The untold truth of Hocus Pocus

Disney released Hocus Pocus in July of 1993, a Halloween-themed, big-screen comedy about a trio of diabolical 300-year-old witches; the women are resurrected in the modern era after being executed in Salem centuries earlier. Featuring the star power of Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the spell-casting Sanderson sisters, Hocus Pocus was hardly a blockbuster. A modest hit at best, Hocus Pocus conjured up a mere $39 million at the box office (for comparison’s sake, that year’s biggest film, Jurassic Park, raked in nearly $340 million).

One reason why the film didn’t take off may have been its release date — who puts out a Halloween movie in the middle of the summer? Another factor could have been poor reviews, such as Janet Maslin’s piece in The New York Times, which declared Hocus Pocus to be “an unholy mess.”

Yet the years have been kind to Hocus Pocus. Thanks to home video and annual Halloween airings on TV, what was once a badly reviewed bomb is now revered as a beloved cult classic. Keep reading to find out the untold truth of Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus originated as a bedtime story the movie's producer created for his daughter

According to the production information for Hocus Pocus, producer David Kirschner and his daughter were sitting outside their home one night, when they spied a neighbor’s black cat slink past. That immediately inspired Kirschner, who began telling his daughter a story about how that cat had once been a human boy. He elaborated that when the boy was trying to protect his sister from a coven of witches, they placed a curse on him that turns him into a feline. “My daughter was spellbound,” Kirschner revealed. The bedtime story that resulted, he added, “terrified and delighted her.”

As Kirschner explained in an interview with People, his wife told him, “You should do something with this.” To that end, Kirschner took the idea to writer Mick Garris, who transformed the bedtime story into a screenplay. 

Once they had a workable script, Kirschner and Garris pitched their potential movie — then titled Halloween House – to Disney. The studio gave the project the green light, but production on what would eventually come to called Hocus Pocus was still a long way down the road.

The original concept for Hocus Pocus was way darker

As envisioned by screenwriter Mick Garris, Hocus Pocus was initially far more frightening than the slapstick comedy that wound up onscreen. “What I had written originally was about 12-year-olds,” Garris told Entertainment Weekly. “The kids being younger and in more jeopardy was certainly something more explicitly frightening.” Garris was ultimately able to make a course correction by increasing the ages of two of the children, making them 16 instead of 12. This, he explained, reduced the scariness.

Garris elaborated in an interview with SlashFilm, revealing he “did the first couple of drafts” before other writers were brought on. Numerous rewrites ensued, and the project remained in limbo for eight years, until the script made its way to Bette Midler. Once Midler was attached, production proceeded full speed ahead, with Garris’ original script serving as the template. “Basically, they had gone back to the script that I had done,” he recalled. “They had made some changes — it was much more broadly comedic.” Ha added that while his script was darker, other writers’ commercial instincts were superior to his.

Leonardo DiCaprio turned down Hocus Pocus and lost a big payday

According to producer David Kirschner, Omri Katz was not the first choice to play young protagonist Max Dennison in Hocus Pocus. As Kirschner told People, “There was talk originally for Max, Leonardo DiCaprio being Max, and that was exciting…” However, added Kirschner, DiCaprio “turned it down.”

Passing on the offer, DiCaprio admitted in a 2014 interview with Variety, proved to be a watershed moment for him. Admitting he was offered “more money than I ever dreamed of” to sign on for Hocus Pocus, the young actor instead made the risky decision to hold out for a project he was far more passionate about: a quirky indie flick titled What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Fortunately for DiCaprio, his instincts proved correct; he was just 18 when his performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. “I don’t know where the hell I got the nerve,” DiCaprio said. But he’s proud that he stuck to his guns, though Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t win an Oscar until The Revenant.

The flying scenes in Hocus Pocus required a lot of choreography

Before he stepped behind the camera, Hocus Pocus director Kenny Ortega had a career as a successful choreographer. That experience served him well when making Hocus Pocus, particularly in the scenes in which the Sanderson sisters fly around on their broomsticks.

According to the Hocus Pocus production information, Ortega brought in choreographer Peggy Holmes so she could coach stars Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker on developing each character’s specific physical traits, in terms of how they moved and how each related to the other. This was particularly true when it came to the flying sequences, with Holmes explaining that each of the stars rode their broomsticks “in character.” Midler’s character, Winnifred, “is in charge and much more aggressive than the other two. She’s always leading the way and looking for children.” Parker’s character, Sarah, “loves to fly…and can’t wait to get up in the air.” 

Najimy’s character, Mary, on the other hand, “is more cautious. Like a good driver, she signals with her hand. Mary is the safe and steady flier.” That’s just one of the things about Hocus Pocus you only notice as an adult.

