For many kids of the nineties, Halloween film Hocus Pocus is a favorite: there are ghosts, black cats, Bette Midler, and a whole lot of virgin jokes. What more could you want? This year is Hocus Pocus’s 20th anniversary (yes you’re that old) and I rewatched the film, wondering how the movie I loved as a kid would hold up.
The plot of Hocus Pocus centers around three Salem witches, the Sanderson sisters—Winifred, Sarah, and Mary (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy)—who were hanged 300 years ago for killing a young girl. On one very special Halloween in 1993 a virgin named Max (Omri Katz) lights a black flame candle and brings them back to life. Madcap comedy ensues. The witches have until dawn to brew a potion and feed it to children so they can suck the life out of them, become young and beautiful, and live forever. Max, his little sister Dani (Thora Birch), and his crush Allison (Vinessa Shaw) try to thwart them with the help of a 300-year-old boy/black cat Binx.
There's plenty to love about the ridiculous film, including Bette Midler's over-the-top facial expressions and the scene where Sarah gets really excited about the word, "Amok!" Just to be clear, Hocus Pocus is a light-hearted comedy. But for me, analyzing gender subtext of movies is what I do for fun. So, bear with me while I read way too deeply into this absurd movie.
One thing that bothers me about portrayals of witches (beyond the misunderstood history that Lisa Simpson pretty much sums up) is that while witches in pop culture stories have a lot of power, they often exert that power trying become a babe. Recent examples of witches trying to kill young women to obtain their youth and beauty include Stardust, Snow White and the Huntsman, and American Horror Story: Coven. This portrayal of witches feeds into the idea that older women must be trying to become young, while simultaneously mocking them for trying and failing to achieve this standard of beauty. The more dramatic Snow White and The Huntsman presents a terrifying image of witches stealing beauty, but comedies like Stardust and Hocus Pocus take cracks at older women’s bodies. In Hocus Pocus, the only thing that can make Bette Midler’s witch Winifred cry is when Dani calls her ugly. The film makes fun of how old and ugly the witches are and also mocks them for caring so much about how they look. Note to older women: you have to look like you’re 20, but you shouldn’t ever try because then you’re shallow!
In Hocus Pocus, the “ugly old witches” plotline is a little strained because they are played by young and conventionally beautiful actresses. Across genres, Hollywood allows men to age while their female counterparts have to stay young. Wizards are regularly cast as genuinely old and wrinkly. Being ancient gives them credibility—they don’t spend their time chasing around young boys trying to steal their beauty, they get to use their power for whatever else they want. Case in point: Sarah Jessica Parker was 28 when she was a witch in Hocus Pocus. Christopher Lee is playing Saruman in The Hobbit at age 91.
On to other gendered double standards. The plot of Hocus Pocus rests on the premise that a virgin has to light a black flame candle to awaken the Sanderson sisters. (The movie never explains why this is, but they emphasize it quite a bit.) If Allison were the virgin who lit the candle, the story would have been praising/protecting her purity. Instead, the movie is a series of people loudly announcing that Max is a virgin for laughs—mostly his eight-year-old sister is doing the announcing.
Max is really rocking that tie dye.
This whole “powerful virgin” idea depends on the notion that virginity is a concrete marker real enough to change a spiritually change a person. Max’s virginity is so freaking magical it can revive witches who have been dead for 300 years! That puts a mystical emphasis on one kind of sex, while disregarding all other sexual acts as unimportant.
So that’s my deep read of Hocus Pocus. Now go sit on your couch with a plastic jack-o-lantern full of candy and turn on some cheesy nineties goodness. But please, don’t play the Hocus Pocus drinking game where you take a shot every time someone says the word virgin, because you might have to go to the hospital.