The PDX Sanderson sisters on the left and a still from hocus pocus on the right

Fandom In Context: To Millennials, 'Hocus Pocus' Is More Than, Well, Hocus Pocus

Yellow leaves, auburn skies, jack-o’-lanterns all aglow. It's Halloween, even if it's not a typical one. Social distancing and the other kind of masks (the surgical kind that only works with your Nurse Joker costume) make this Halloween a weird one. But those missing out on the Halloween festivities can still turn to 1993's Hocus Pocus, the créme de la créme of millennial Halloween cinema. It's something that only 90s kids will understand. And for them, it's a perpetual source of comfort every October, whether they're going out or not. The cult classic endured way longer than the rotting pumpkins that litter front porches in November, cultivating a loyal fandom that's celebrating the movie, pandemic or not.

Hocus Pocus didn't look like a long-lasting enterprise way back in the '90s. Released to poor reviews, Hocus Pocus earned a decent $39.5 million, making it a minor hit. But Disney stalwart Kenny Ortega, who would go on to direct the three High School Musical movies for his rodent overlords, put as much Halloween glee into the film as possible. He had a more-than-game cast, led by Bette Middler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as the over-over-over-the-top Sanderson sisters and an eye for the Halloween ornaments that adorn so many houses but don't make their way into movie theaters that often. There are a lot of horror movies, but theatrically-released, capital-H Halloween movies for kids are rare. Outside of The Nightmare Before Christmas (arguably more of a Christmas joint), Ernest Scared Stupid, the later made-for-TV Halloweentown movies, kids get the short shrift when it comes to the holiday. Given the lack of competition, it's not too surprising that Hocus Pocus has endured. The movie is a 96-minute Halloween party, making it all the more necessary when Halloween parties are a no-go. The movie's Halloween spirit, coupled with a warm mug of spiced nostalgia, is what keeps so many adults aged 25 to 38 coming back year after year.

The overwhelming black and orange, Halloween-feel of Hocus Pocus owes a lot to the film's setting and production location: Salem, Massachusetts. Ortega was smart to film there. Thanks to the town's 16th-century penchant for child murder, better known as the Salem Witch Trials, Salem is an epicenter for American spookiness and folklore. The city looks beautiful in the fall, and Ortega's film evokes the crisp October air and crunchy foliage that crackles underfoot. Since the film's release, Salem has become ground zero for the fandom. "What drew me to Salem was that I love Halloween," said Brian Sims, a street performer known for his character Borah, a green witch akin to the kind you'd see in The Wizard of Oz. "To me and a lot of people around the world, Salem is the Halloween capital of the U.S." The face of Salem's Happy Hauntings, Borah has appeared on TV, in children's hospitals, at weddings, and as a featured extra in Adam Sandler's Hubie Halloween. They're one of Salem's most famous witches, welcoming fans all year round. Since first moving to Salem in 2016, Sims says that Hocus Pocus fans have been a staple around town, dressing up in character and visiting filming locations. "I get a thrill because I get to live here. I'm literally three minutes from the closest location," Sims said. "All of the buildings are in close proximity to one another, except for Max and Dani's house. But everybody's always asking where it is and they get so excited. You could see their eyes just glow and light up."

Of course, this year's different. Because of the pandemic, not to mention the increased traffic around filming locations, Salem and the homeowners are fighting off ravenous fans desperate for pictures, particularly in front of the home of Max and Dani, the teen and child protagonists played by Omri Katz and Thora Birch. There's a lot of traffic, a lot of people walking through. People go up onto the property or onto the porch without permission and have pictures taken," Sims revealed. This increased attention to the house has been a burden for the homeowners. "It's an elderly couple there that live there. So you've got all these young people that don't necessarily comply with COVID masks. I've heard through the grapevine that they sometimes go on their porch without the masks. And it's just taking a chance of exposing the couple to COVID." The issue grew so bad that authorities blocked the road off. While in character as Borah, Sims warned fans on Twitter to stay away from Max and Dani's house. Some responded to a Facebook post about the situation by saying that the elderly homeowners, who clearly bought the house because they're huge Kathy Najimy stans, should've considered this when they closed the deal. Isn't Facebook grand?

