Halloween films, and also one of my favorite 90s feminist representations of witches, where it joins Practical Magic and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know that my own love of the film is heavily influenced by Bette Midler’s performance as Winifred Sanderson, and her ability to both join the history of queer-coded villains in Disney films and transport it to the live action realm. That is part of the reason why I was so disappointed to read this critique, which brushes off its Millennial fan base as brainwashed minions of Disney who are fooled by the veneer of nostalgia which coats their relationship to the film.
My own understanding of the popularity of Hocus Pocus is informed by my experience studying participatory fan culture in graduate school. This article sums it up nicely by noting that “the theory of participatory culture suggests that rather than being “cultural dupes, social misfits, and mindless consumers,” media fans can be understood as “active producers and manipulators of meaning” (Jenkins 1992:23). Fan interaction with media becomes a social activity, and this process allows fans to…create spaces where they can critique prescriptive ideas of gender, sexuality, and other norms promoted in part by the media industry.” Hocus Pocus provides an excellent tapestry to critique cultural norms around gender and sexuality. For a supposed children’s film, the plot skirts a PG-13 rating, filled with tongue-in-cheek humor about sex and the boy-crazy antics of Sarah Sanderson, played by Sarah Jessica Parker in a corset that leaves little of her bosom to the audience’s imagination.
Moreover, the protagonist of Hocus Pocus is a teenage virgin, Max Dennison, making sexuality central to the plot of the film. It is also no mistake that the film takes place in Salem, Massachusetts, home of the famous witch trials. The history of witchcraft is filled with the punishment of female sexuality, and the plot of Hocus Pocus is in some ways the teaching of Max, who represents the burgeoning heteropatriarchy, about the power of this legacy, and his own ignorance of it. This is evidenced by the titular line, “It’s all just a bunch of hocus pocus” before Max lights the fated black flame candle and brings the sisters back from the dead. Hocus Pocus explores the comedic value of the construct of virginity by putting Allison in a more worldly and educated position than Max, flipping our usual understanding of gender roles when a teenage romance is central to a plot. Hocus Pocus also explores our cultural view of witches as evidenced by the excuses the sisters give in the beginning of the film when the villagers mob their home in the woods after a local child has been stolen. “We are just three kindly old spinster ladies!” Winifred explains. “Uh, spending a quiet evening at home!” Mary adds, only to be foiled when Sarah shouts, “Sucking the lives out of little children!” The Sanderson Sisters are regularly referred to as ugly or as hags, and the conceit of the film plays with the tropes of witches which fill fairy tales, including eating children, prizing youth and beauty above all, and making books out of human skin. The Sanderson sisters are trying to regain their youth and vitality (including their sexuality) by stealing it from children, knowing that a woman who is no longer a sexual object might as well be dead. The plot plays with the idea of the traditional roles of women in society by having one sister be a sexy but dumb blonde (Sarah), one a fat but funny sidekick (Mary), and the other the brains of the operation, and spurned by her lover as a result (Winifred). Allison initially rejects Max’s romantic advances as well, thereby rejecting his attempt to cast her in another common female role – the teenage love interest. Allison manages to remain a strong young woman with her head firmly planted on her shoulders throughout the film, and the one moment when she starts to fall for Max’s charm is when she opens the spellbook and the witches are alerted to its presence and almost able to complete their spell. This further solidifies the relationship between witchcraft and sexuality in the film, which is anything but stereotypical or straightforward.
The lens through which I consume Hocus Pocus is also influenced by queer theory, and for the rest of this piece, I will pull from Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” to argue why Hocus Pocus deserves its position as a cult classic film, especially considering the queer leanings of its current fan base. I argue that fans of Hocus Pocus are fans of the Sanderson sisters. The Sanderson sisters are the villains we love to hate, and I almost always find myself cheering for them to win in the end, even when that means the death of innocent children. Bette Midler is a gay icon with a status right up there with Barbra Streisand while Kathy Najimy is a long-time LGBT activist. I don’t think Hocus Pocus would be the cult classic it is today without those casting choices. (Max’s mom also dresses as Madonna for Halloween – another gay icon, and another exploration of female sexuality, this time that of a middle aged married woman.)