Sarah Jessica Parker used to read the newspaper while rigged up for flying scenes in Hocus Pocus

Given that Sarah Jessica Parker’s Hocus Pocus character loved to go flying on her enchanted mop, it shouldn’t be surprising that the actress herself likewise enjoyed the process of simulating flight. When the Sex and the City star paid a Halloween visit to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2018, Hocus Pocus naturally came up as a topic of conversation. “I liked making the movie and I loved flying,” Parker declared, explaining the process involved “old-fashioned wires and harnesses.” 

In fact, Parker admitted she enjoyed being in the aerial rig so much then when the director called “cut” and everyone would go to lunch, she’d just hang out on the set, dangling in the air. Because her costume — a “16th-, 17th-century” gown — was so voluminous, she was able to “fit an entire New York Times up the back of the corset.” Since she found the harness to be comfortable, Parker said, “I would just sit up there and read the Times.” 

When asked if she was “fine up there,” Parker replied, “I was happy. I was better than fine.”

For authenticity, the Hocus Pocus house was built using 300-year-old construction techniques

According to Hocus Pocus production information, production designer William Sandell utilized the largest sound stage at Disney’s Burbank studios to construct the Sanderson sisters’ house. “We looked at a number of restored and preserved houses in Salem,” he explained, revealing the design they came up with was “an amalgam of everybody’s vision of a witch’s house — from fairy tales to Mother Goose.”

When constructing the house on set, Sandell’s attention to detail (specifically in maintaining authenticity to the period) was beyond impressive; he utilized the same techniques that the original Salem settlers would have used 300 years earlier. “It’s a mortise and tenon old-style architecture where the logs are split and seamed together,” he continued, explaining that the process included imitating “a wattle and daub, which is a technique of mixing clay with chopped straw, used originally by New Englanders in lieu of plaster to weatherize their houses.”

The resulting structure was so solid, Sandell declared, that “you could take this house, place it on a hill somewhere, bring it up to code and live in it.” That’s something he’s like to do himself.

It took numerous cats and some computer wizardry to create Binx in Hocus Pocus

Actor Sean Murray played Thackery Binx in Hocus Pocus, transformed into a cat by the Sanderson sisters’ wicked magic; actor Jason Marsden provided the voice of feline Binx. However, according to Entertainment Weekly, creating Binx wasn’t easy, as it required several cats and computer wizardry to pull it off. After an attempt at an animatronic cat looked fake on film, computer-generated “texture mapping” — an early version of CGI — was used to superimpose facial features on footage of the actual cats to make it appear as if Binx was speaking.

Why so many cats to portray just one? As Murray explained to People, “What I discovered was that cats are impossible to train…I think we went twice as long in the movie as we were supposed to because of these cats.” 

Thora Birch — who played Max’s little sister, Dani — concurred. “I had an issue whenever the cat came up,” she told ABC News. “There were a number of live cats, animatronic cats — the thing with the cat was a toss-up. You never knew what would happen.” Sounds about right!

Those were real moths that flew out of Billy's mouth in Hocus Pocus

One particularly memorable scene in Hocus Pocus involves the zombie-like Billy Butcherson, the unfaithful ex-boyfriend of Bette Midler’s Winnifred. Billy, played by Doug Jones, takes a knife and slices the stitches sewing his lips together. And when he finally opens his mouth, he exhales a puff of dust, followed by a bunch of moths. 

Unlike Binx, no CGI was involved in this scene. Tony Gardner, who handled the special effects makeup, revealed to Bloody Disgusting that actual live moths flew out of the actor’s mouth. According to Gardner, the illusion was created by using a “mouth rig,” a small pocket fashioned from latex that attached from upper and lower dentures in Jones’ mouth, intended to block his throat. 

Once it had been set up, “an animal wrangler would place several moths in the pocket with tweezers, under the supervision of a representative from the Humane Society,” Gardner explained. “Then the stitches would be glued shut, and we’d run out of frame so that they could get to the shot as fast as possible.”

A famous sibling duo made a devilish uncredited appearance in Hocus Pocus

Another memorable scene in Hocus Pocus proved to be a treat for movie aficionados. In that scene, the Sanderson sisters enter the home of a couple under the belief that the husband — costumed for Halloween in a devil outfit — is their “master,” Satan himself. “Aren’t you broads a little bit old to be trick-or-treating?” his wife asks while puffing on a cigarette. “We’ll be younger in the morning,” responds Winnifred, referencing the witches’ efforts to regain their youth by stealing it from children.

The couple was played by Laverne & Shirley star Penny Marshall and brother Garry Marshall, both big-time directors in their own rights; she helmed such films as A League of Their Own and Big, while he brought moviegoers Pretty WomanThe Princess Diaries and Beaches.

