Patriarchy, Virginity, and Reclamation in Hocus Pocus
First released in 1993, Disney’s Hocus Pocus was considered a critical failure, losing nearly $16 million and running in theatres only a few weeks after its premiere (Chaney). However, over the last two decades, Hocus Pocus has become a cult hit with an enduring legacy. Every year, people still dress as the Sanderson Sisters, the movie’s witchy villains. Unofficial and official merch floods the internet during October. Freeform recently held a 25th Anniversary Bash for Hocus Pocus. And, despite not having a single out lgbt+ character, multiple sources have posited Hocus Pocus as a piece of queer iconography.
To me, Hocus Pocus is to Halloween as It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas. It does not feel like Halloween until I see Hocus Pocus. I am not sure if there has been an October in the past 16 years that I haven’t watched Hocus Pocus multiple times. It is a film that keeps giving, as it reminds me again and again that Halloween in my favorite holiday. It is also a film that keeps giving in that it can be read in so many ways. My favorite, of course, being queer feminist readings of the patriarchy, sexuality, and reclamation.
The plot of the movie in relatively easy to follow. In 1693, in Salem, Massachusetts, the Sanderson Sisters – a trio of witches – suck the souls from children as means of eternal life. Tachary Binx, a local boy, attempts to stop the witches before they take the life of his sister. The townspeople catch the sisters and hang them, but not before the witches transform Binx into a cat. 300 years later, brother and sister duo, Max and Dani, break into the Sanderson sister’s house with the help of Max’s crush, Allison. While there, Max lights the Black Flame Candle, which has the power to revive the sisters if lit by a virgin on a Halloween that coincides with the full moon. Of course, these circumstances line up and the Sanderson Sisters are brought back.
For the reminder of the movie, Max, Dani, and Allison attempt to stop the Sanderson Sisters before they revive their former plans of stealing the lives of all the children in Salem. They are aided by Binx the cat, who is still alive, but cursed, all those years later. The fight against the Sanderson Sisters includes a revived zombie boyfriend, an iconic rendition of “I Put a Spell on You,” a creepy lullaby, and a multitude of comedic shenanigans as the Sanderson Sisters encounter modern-day life. In a self-sacrificing moment, Max distracts the sisters until sunrise, when the magic of the Black Flame Candle runs out and they are returned to dust. Binx gratefully passes away, free from the curse and able to join his long-lost sister. Salem is seemingly safe again, free from the witches who haunted them for so long.
Hocus Pocus is just but one of many retellings of the story of the Salem Witch Trails, but the real story is a lot grimmer than the renditions imagine. According to Kristen J. Sollee’s Witches, Sluts, and Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, what makes the witch trails of Salem unique is that they were primarily trials of outsiders. When young girls started having “fits” that were atypical of the ways Puritan girls were expected to behave, the townspeople turned to those who didn’t act, look, or sound like the rest of them. Among the accused were Sarah Good, a bad-tempered beggar; Sarah Osborne, an elderly widow; and Tituba, a slave from Barbados. Through the mania that occurred in the following months, over 200 people were accused and 20 were eventually killed, 19 by hanging and one by being pressed with stones (Sollee).
Although a variety of people were accused, there were some common themes – women over forty, women without husbands, those who lived on the outskirts of town, those who were poor, and those who didn’t zealously attend the newly established parish (National Geographic). Although only a small number of the accused were killed, the mania proved that this was the trail of the other and that good Salem people would do anything to vanquish that other.
In many ways, the Sanderson sisters are prime examples of the type of ‘other’ who was accused during the Salem Witch Trails. Sollee posits that witches are “women [who] are frightening for being unattractive, sexually unappealing, and past their prime, and yet, women are frightening when young and attractive because the witch is also charming, bewitching, beguiling, and sexually irresistible with her mysterious feminine wiles.” These traits are embodied both individually and collectively by the sisters. Although not elderly, the sisters are all older women, especially in comparison to the younger foils – Allison and Dani. At one point, Max says how ugly the sisters are, Winifred – the leader, and presumably, oldest sister – in particular. Meanwhile, the youngest of the sisters, Sarah, is hyper-sexualized and entices nearly every man she meets without even trying. Through a spectrum of looks and personality traits, the Sanderson sisters embody the frightening woman, who is simultaneously unattractive and past her prime while also beguiling and enticing. By existing within this contradiction, the Sanderson sisters are the other. When Max, Dani, Allison, and Binx defeat them, they are enacting the same vanquishing of the other that their Salem ancestors did before them.
In this way, Hocus Pocus tells the story of the patriarchy, one where atypical women are punished for being ambitious and confident, for resisting the idea of maternity (remember, the sisters only want children to use as a life-force), for being too old and unattractive or being too sexual and enchanting. Despite reading like a typical story of ‘the patriarchy defeats the evil woman,’ I am much more interested in the ways that Hocus Pocus resists the notions of the patriarchy.
First and foremost, Hocus Pocus resists the patriarchy by being a PG-rated movie highly concerned with sex – in particular, the virginity of a male character. In order for the Sanderson sisters to be revived, the Black Flame Candle must be lit by a virgin. Max unabashedly owns up to this when he lights the candle. Afterwards, mentions of his virginity become a reoccurring theme throughout the film. I posit that Max’s virginity can be read in three ways:
1) As an inversion of the “Final Girl” trope. The term final girl refers a virginal girl in horror films who faces an enemy (usually male) but survives, with heavy implications that her purity is what allows her to survive. Aaron Wallace’s Hocus Pocus in Focus posits that the film inverts this trope by making the protagonist [Max] a male virgin who is being pursued by a female [Winifred and her sisters] villain (90). Another notable aspect of this is when, before lighting the candle himself, Max asks Allison if she would like to light it herself and she says no. Though her expression is demure, I have always read the scene as Allison confirming that she is not a virgin. In this way, Hocus Pocus turns the typical horror story, and in turn, the typical patriarchal story, on its head by focusing on a virginal, male protagonists and a non-virginal, female love interest. It is a surprisingly progressive and feminist move from 90s children’s movie.