Outside of Salem, the pandemic has also made the autumnal equinox difficult. Portland's award-winning Hocus Pocus cosplay trio "The PDX Sanderson Sisters" have moved the act online. Lifelong fans Signe Larsen, Autumn Hansen and Sara King, who play Winifred, Sarah and Mary Sanderson, respectively, barely remember seeing the movie for the first time. Though King's mother probably does. After a sleepover screening, Sara recalls salting her backyard to keep witches away. "I murdered the grass for many years in my mother's backyard, because I was afraid of it the first time I saw it," Sara said. Salt, which the movie teaches, is a witch's only weakness. "There was a salt square in my backyard until I was 19." A dead patch of grass was a small price to pay for fandom fame. Two years ago, the PDX Sanderson Sisters won second place in a costume contest for the Freeform network's 25th Anniversary Hocus Pocus Halloween Bash. For three women who began dressing like the Sandersons as a simple Halloween costume, ending up on national television was an unexpected turn. But the first year they went out, they knew they struck gold. "We were inspired to continue because people treated us like celebrities," Sara said. After a couple of photoshoots, they received a flier for the Freeform event. A month later, they were onstage in Los Angeles performing their witchy dance.

Since the contest, the PDX Sanderson Sisters have amassed a healthy online following, including 27,000 followers on their Facebook page. Last year, they released a music video for their first single, a cover of "Come Little Children," originally sung by Sarah Jessica Parker in the movie. For the video, Autumn says that they tried to tap into the oft-overlooked spookiness of the film, which she believes differentiates the PDX sisters from other cosplay covens. "Hocus Pocus is a very funny campy movie, but also it's pretty spooky," Autumn said. "They are literally stealing the souls of children. I feel like the stuff that we try and make is sometimes funny, but mostly it's pretty spooky. We haven't seen a lot of that from our other Sanderson associates."

The success of the act inspired them to invest more time in web content, like an active TikTok page. "Since we can't be out at conventions and doing all these events, we really want to keep our fans happy with their year-long Hocus Pocus content," Signe said. They know their audience well. Signe tells me that their demographic breakdown, according to Spotify and YouTube statistics, is females between 25 and 38. "That's checks out. Witches, witches love us," said Signe.

The internet is booming with Hocus Pocus memes, GIFs and Etsy shops. Rachel, a 20-year-old college student, runs the @hocuspocusmovie Instagram page. She somehow avoided the usually litigious Disney to gain more than 20,000 followers since launching in 2014. Rachel grew up with Hocus Pocus, believing it to be an integral part of the Halloween experience. "It's now turning into a tradition each Halloween," Rachel wrote via email. "You go into Spirit Halloween now and there is a whole section for Hocus Pocus. It is one of the prime time movies for Freeform's 31 Nights of Halloween. In this pandemic, it is even one of the highest-grossing films for drive-ins! Hocus Pocus has really provided a new tradition for the Halloween holiday. It's like the Home Alone of Christmas, but Halloween."

Rachel created the Instagram page when she was 14. (As a Gen Z fan, she's breaking the very stereotypes set forth by this article.) In a comment that made me age 150 years, Rachel said, "I think it's kind of funny how I am so young, while a lot of our demographics for the account are 30 to 40-year-old women!" Brutal. The cold sting of aging aside, @hocuspocusmovie is filled with clips, behind the scenes pictures, memes and fan art. The page keeps Rachel and her partner, Madison, plenty busy. "It can be overwhelming at times, but just because we feel the need to provide content for fans. We both have our own lives with college, jobs and social lives, so sometimes we feel like we get behind. Finding ways to keep the account alive with fresh content can be challenging too—there are only so many stills you can take from a movie!" Hocus Pocus launched nearly 30 years of fandom. Not bad for a film without a franchise.

The future of Hocus Pocus fandom is hard to parse out. Rumors of a sequel have been churning since the 2000s. This year, Disney, once again, began stirring the cauldron. Whether or not the Sanderson sisters will ever fly again, fans continue the crowd around the TVs, don their gowns and dance to "I Put a Spell on You" every October. Hocus Pocus is fully cemented into the Halloween experience for many in the millennial demographic. And with Gen Z apparently picking up the slack on Instagram, it's easy to imagine people will be lighting the black candle for many years to come.

+ Add a Comment

Comments (0)

There are no comments currently available.

Display Comments

Add a Comment

'lo! You must login or signup first!