Sontag says, “Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Hocus Pocus is filled with stylization, from the specific way the sisters march, arm in arm, to the dramatic flair with which they say their lines. One example of many is Winifred’s “Cat’s got my tongue,” a form of gallows humor that flies over the heads of the townsfolk, but not the audience, who have seen Thackery turned into a cat only moment’s before. The “thee” and “thou” which fill the dialogue of the Sanderson sisters also represent a form of artifice, because at other times, Mary slips and mentions margarine, or Winifred accuses Max of resisting arrest – things true 17th century witches couldn’t know about. Hocus Pocus treads a line between fantasy and reality – where adults think that the kids have all had too much sugar or are playing a Halloween prank, but to our young protagonists, the fear behind the myth of the Sanderson sisters is real. The film plays with the audience’s sense of fantasy and reality by having the Sanderson sisters be so over-the-top they are almost unbelievable – especially as they are able to ultimately be defeated by two teenagers, an eight-year-old girl, and a talking cat.
Sontag goes on to say that “Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing…style at the expense of content….Many examples of Camp are things which, from a “serious” point of view, are either bad art or kitsch.” This speaks back to the original critique of the film. Through a non-camp lens, Hocus Pocus might seem to be just objectively bad. A lot of the original criticism of the film was that it was all over the place, spanning various genres, and that the plot was confusing or just didn’t add up. The director has admitted that the original film was intended to be much more dark, and the change from horror to horror comedy didn’t translate for many critics and viewers. There was also criticism that the film came out in July instead of October, when it might have made more logical sense. In this way, Hocus Pocus is an example of something which can be both “bad” and “good” at the same time, for viewers who are willing to privilege style over content, and not take themselves – or the film itself – too seriously.
The campy nature of the film is also related to its setting. Sontag explains, “ Nothing in nature can be campy . . . Rural Camp is still man-made, and most campy objects are urban. (Yet, they often have a serenity — or a naiveté — which is the equivalent of pastoral. A great deal of Camp suggests Empson’s phrase, “urban pastoral”)”. Hocus Pocus is filled with this sense of the urban pastoral, especially when the audience is asked to view Salem through the lens of the Sanderson sisters, who have no knowledge of concrete roads (calling the one in front of their home a “black river”), who think that firefighters must be witch hunters whose axes are meant to chop wood for a witch burning fire, and who are repeatedly foiled by technological advances like sprinkler systems, boomboxes, car headlights, and Daylight Savings Time. And who can forget the goofiness of Mary Sanderson flying on a vacuum cleaner, for example, when there isn’t another broom left in the closet. Despite the footage of leaves changing color and rolling hills surrounding the cemetery, Salem is an urban place in the 20th century, and the Sanderson sisters’ home is no longer in the middle of the woods. It was instead turned into a museum, created no doubt for the tourists eager to explore the supernatural history of the city. The naivete of Max, as a newcomer to Salem, and of the Sanderson sisters themselves when they return from the dead, creates the pastoral element which contributes to the campiness of Hocus Pocus. Without Max as the protagonist, the plot wouldn’t make nearly as much sense and would lose a lot of its campy fun, which is directed towards Max’s inability to understand the dangerous situation he created by lighting the black flame candle.
This connects with Sontag’s next point, where she elaborates between naive camp as compared to conscious camp, saying, “In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails….that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.” I watched some of the live special created for the 25th anniversary of Hocus Pocus, and the commentary of the director and actors highlights the film’s place in the genre of naive camp. They weren’t trying to make a bad movie. What we see in Hocus Pocus is a bunch of actors having so much fun making a film that they were passionate about, and that passion lending itself to exaggeration and dramatic displays. The actors of the film are as astonished and delighted that it has gained a cult following as they were dejected when the film tanked after its original release. The creators of Hocus Pocus failed. The Sanderson sisters also failed in their quest for eternal life. And in that trying and failing, there is a beauty that fans of the film have come to enjoy over time.
Sontag goes on to explain the importance of time in relationship to camp saying, “so many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé….the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment — or arouses a necessary sympathy….Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility.” There is a reason that Hocus Pocus has become more and more beloved the further removed audiences become from the its creation. Read through the lens of camp, it isn’t childhood nostalgia which is to blame for the resurgence of Hocus Pocus as a cinematic mainstay. It is instead, the detachment that comes from the passage of time, and our ability to see past whatever faults the film might have and find a deeper meaning. This effect is amplified by the fact that the Sanderson sisters are grappling with their own aging and deterioration throughout the film. It is because the Sanderson sisters are so out-of-date themselves that the film lends itself so easily to camp sensibilities.