2) As an exploration of male sexuality. The candid way in which all of the characters, including his much younger sister, address Max’s virginity allows Disney to discuss sex without shame. The various references to his virginity throughout of the movie are made not to shame him for being a virgin, but to call him out on being idiotic enough to light the candle. In a culture that often pressures teenage boys to have sex and where male virginity in television and film is still exceedingly rare, Max’s virginity is an important step in undoing the notion of shame. Kevin O’Keefe further argues that Hocus Pocus is important because it presents “a young, male character who is allowed to be sensitive and inexperienced. His virginity is not played as a shame or something to be discarded. It's an essential part of his character, a young man pure of heart. His sensitivity as the protagonist stands opposed to typical depictions” (Mic).
3) As means of knowing Max has lost his virginity. Though Max’s virginity is a subject of discussion for most of the film, it is possible that he loses his virginity before the third act of the film. At several points, Sarah sings a song called “Come Little Children,” [previously linked] which, as the name suggests, summons children for the Sanderson sisters to use. Children of all ages, from toddlers to teenagers, are summoned. Wallace offers the phrase, “come little children” may merely be code for “come little virgins” and that “maybe Max is only a virgin for the first two acts of the film” (67).
After the group believes they have initially defeated the Sanderson sisters, they rest at Max’s house, with Allison and Max sharing the same bed. Although the camera only shows them falling asleep and waking, where they both remained fully clothed, traditional cinema only ever implied sex, never showed it. The abrupt cut scene between them falling asleep and waking up shows the green smoke and swinging door of the Sanderson sisters burning (but not dying) in a furnace. Wallace says that this inter-scene plays as an almost Hitchcock-like metaphor for sex, with the knowing smiles that Allison and Max share in the next scene of waking up as confirmation (73). Later, Allison and Max are not affected by the call of Sarah’s song while other teenagers are seen traipsing through the streets to reach the Sanderson sisters.
In this way, Disney is able to tell the story of someone having sex for the first time, in a way that does not seem salacious or controversial. Rather, the candid discussion of Max’s virginity throughout and the subtle implications that he is no longer a virgin in the end, reads as a sex-positive message of virginity and sex without shame.
Like many feminists, I also believe that virginity is socially constructed and does not actually matter in the larger scheme of things. But for the purposes of Hocus Pocus, Max’s virginity is quite literally a key factor in reviving the Sanderson sisters, and therefore, important within the larger scheme of the movie. This is why Max’s virginity matters, because it has the ability to resist patriarchal standards. Certainly, Hocus Pocus upholds patriarchal standards through the othering and destruction of women, but it also contradicts itself by simultaneously breaking down other constructions of the patriarchy. Virginity is one of many of these contradictions – we could talk about the competing images of brotherly protector between Max and Binx, we could talk about how useful Dani and Allison prove themselves to be while Max does very little, we could talk about maternal juxtaposition with the sister’s needs but not want of children, and more. As I said, Hocus Pocus is a movie that keeps giving.
However, the best thing that Hocus Pocus gave culture is that it made witches cool again. In part, the reason why the film failed when it first came out is because audiences were still trying to make the witches into villains. Once the audience started rooting for the witches, well, that’s when we reclaimed the Sanderson sisters and gave Hocus Pocus the rampant popularity it holds today.
This reclamation of witches was also pushed along by Disney itself. Just a few years after Hocus Pocus, Disney released Halloweentown, which includes Marnie Cromwell’s famous line – “being normal is so vastly overrated.” A few years after that, they released Twitches, which includes subtle notes on race and class. And even now, they’re making box office hits with Maleficent and its sequel.
Disney was not solely responsible for the reclamation of the witch, as movies like Practical Magic, The Craft, and series like American Horror Story certainly made witches more popular. In fact, I think you would be hard pressed to find a recent popular piece of media where the witches are still the villains.
This reclamation of witch is so important because by reclaiming witch we are reclaiming centuries worth of misogyny that oppressed women who were different in any capacity. To me, that’s a venture worth taking, so I’ll keep doing it, one Hocus Pocus viewing at a time.
“5 Facts About the Real Salem Witch Hunt.” National Geographic, National Geographic , 18 May 2017, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/05/salem-witch-hunt-trump-tweet/.
Chaney, Jen. “The Magical Tale of How 'Hocus Pocus' Went From Box-Office Flop to Halloween Favorite.” Yahoo!, Yahoo!, 28 Oct. 2015, https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/the-magical-tale-of-how-hocus-pocus-went-from-144105863.html.
Flynn, Meagan. “The Unlikely 25th-Anniversary Celebration of 'Hocus Pocus,' a Film Reviled by Critics in 1993.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Oct. 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/10/22/unlikely-th-anniversary-celebration-hocus-pocus-film-reviled-by-critics/.
O'Keefe, Kevin. “'Hocus Pocus' Is a Piece of Queer Iconography - And That's Why a Sequel Is Necessary.” Mic, 30 Oct. 2015, https://www.mic.com/articles/127650/hocus-pocus-is-a-piece-of-queer-iconography-and-that-s-why-a-sequel-is-necessary.
Sollee, Kristen J. Witches, Sluts, and Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive. Stone Bridge Press, 2017.
Wallace, Aaron, and Thora Birch. Hocus Pocus in Focus: the Thinking Fans Guide to Disneys Halloween Classic. Pensive Pen Publishing, 2016.