Men have always feared powerful women, so it’s easy to see how Hocus Pocus got pitched as the ultimate Halloween film to studio bosses all those years ago.
The tale of the Sanderson sisters begins with a brutal 17th century hanging, whisks us towards an unholy resurrection, swiftly diverts us with the witches’ mission to murder and suck the souls out the children of Salem, Massachusetts, before ending with yet more death.
And yet, despite this stark summary of the plot, the film is a campy masterpiece – and a stonkingly enjoyable one at that. There are catchy musical numbers, hilarious one-liners, great visual gags, sumptuous costumes, talking cats (fine, just the one talking cat) and an outrageously good cast, too: think Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker, to name just three of the film’s standout stars.
Above all else, though, Hocus Pocus was packed to the cauldron-brim with strong female characters, subversive feminism and #girlpower life lessons – making it an absolute masterpiece, in this writer’s opinion.
Don’t believe us? Let’s break it down…
1) Sexist horror movie tropes are just that: sexist
How many horror films have we seen where a sweet, virginal girl finds herself the focus of unwanted undead attention (after generally making some ridiculous decisions)? Too many.
This Nineties film, though, proved it was light years ahead of its time when it had Max (Omri Katz) be the virgin to light the black-flame candle and unwittingly summon the Sanderson sisters back from the dead.
He should have listened to his sister, shouldn’t he?
2) Women are every bit as smart, competent and capable as men (duh)
Winifred (Midler), Mary (Najimy) and Sarah Sanderson (Parker) might be ‘evil’, but you’ve got to admit that these women know what they’re doing – and they manage to adapt to the modern world incredibly well. Take, for instance, the moment that Max lures them to a party, grabs a mic and attempts to out the ‘wicked witches’ to all the adults of Salem.
Winnie barely breaks a sweat: instead, she calmly takes the mic and thanks him “for that marvellous introduction”. Then, moments after carefully analysing the situation, she realises that a) adults are too narrow-minded to believe the words of a rambling teenager, b) they’re here to party, and c) the band themselves are dressed as zombies.
Cue her bursting into song and trapping every single person there in a deadly dancing spell.
Oh yes: Winnie may be a fully-fledged witch, but her most dangerous abilities are her shrewdness, her quick-wittedness, and her single-mindedness: all she wants to do, y’all, is “suck out the lives of little children”. Is that so much to ask?
Her sisters, likewise, may be bumbling and buffoonish at times, but they’re also incredibly good at what they do. Both are great at calming their highly strung sister down, both remain optimistic in times of trouble, and both are imbued with their own unique skill sets, too: Mary can sniff out a child in two minutes flat (using her actual nose), while Sarah can hypnotise an entire town using just her dulcet tones.
All three witches are terrifying in their competence – so much so that we suspect they would have succeeded in their plan if they hadn’t awoken in an entirely different century. Although, saying that, let’s remember that they were up against two wicked-smart female nemeses.
We’re talking, of course, about Allison and Dani. The devil works hard, but these girls work way harder – and, yeah, Allison (Vinessa Shaw) and Dani (Thora Birch) might still both be in school, but they prove themselves more than ready to take on a trio of unholy occultists.
It’s Allison and Dani who warn against lighting the black-flame candle and raising the Sandersons from the dead. It’s their idea to use salt to ward off the witches, to use car headlamps to make them think dawn (and death) has come, to steal The Book and use it themselves, to work with the forces of the undead, to appeal to Winnie and co’s vanity and keep ‘em talking long enough to catch them off-guard… the list is endless.
All hail a film that celebrates smart, intelligent and brave women – and puts them firmly in the driving seat.
3) Women are complex and sexual beings (double duh)
All you have to do is look at Sarah Sanderson to see a woman who’s confident in addressing her desires (however sordid they may be): she demands to have Thackeray Binx (Sean Murray) hung up on a hook so she can “play with him”, she enjoys a clandestine snog with a man she believes to be the devil and a partygoer dressed up as a mummy, and then there’s her encounter with the bus driver to consider, too.
She flirts, she demands to sit on his knee as he drives – and she gets what she wants, too. And, when he begs for her phone number come the end of it all, she turns him down. “Thou wouldst hate me in the morning,” she reassures him – and, considering how she gets her kicks, we don’t doubt that’s true.
In short, she’s a woman who’s keen to seek out sexual pleasure for herself and no one else – a trait which is innately feminist.
“Witches, sluts, and feminists are the trifecta of terror for the patriarchy,” historian Kristin J Sollee explains to The Guardian. “To me, the primal impulse behind each of these contested identities is self-sovereignty… witches, sluts, and feminists embody the potential for self-directed feminine power, and sexual and intellectual freedom.”
4) Of COURSE women can make the first move
Sarah reminds us that women absolutely can make the first move – a simple thing, you might think, but more than most Hollywood hits manage to acknowledge. Not only that, but they need to stop conforming to this boring narrative that they’re prizes to be fought over and won, take control of their own destiny, walk up to the guy or gal who’s caught their eye, and strike up a conversation.
