Why You’re Crazy Addicted to ‘Hocus Pocus
BY YOHANA DESTA
October 22, 2014
Something wicked this way comes.
Since 1993, the Disney film Hocus Pocus has been a perennial Halloween favorite, scaring up a new batch of children every year. Starring Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as a trio of evil witches known as the Sanderson sisters, the film is a kitschy gem. Through
Something wicked this way comes.
Since 1993, the Disney film Hocus Pocus has been a perennial Halloween favorite, scaring up a new batch of children every year. Starring Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as a trio of evil witches known as the Sanderson sisters, the film is a kitschy gem. Through countless showings on TV, and soaring DVD sales (which peak every October), it has become the cult favorite scary movie for a generation of kids.
But how did a film, which flopped at the box office and got middling reviews become so beloved and financially successful? Like many cult films, it took a winding path that relied on staunch fans and invaluable TV reruns. The witchy little flick had all the right elements: big-name stars, a campy concept and a PG script that flirted with PG-13 jokes.
It took some time, but Hocus Pocus eventually became a Halloween mainstay. Here’s how it happened.
The entirety of Hocus Pocus takes place on Halloween night, minus a witchy flashback to colonial times. A California family settles into life in the magic-obsessed town of (where else?) Salem, Massachusetts. Max, the tie-dye-wearing teen, takes little sister Dani trick-or-treating, but things start to take an adventurous turn. After eventually scooping up Allison, his classroom crush, they take a trip to the haunted house of the Sanderson sisters, three witches who were burned at the stake 300 years ago. Max, unafraid of superstition, lights the black flame candle, which brings them back from the dead (as long as it’s lit by a virgin). Mayhem ensues. And for good measure — there’s a talking cat.
There were a lot of elements rooting against the film. Initially, it was pegged as a Disney Channel Original Movie, instead of being released in theaters. Though millennials of a certain age can fondly recall their favorite DCOM (Brink!, anyone?), those little films didn’t tend to draw huge audiences (rare exception: High School Musical).
In 1993, before we could tweet our favorite things into cult stardom, Hocus Pocus had a fat chance of getting noticed. However, Disney saw potential in the script, according to IMDb, and decided to release it in theaters.
But here’s strike two: These days, movie executives do everything to capitalize on holiday fever by strategically releasing each and every film. If Hocus Pocus had been released today, it would have hit theaters in late September, or October. But instead, Hocus Pocus was released on July 16. In addition, it came out on the same day as Free Willy, the feel-good, blockbuster movie about a boy and an orca whale.
The perplexing marketing move is one of many reasons the film performed poorly. Though it starred familiar faces, the ill-timed release sank its prospects. Why take your kid to a film about three evil witches being brought to life by a teen virgin, when you could see a heartwarming flick about whales instead? Hocus Pocus earned just $39,514,713 domestically.
Reviews for the film didn’t help. Roger Ebert gave it one out of four stars, while New York Times critic Janet Maslin said it had “virtually no grip on its story.”
For any other film, that would have been a wrap.
The cult strikes
When you look at its Rotten Tomatoes rating, you’ll find a 33% critic rating, but a 70% audience rating — a numerical representation of its beloved status.
The movie was released on VHS on Sept. 9, 1994, a little over a year after its poor theatrical showing. Sales of the video started to pick up, steadily increasing over the years. The film was later released on DVD on June 4, 2002. That rise still hasn’t slowed, in part because of its slightly risqué script.
The generation who grew up watching it can relive it and finally understand the many adult-themed jokes that lace the dialogue. (How many 8-year-olds actually know what a virgin is?) It manages to have the right amount of spice and scariness, teetering on the cusp of child film and secret adult guilty pleasure. Christina Cauterucci of NPR writes about its surprisingly inappropriate jokes:
“Why is this movie, which I only saw once or twice while I was in the target age demographic, so much more fun to watch as a grown-up? Like most children’s films these days (Pixar’s especially), Hocus Pocus serves up a heaping helping of adult humor that went way over my head back in the early ’90s. Hocus Pocus serves up a heaping helping of adult humor that went way over my head back in the early ’90s.”
Case in point: When one character tells another to “Go to hell!”, decidedly angry language for children’s ears. Or, when 8-year-old Dani accidentally tells Allison that Max likes her “yabbos.” Or when Winifred tells a leering bus driver that she “desires children” (so she can suck out their souls), and he cheekily replies with, “Hey, that may take me a couple of tries, but I don’t think that’d be a problem.” Jokes for adults, sneakily packed into a kid movie.
It works double time, catering to any age group who watches it. And many age groups are, with its relentless yearly showings on television. Since 2007, the film has been a top telecast of ABC Family’s flagship 13 Nights of Halloween series. In 2009, 2.5 million people tuned in to watch it on a Saturday evening, making it the most-watched movie in the series. Since then, it has aired two or three times per year on the network, an ABC spokesperson tells Mashable.
Sales of the DVD also tend to grow every October. Movie data site The Numbers tells Mashable that in 2008, sales were $659,560. The next year, $911,461. The next year, it broke a million with $1,155,773. The peak year was 2012, where it sold $2,324,042 worth of units. Come 2013, it’s still in the millions, moving $1,808,035 DVDs.
Unlike other cult films, Hocus Pocus didn’t generate its status by slipping into mystery after its theatrical release. It rose ruthlessly, bolstered by the constant TV airings which help bring in a new crowd every year. Just this month, it’s become the second most-searched movie on Yahoo by 908% (beaten only by Maleficent, a brand new movie released this year).
Midler, who still considers the film one of her favorites she’s ever done, thinks the movie took off for another reason.
“We made it before the tidal wave of Halloween happened,” she told Katie Couric. “Now it’s like huge. It’s huge—kids, grown-ups, everyone takes part in it. This movie was kind of like the beginning of the wave.”
While the rise of Halloween is another conversation, she’s not wrong about how major the holiday has become — and how prevalent the film has remained thanks to its spooky ties. Between Oct. 26 and Nov. 1, you can watch it six times on TV (twice on ABC Family, four times on Lifetime).
As for any fears that the movie’s fandom will die? That’s just a bunch of hocus pocus.