Every Halloween, Disney’s 1993 film Hocus Pocus once again becomes one of the most popular movies of the season, and it’s finally getting a sequel almost thirty years after the original film was released. Hocus Pocus is about a trio of witches in Salem, Massachusetts, who are accidentally resurrected by a teenage boy on Halloween night. The film stars Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy as the Sanderson sisters and was directed by Kenny Ortega – who went on to direct the High School Musical trilogy.
Hocus Pocus only grossed around $40 million when it premiered in 1993, finishing in fourth place on its opening weekend behind films like Jurassic Park. Disney chose to release the film in the summer – when kids are out of school, and when films aimed at younger audiences typically do better – but Hocus Pocus was still a critical and commercial failure, landing at a 37% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Despite those setbacks, Hocus Pocus has experienced an unprecedented transformation into a cultural phenomenon – so how did Disney pull it off?
After Hocus Pocus disappointed at the box office, Disney immediately began to rebroadcast the film on Disney Channel and ABC Family. In the early 2000s, Hocus Pocus was added to ABC Family’s 13 Nights of Halloween, a programming block run every October (and now on Freeform). Disney’s unusual move to rebroadcast Hocus Pocus meant that the film was continually discovered by new audiences, instead of fading into history after its performance in movie theaters. Hocus Pocus made history in 2009 when it became the most watched movie in ABC Family’s line-up with 2.5 million viewers – a record that it beat in 2011, with 2.8 million viewers (via TV by the Numbers).
The success of Hocus Pocus is evident. Walt Disney World premiered a new nighttime show for Halloween titled Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular in 2015 that centers around the Sanderson sisters. Hocus Pocus was re-released in movie theaters in October 2020, and is being shown as a part of their lead-up to Halloween. The long-anticipated Hocus Pocus sequel was finally confirmed, with all three main actresses returning. It’s clear that Hocus Pocus has become a cultural phenomenon, but its annual rebroadcast doesn’t fully explain why.
The biggest factor driving the Hocus Pocus renaissance is nostalgia. Kids that grew up watching Hocus Pocus on television every year are now adults, who can introduce the film to their children and make Hocus Pocus a part of their annual Halloween tradition. It helps that Hocus Pocus hits the sweet spot for a Halloween movie: it’s not horror, it’s appropriate for children, it has immediately recognizable costumes, and – despite its narrative failings – it’s just really fun to watch with family. Hocus Pocus has also never been easier to watch: in addition to still being a part of what is now Freeform’s 31 Nights of Halloween, it’s available to stream on Disney+ and it’s been re-released in movie theaters.
Hocus Pocus has experienced the kind of cultural resurgence that most movies can only dream about. It has cemented its status as a Halloween classic, and leads every list of must-watch Halloween movies. A unique blend of a second-life via rebroadcasting, childhood nostalgia, and availability on Disney+ have turned the box office failure into a hit. Although it was underrated when it was first release, there’s no denying that Hocus Pocus has magically become one of Disney’s most popular movies.