5) A film really can pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours
Let’s remind ourselves of the criteria, shall we?
- The film has to have at least two women in it
- … who talk to each other
- … about something besides a man
Yup, it’s not hard – yet, to this day, there are so few films that manage to check all of these boxes. Hocus Pocus, though, does it with serious aplomb: an overwhelming five of this film’s main characters are women, and they tend to talk with one another about magic, the undead, their plots for world domination and the like far more than boring old men.
6) Street harassment is a crime that deserves to be punished
When teen bullies Jay and Ice (who proudly announce that they like to “look in windows and watch babes undress”) spot the Sanderson sisters on Halloween, they aren’t exactly polite. Worse still, when they’re ignored by witches, the loathsome thugs utter the fateful words: “Oh man, how comes it’s always the ugly chicks that stay out late?”
The boys soon find themselves locked up in suspended cages and being tortured (aka incessantly spun around in circles until they’re sick) by Sarah.
And, come the end of the film, Jay and Ice are still locked away and nobody knows where they are – which will surely teach them a valuable lesson about catcalling, heckling, street harassment and the general objectification of women.
7) And on that note…
E-v-e-r-y-o-n-e gets called out for objectification in this movie – even Max.
Remember this moment?
Yup, his little sister wasn’t about to let him get away unscathed from his creepy past analysis of Alison’s body. Because she’s a total badass.
And Alison, similarly, has zero problem turning down Max’s presumptuous request for a date at the beginning of the film, either. She just gives him back his phone number, which he so arrogantly presented to her in front of the whole class, and struts off without looking back.
8) Celebrate the amazing women in your life
No matter what happens in this story, Winnie, Mary and Sarah always have each other’s backs. When one of them is feeling stressed, they form a “calming circle”. When someone is upset, they offer their own sleeve to wipe away their tears (or, y’know, snotty nose). When one unexpectedly bursts into song mid-plot, the other two drop everything to provide backup (vocals).
And, come the end, when all of their plots have failed, they still make it their mission to put one another first:
Yes, Winnie, Mary and Sarah have plenty of sisterly squabbles. Yes, they snap and berate one another – and point out the obvious flaws in their individual schemes, too. But, instead of using this as a means of driving them apart, the film’s writers instead decided to celebrate the Sanderson sisters’ unique support system and hold them up as an unstoppable team – a sort of three-person magical Mafia squad, if you will.
They have them inspire, enlighten, and assist one another. They allow them to always have one another’s back. And they even let them share those hard-earned children’s souls with one another, too.
In a world which constantly pitches woman against woman, trust us when we say this is no small thing. And the most awesome part in all of this? We finally get to see a realistic friendship between girls that allows them to be intellectually competitive without tearing each other down. Big up to a film that realises the importance of the sisterhood.
9) Sisters before misters, always
It quickly becomes apparent, about halfway through the film, that Billy the zombie has some history with Winnie and Sarah. Namely, that he cheated on Winnie with her own sister, only to have her poison him and sew his mouth up in revenge.
What did Winnie do to Sarah, though? Well, it looks like… nothing, actually: their relationship is every bit as strong as you’d hope from two sisters.
We guess it’ll take more than some menopausal man to drive these two BFFs apart.
10) Not every woman wants the same things from life
Some women want to start families of their own – indeed, in the 17th century, that was what women were expected and supposed to do. Those who did not tended to frighten the townsfolk with their rabid, untamed cries for bodily autonomy and human rights. And, yeah, these rebellious women would often be branded witches and burned at the stake, drowned in a nearby lake, or hanged by the neck until they were dead.
No wonder Winnie, Sarah and Mary wanted to live forever: they were no doubt hoping to find a place in time where their ambitions would not just be deemed acceptable, but praised, too.
11) Stay true to yourself
The Sanderson sisters point-blank refuse to bow down to societal conventions, no matter which time period they find themselves in. Instead, they embrace their weirdness, their wackiness, their boldness and they run with it, come hell or high water.
It seems fair to say, then, that this is a film about self-love, self-esteem and self-belief. It’s about ignoring what everyone wants you to do and embracing your own badass self for who you truly are. It’s about being unafraid to stand out from the crowd. It’s about… well, letting go of the f**king patriarchy and being your best feminist self, that’s what it’s about.
12) Fight back against misogynist age-shaming
It is no secret that women in the public eye are under an enormous amount of pressure to look a certain way – and it’s no wonder, then, that so many feel forced to succumb to extreme methods to stay looking ‘picture perfect’.
Instead of turning to plastic surgery or a crash diet, though, the Sanderson sisters turn to what is, essentially, blood magic: they dope children, steal their life essence, and use it to make themselves look as young and beautiful as society demands.
They are driven to these methods by the demands that are placed upon them – the idea that women have to stay young forever, that they are worthless the moment they reach the menopause. We see it now in the real world: Madonna has been called all sorts of names under the sun because she refuses to bow down to blatant sexism, Courteney Cox felt forced to use cosmetic procedures in a bid to keep the ageing process at bay, and don’t even get us started on the huge age discrepancy between male and female co-stars in film and TV.