Sontag goes on to explain that “ things are campy, not when they become old – but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt.” It isn’t that Millennial audiences have become more attached to Hocus Pocus over time due to nostalgia and repetition, but instead, that the passage into adulthood has removed viewers from identification with the teenage protagonists of the film, and allowed them to enjoy what the creators were attempting to do when they made it, which is to celebrate a love for Halloween. The co-writer, David Kirschner wrote the original script based on a story he told to his young daughters. He is quoted in an interview as saying “Halloween is a huge deal in our home, and it has been since our daughters were little. It speaks to me in a way that becomes so emotional for me and always has.” Bette Midler is quoted as saying that the actresses who played the sisters “just had the best time” making the film. “We laughed the whole time,” she gushes, “and we flew! We flew! And we got to wear like crazy noses and fake teeth and all those sorts of things.” When audiences re-watch Hocus Pocus, they are able to tap into the palpable enjoyment of the possibility of what the film could have been, removed from the box office failure it was in reality. The fact that Hocus Pocus might not be objectively good is okay, because the point of the film is enjoying the spirit of Halloween it represents.
Speaking of Midler, her contribution to the camp nature of the film is worthy of note. Sontag argues, “Camp is the glorification of “character.” The statement is of no importance – except, of course, to the person (Loie Fuller, Gaudí, Cecil B. De Mille, Crivelli, de Gaulle, etc.) who makes it. What the Camp eye appreciates is the unity, the force of the person. In every move the aging Martha Graham makes she’s being Martha Graham, etc., etc. . . . This is clear in the case of the great serious idol of Camp taste, Greta Garbo. Garbo’s incompetence (at the least, lack of depth) as an actress enhances her beauty. She’s always herself.” In the same way, Bette Midler is Bette Midler, even when she is playing Winifred Sanderson. This is no more evident anywhere else in the movie than during her stunning rendition of “I Put a Spell On You” during the town hall Halloween party, right in the center of the film. As a fan myself, almost all of my favorite moments and quotes from Hocus Pocus are provided by Midler. The audience’s awareness of Winifred Sanderson as a character is part of the film’s charm, and part of what makes it camp. Especially since all three of the actresses playing the Sanderson sisters are so well known, the audience is held in a liminal space of seeing the actress and the character at once, and that is a part of the nature of fans’ enjoyment of the film, and what enhances the experience for them.
This ties into Sontag’s assertion that “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy….Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.” Fans of Hocus Pocus are not interested in judging the film – they are interested in enjoying it. Part of that enjoyment comes from the over-the-top nature of the film, and how passionately the actresses playing the sisters are in taking on their roles. As Midler states, the film was fun for them, and their passionate commitment to the roles of the Sanderson sisters, even when they are ridiculous, is charming and endearing. Sontag continues, “Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.” This tenderness might be mistaken for nostalgia, but it is different. Fans of Hocus Pocus are able to cheer for the moments when the film really works, and are generous enough to not judge the ones that don’t. It isn’t that fans of Hocus Pocus find no faults in the film, but that they want to enjoy watching it, and are willing to suspend their judgement of it in order to do so.
Sontag notes, “Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles.” The creators of Hocus Pocus loved the film, and so we love it. It isn’t about whether the film is objectively good or bad. It is that a group of people got together and really tried to make something they were passionate about. It didn’t work out the way they planned. But there is pleasure in the trying, and pleasure in the failure as well as the moments of success. Sontag ends her treatise by saying, “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.” Hocus Pocus is one of those films that is so bad it becomes good again. Not because Disney wants me to like it. Not because I’ve watched it so many times. Not because it reminds me of my childhood or because I’m trapped in 90s nostalgia. But because I am able to consume media from an aesthetic lens which gives me access to style as well as content, actress as well as character, the urban and the pastoral, artifice and passion. I don’t have to choose one or the other, just as I don’t have to label the film “good” or “bad” to be able to enjoy it. So lighten up. After all, “It’s just a bunch of hocus pocus!”