Hocus Pocus: Disney Needs to Scare Kids Again Like in the Original

One senses there was coverage footage not used in the moment where Midler, Parker, and Najmy bask in being young again—or, at least, younger as Winifred qualifies—since behind them, crumpled beneath a frightful old woman wig, sits a used and withered Emily. There’s no close-up in the final edit of her fate, but it’s still there, sitting in a background where a child’s eye might wonder. Afterward, the three evil witches turn their attention on Thackery, damning him to take the shape of a black cat. Forever.

The prologue of the movie then ends with the witches singing and cackling as they’re hung by the neck until they are dead, and the parents of poor Thackery never knowing what happened to their son, or why that damned black cat is trying to follow them home.

I’d hardly call the beginning of Hocus Pocus a horror movie, even by kids’ standards. But it’s horrifying enough for its target demographic. It also creates immediate stakes for that audience. You can bask in Midler and her onscreen sisters breaking bad and running amok, amok, amok, but in the back of your head, their sinister endgame is clear. The movie’s core audience will not treat it only as a joke when they curse the room full of adults to “dance until you die.” They won’t laugh either when the Sanderson Sisters steal baby Thora Birch, who also plays a little sister, during the end of the movie’s second act. And when Parker sings “Come Little Children,” beckoning the kids of Salem to the same doom that befell poor Emily, there’s something, well, bewitching at work.

As has been well-recorded, Hocus Pocus was not the instant Halloween classic it’s now remembered to be. The sequences mentioned above were considered perhaps darker than typical Disney fare, while the rest of the movie is an all-ages haunted house spooktacular with the richest of oranges and blacks, and greens and purples, ever put into a seasonal spectacle for the whole family. Critics didn’t know what to make of it. Luckily, it found life on the Disney Channel as a perennial October staple year after year throughout the ‘90s, and that legacy has been passed all the way down to parents now showing their children the original movie on Disney+.

What’s striking about it today, however, is how it stands even further apart from modern Disney films. For starters, Disney films that are actual live-action adventures with kids embarking on heroic journeys, be they during Halloween or any other time of the year, have largely gone extinct. In 2022, Disney’s non-Marvel and non-Lucasfilm live-action output is relegated almost entirely to remakes of animated classics or, ahem, Disney+ sequels to old favorites.

In this context, there seems to be a trepidation to scare and an unwillingness to fully frighten younger audiences. Once upon a time, the classics of Walt Disney Animation Studios had no qualms about unnerving children with images of an old crone woman handling a poisoned apple that brings death in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937); nor were they concerned about what kind of terror Pinocchio (1940) would inflict when a grinning red-faced adult cackles at a crying donkey with the voice of a child—mocking how the transformed boy is doomed to spend the rest of his days in slave labor at the salt mines.

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