It just goes to show that even the baddest of badass women can be affected by the patriarchy – no matter what century we’re in – and it doesn't make us any less of a feminist to fall into the trap. All we can do is keep fighting the good fight, and pushing for women’s worth to be recognised, no matter what age they are.
13) Don’t sit and wait for your dreams to come true: make it happen yourself!
Life doesn’t hand you everything you want on a golden platter, you guys – and that’s something the Sanderson sisters learn throughout the entire run of Hocus Pocus. And, sure, they don’t get the happy ending they might be hoping for but, damn it, they always make sure to speak up, ask for what they want, forge their own opportunities, and work really, really hard to make their dreams come true. Inspiring stuff, right?
14) Yes, a heroine can survive a movie in sensible clothes
Allison wears jeans, trainers, a long-sleeved top and a baggy cardigan for the entirety of the movie. Dani, meanwhile, wears a warm witch’s costume with trousers underneath it. Both are able to run, walk and move easily – not to mention hurl themselves into battle at a moment’s notice.
=All hail that smart-thinking wardrobe department, eh? It’s not exactly running from dinosaurs in heels…
15) Women can 100% be funny (triple duh)
It’s scientifically proven that men are more likely to try and make people laugh. That’s a fact. A better fact, though, is that their jokes are far more likely to fall flat than those of the so-called fairer sex: that’s right, women are (according to science) more consistently funny.
Yet, despite all of this, a lot of men persist in claiming that they know far more about comedy than women. Remember when Jim Davidson said he didn’t know any female comedians? Or when Christopher Hitchens patronisingly insisted that, “bless their tender hearts”, women just aren’t as funny as men? Or, y’know, when misogynists everywhere decided to unleash all of their vitriol and hatred into the internet after it was announced there was an all-female Ghostbusters in the works?
We suspect that the patriarchy is all too aware of womankind’s innate funniness – and, desperate to keep it at bay, are keen to squash it with lukewarm compliments and outright insults. All of which makes it even more amazing that the women in this film are allowed to be furiously funny, quick-as-a-whip, and ready with a sarcastic zinger or one-liner, no matter how dire the situation.
Let’s make like the Sanderson sisters, channel our inner witch and get confident with our jokes henceforth: the odds are well and truly in our favour that we’ll make someone laugh.
16) Sexist and demeaning terms of endearment are just that: sexist and demeaning
Remember when ‘the Devil’ vows to let the witches meet his “little woman”?
Yeah, they were completely thrown by that. “He has a little woman?” they asked one another – and were utterly unimpressed when they found themselves shaking hands with a regular-sized human being. No matter how many ‘snakes’ she had in her hair.
17) Stereotypes are there to be broken
When you hear the word ‘witch’, you immediately picture a hook-nosed and bow-backed old woman – with evil intent. And, yeah, this is an image that was peddled by menfolk in a bid to undermine the powerful women in the world who had the potential to shift perceptions and create change. There’s a reason Donald Trump referred to Hillary Clinton as one, you know.
The Sanderson sisters cackle in the face of negative connotations. In fact, they go one step further than defying what the world thinks they are: instead, they wear it like a suit of armour, so that it can never be used to hurt them.
Women, don’t let anyone tell you that you have to look or behave a certain way, and never let anyone pigeonhole you based on your gender or appearances. You can be whoever you want to be. And if that’s an ass-kicking witch who has an unhealthy obsession with books, so be it.
18) True love can be (and often is) completely platonic
Hocus Pocus is supposed to be a film for kids. We acknowledge this – and we use this to our advantage in this argument: most kids films – and we’re looking at you, Disney – focus on princesses waiting around for rescue and true love’s first kiss.
Sure, there’s a bit of smooching in this bewitching flick, but the love stories it champions, above all others, are those rooted in familial love. It begins with Thackeray Binx on a desperate mission to save his sister, Emily (Amanda Shepherd) – even sacrificing himself in a bid to save her life. This is mirrored come the end of the film, when Max downs the witches’ soul-stealing potion so that they are forced to murder him over Dani.
And let’s not forget the Sanderson sisters themselves: as we pointed out previously, they are not content to live forever if it means doing so alone. Their mission, their only mission, is to survive the ages as a triumvirate – and they’ll do anything to make this dream a reality, too. Even, y’know, murder kids.
18) Nobody has it all figured out – and there’s no such thing as perfection
Sure, the film has problems: Winifred’s failing is her own vanity, Mary can’t master her flying vacuum cleaner, Sarah let their broomsticks get stolen, and Allison’s thirst for knowledge almost gets her friends killed – remember when she opened The Book, despite everyone advising her not to?
However, it’s these flaws that make these female characters so relatable: they’re not perfect, they don’t get everything right and they make mistakes. But, when they do so, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off and try again, like total badasses.
If that doesn’t make for an empowering film, we don’t know what does.
This article was originally published in September 2017.
Images: Hocus Pocus / Rex Features