Things go south when Penny sees Sarah’s character slow-dancing with her husband, and kicks the coven out of her home. “That’s it! Party’s over! Get out of my house!” she bellows, telling her spouse, “Shove it, Satan!” Addressing Sarah, she adds, “Tart-face, take your Clark Bars and get outta my house!”

There's a Hocus Pocus sequel — but it's a book

As Hocus Pocus built up a cult following over the years, many eager fans began calling for a sequel, anxious for a Hocus Pocus 2 release date, cast, and plot. Many of those fans, however, are probably not aware that a sequel already exists — but it must be read, not watched.

In 2018, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, Disney published Hocus Pocus & the All-New Sequel. Described as an “electrifying two-part young adult novel,” the first half essentially recaps the events of the film in novel form. In the second half, set 25 years later, readers meet Max’s 17-year-old daughter, Poppy, who is joined by her teenage pals to face off against the recently resurrected Sanderson sisters.  

The book’s synopsis also promises that the novel will reveal the origins of “resting witch face.”

Bette Midler was dubious about plans for a TV remake of Hocus Pocus

The cast of Hocus Pocus has changed a lot since 1993. That said, when Deadline reported that the Disney Channel was developing a Hocus Pocus made-for-TV movie in 2017, fans of the original weren’t exactly thrilled. The reason? The new version would feature neither the original cast nor director Kenny Ortega. The latter fact was particularly odd, given that Ortega directed several Disney Channel hits, including High School MusicalThe Cheetah Girls, and Descendants.  

As People subsequently reported, reaction on social media was scathing. One fan wrote of feeling “betrayed,” while another tweet that summed up the general consensus read, “Someone needs to send the Hocus Pocus remake idea back from whence it came!”

In addition to fans, Bette Midler herself chimed in to express her displeasure. “It’s going to be cheap!” she griped to People. In addition, Midler couldn’t think of anyone who’d be able to top her performance. “I’m not sure what they’re going to do with my character,” she added. “My character is very, very broad and I don’t know who they’re going to find to play that.”

An actual big-screen sequel of Hocus Pocus is in the works

While plans for a Disney Channel made-for-TV movie apparently fell by the wayside, the idea of resurrecting Hocus Pocus didn’t die altogether. In a 2018 interview with Digital Spy, actor Doug Jones — who played Winnifred’s ex, Billy Butcherson — revealed he was “actually approached and asked about” his interest in a sequel. Jones, for the record, “would love to reprise Billy Butcherson.”

Meanwhile, the 2019 launch of the Disney+ streaming service, and its constant need for new content, seemingly opened the door for a proper sequel. To that end, in 2020, Variety reported that Hocus Pocus 2 had been greenlit for Disney+, with Adam Shankman (whose credits include Hairspray and Rock of Ages) tapped to direct. 

While the original stars Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy weren’t yet attached to the project, the studio was reportedly “hopeful that they will become involved in some capacity.” In addition, a source indicated that the plan would be for the three actresses to “reprise their roles, rather than having to completely reboot the first film.”

The original stars of Hocus Pocus are open to a sequel

While earlier reports indicated uncertainty about whether the original cast would participate in a sequel of Hocus Pocus, Sarah Jessica Parker seemed to lay that to rest. When someone commented in an Instagram post that featured a photo from Hocus Pocus, asking “Any chance of a sequel?” she responded, “we have all said yes. Now we wait.”

A few months later, Parker offered similar assurances during an interview with SiriusXM. “I think that is something that Bette and Kathy and I, we are very hospitable to the idea,” she said. “I think for a long time people were talking about it as if people were moving forward with it in a real way but we were unaware of it.”

According to Parker, the wheels were already in motion, and had progressed “to the point where we’ve agreed publicly to the right people, ‘Yes!'” If everything were to indeed come together, and the three actresses reunit to reprise their roles, Parker admitted it “would be a very, very fun idea, so we’ll see. We’ll see what the future holds.”

Bette Midler watched Hocus Pocus 25 years later and was floored by "how good it was"

Whether or not a sequel to Hocus Pocus does actually materialize, Bette Midler remains proud of the work that she and the cast did in the 1993 original. In 2018, Midler attended a 25th-anniversary screening, and admitted she was impressed with how well it had stood the test of time. “I watched it again for the first time…I haven’t seen it in years, and it was so good,” she told Entertainment Tonight. “I had forgotten how good it was and how good everybody was.” She added that at the time, she wasn’t aware of how talented the rest of the cast was — though she referred to co-stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as “those girls in the background.”

Parker subsequently appeared on Watch What Happens Live, where a caller asked for her feedback on Midler’s remarks. Rather than take offense at what could be perceived as a diss, Parker preferred to laugh it off. “I was proud to be in her down wind,” she quipped. Given how much the stars of Hocus Pocus are worth now, there’s no reason to be mad, anyway.

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