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3 reasons Hocus Pocus deserves our nostalgia

Hocus Pocus isn’t a perfect Halloween movie. But it’s still great. 

Walt Disney Pictures

Hocus Pocus, the 1993 movie about a trio of Colonial-era witches who come back from the dead to terrorize mid-’90s Salem, Massachusetts, on Halloween night, has somehow become a bona fide classic in the 23 years since its unimpressive big-screen debut. Millennials organize annual watch parties; BuzzFeed devotes listicles to it; and it’s even garnered that oh-so-modern harbinger of success, the persistent rumor of an impending sequel.

Some people feel Hocus Pocus is undeserving of this lasting devotion, including my colleague Alex Abad-Santos, who called it “a throbbing, unmitigated crime against cinema.” But while I admit it’s not perfect, there’s still plenty to love about this weird kids’ flick. Hocus Pocus’s reputation has benefited from the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, sure — but at least it’s earned nostalgia.

For the Hocus Pocus lovers and naysayers alike, here are three ways the film earns its Halloween-viewing bona fides.

The scares are more goofy than gory

For those who’ve somehow forgotten, Hocus Pocus tells the story of how Max Dennison (Omri Katz), his precocious kid sister Dani (a wee Thora Birch), and Max’s crush Allison (Vinessa Shaw) find themselves battling the child-soul-sucking Sanderson sisters (played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker) on Halloween night in Salem, after virginal Max lights a magical black flame candle that allows the witches to come back from the dead.

Sounds kinda terrifying, right? But Hocus Pocus mostly keeps its scares gentle, tempering them with broad comedy. Binx the cat, for instance, gets run over by a car but reinflates like a balloon, and Billy the not-so-structurally-sound zombie turns out to be downright cuddly.

Billy is terrifyingly ... sleepy.
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Even the witches’ sorcery is practically adorable — whether it’s forcing all the adults in the town to stay at their (honestly really fun-looking) Halloween party to dance all night, or trapping teenage bullies Jay and Ernie/Ice in cages only to … force-feed them candy.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a good horror movie — but there’s also room to lean into the goofy side of Halloween. When watching the news provides so much nightmare fuel all on its own, it can be a relief to skip the torture porn in favor of something light and funny.

It features many memorably bizarre adult characters

As Dani says, “the weirdos come out” during the full moon — and when you’re a kid, “weirdos” might as well refer to all adults, who often do and say things that seem totally inexplicable.

The really scary thing is this husband and wife are played by brother and sister.
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This is definitely true of the grown-ups in Hocus Pocus. Let’s go down the list: Max’s teacher admonishes him for not believing in an (ostensible) urban legend. Allison’s parents have a “Halloween party” at which everyone is, for some reason, dressed as extras from Amadeus. A man in the neighborhood (Garry Marshall) sees what he must assume are grown women trick-or-treating and, instead of calling the cops, invites three total strangers into his house. And Max and Dani’s mom spends the entire movie, save one scene, in the most disturbingly pointy cone bra ever to grace the screen.

The queen of the weirdos, of course, is Bette Midler’s Winifred Sanderson. Midler (who at the time had two Oscar noms and three Grammys to her name) is clearly having a blast in the role, sinking her fake teeth into every line and veering effortlessly between wicked humor and slapstick rage. Why exactly would a witch who has just one night to save herself from turning to dust take the time to perform a full-length musical number, complete with choreography? Who cares, when it gives us this sublime moment:

It’s a reminder of the fleeting loveliness of childhood

Early in the movie, Dani plaintively asks Max, “Couldn’t you forget about being a cool teenager for just one night?" That might as well be Hocus Pocus’ thesis statement. A coming-of-age tale this is not; in its bones, this is a story about the power and wonder of youth, and the perils of growing up too quickly.

Max is in such a hurry to become an adult that he ends up putting himself in mortal danger. (Metaphor!) And as Binx the cat tells him, he won’t realize how precious Dani is until she’s gone, a statement that applies just as much to her impending tweenhood as it does to the fact that she’s being pursued by a trio of witches who literally want to suck the youth out of her.

Max, dressed as “a rap star.”
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And that’s perhaps the strongest argument for why Hocus Pocus has become such a beloved October staple: Because for a certain age group, it captures the innocent thrill of Halloweens long past. As a kid, on this one night a year, the rules are suspended — you can disguise yourself as someone totally different and perform illogical feats like knocking on strangers’ doors and demanding candy, and grown-ups and kids alike will play along. There’s a transgressive thrill to temporarily becoming someone new — but there’s always a tiny feeling of relief when you can go back to being just a kid again the next day.

Is that reading too much into a nearly quarter-century-old children’s movie? Possibly. But now that I’m far past the age of trick-or-treating myself, I’m glad I still have Hocus Pocus to recapture a little bit of that Halloween magic year after year.

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Hocus Pocus is currently available to stream on Freeform.