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It Just Isn't Halloween Without A Little 'Hocus Pocus'

Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker star in <em>Hocus Pocus </em>as the Sanderson sisters, three 17th-century witches who are brought back to life in Salem, Mass., in 1993.
Walt Disney
Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker star in Hocus Pocus as the Sanderson sisters, three 17th-century witches who are brought back to life in Salem, Mass., in 1993.

I love me some fun-size Almond Joys, and pumpkin carving is a tragically under-sung creative outlet. But my favorite Halloween tradition comes in the form of a kid's movie starring Bette Midler in a set of fake buck teeth: Walt Disney's 1993 cult classic, Hocus Pocus.

Every October since 2006 — our freshman year of college — my friend Natalie and I have watched this cinematic masterpiece over a fall meal and enormous glasses of spiked cider. I'm still not sick of it, which is a big deal for me — I usually can't even get through a single episode of Dora the Explorer with my little cousin, never mind watch the same 90-minute kiddie comedy eight times over. Hocus Pocus celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and, barring a fall-out with Natalie, who's the one with a copy of the DVD, I'll still be watching it on its 40th.

The film opens in 1693 at the Salem, Mass., home of the Sanderson sisters, three witches who maintain their immortality by poisoning children and sucking out their souls — kind of like dementors in bad perms and heels. Midler is the leader of the trio, Winifred, who's joined by a slapstick Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays — wait for it — Sarah, a slightly ditzier version of Sarah Jessica Parker.

In the middle of one ritual soul-sucking, the witches are interrupted by a local boy named Thackery (No, that's not a typo, and until I actually sat through the credits in 2009, I thought all the actors had lisps that only surfaced for the word "Zachary."). The sisters are hanged in the tradition of so many misunderstood Salem women in those days, but not before they cast a spell to ensure their eventual return.

Flash forward 300 years to Halloween 1993, and a brooding teen named Max who's just moved to Salem from California. With his tie-dyed T-shirt and bedroom drum kit, Max is too cool for school, and far too jaded for all this stuff about the Sanderson sisters that everyone's warning him about. Max lights the Sandersons' legendary black flame candle in a misguided attempt to impress a crush, and the three witches bound back to life with just one night to claim a child's soul.

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. When a kid-hungry Winifred tells a modern-day bus driver "We desire children," he leers back, "Hey, that may take me a coupla tries, but I don't think that'd be a problem." Six-year-old me didn't blink at that line, but 20 years later, it creeps me out more than Billy, Winifred's zombie ex-lover.

Besides the three sisters, the biggest and best star in Hocus Pocus is a young Thora Birch, who's an absolute riot as Max's kid sister, Dani. She is an unrelenting 8-year-old thorn in her brother's side, teasing him for his lack of sexual prowess, because — oh, yeah — only a vir-gin could have lit the candle that brought the Sanderson sisters back to life. And she says it like that, too: vir-gin, like she can't believe what a mouth-breathing loser she has for a brother. But she isn't much help — Dani spills to Max's crush, Allison, that he loves her "yabbos." Why "yabbos" never caught on as hip 90s slang, I'll never understand.

Watching a movie repeatedly, especially 20 years after its release, is a powerful way to mark the passage of time. Allison, Dani and Max try to kill the witches by luring them into a fiery kiln with a cassette tape in a boombox. A cassette tape! In a boombox! Cutting-edge technology triumphs again! Hocus Pocus is lousy with ribbed turtleneck sweaters and shirts buttoned all the way to the collar, a style so old it's already come back around for a second chance at life, and Max's center-part bowl cut is straight out of '90s Heartthrobs for Dummies. As a kid, I remember thinking that Max was a total dreamboat — but then, I wondered, why was I so entranced by Sarah, whose sweeping gestures atop her broomstick caused her corset cups to runneth way, way over? (Years later, when my college roommate introduced me to The L Word, that part started to make a little more sense.)

Of course, some parts of the film get worse with age. The only people of color in Hocus Pocus are three unnamed black women dressed up as the Supremes — because apparently, in the world of Disney, black people can only choose Halloween costumes based on other black people. And the special effects, which include a talking stuffed cat and a green screen broomstick scene that looks like it was edited by an intern, have not withstood the test of time and CGI. But then again, making fun of movies is part of what makes movies fun in the first place, right?

Whispers of a sequel in the works have been wafting through the halls of Hollywood, and if it comes to fruition, I'll be first in line at the theatre, probably hiding a thermos full of spiked cider in my backpack. It hasn't been quite 300 years since the Sanderson sisters last haunted Salem, but I think it's about time for a vir-gin to light that candle and bring those wonderful witches back to life.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christina Cauterucci

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