Hocus Pocus Celebrates 25th Anniversary: How It Became a Cult Classic

Movie flopped at the box office and most critics gave it bad reviews, but TV screenings and home videos gave it a new life and a growing new fanbase

By Corinne Heller Jul 16, 2018 10:00 AMTags
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What children's movie is synonymous with Halloween? Hocus Pocus, of course.

The movie stars Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as three Sanderson sisters and witches who are resurrected on Halloween night. But the film wasn't even released on Halloween, but rather on July 16, in 1993. And Hocus Pocus, which hit theaters 25 years ago to this day, was a box office flop, making just $39.5 million—far less than what is expected for a Disney production. It also garnered mostly bad reviews from critics. Tough crowd!

The movie was much more successful among TV viewers at home, years later, as a piece of nostalgia.

Over the years, thanks to better VHS, DVD and digital streaming sales, as well as positive social media responses to repeated airings during Disney-owned Freeform's annual "13 Nights of Halloween" programming block, the film has earned its status as a cult classic—and it has the memes and GIFs to prove it. The Disney Channel is even making a TV remake.

Bette Midler Slams Disney Channel's Hocus Pocus Remake: "It's Going to Be Cheap!"

Hocus Pocus began as a bedtime story that producer and co-writer David Kirschner told his two young daughters in the '80s. It was even published in Muppet magazine. The film was also inspired by some personal events from his childhood; Even Binx the cat was named after his pet cat Inks.

"Halloween is a huge deal in our home, and it has been since our daughters were little," Kirschner told Yahoo! Entertainment in 2015. "It speaks to me in a way that becomes so emotional for me and always has."

Kirschner told the outlet that when he pitched the movie to Disney in 1984, almost a decade before it was released, he created in the meeting room a Halloween-themed display, complete with witches' brooms suspended from the ceiling, child-drawn pictures of black cats spilled candy corn.

The movie was not originally titled Hocus Pocus, but rather Halloween House. And it also almost starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Max, the virginal black flame candle lighter. He turned down the role so he could film What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Omri Katz got the part instead, Yahoo! reported.

Thora Birch, who plays his little sister Dani, had starred with DiCaprio in the Parenthood TV series that ended its one-season run in 1991, two years before Hocus Pocus was released. The movie also has another DiCaprio connection; Oscar-winning late Titanic composer James Horner co-wrote "Sarah's Theme," the "Come little children" song that Parker's character sings in Hocus Pocus while riding her broomstick.

Rosie O'Donnell was also almost cast in Hocus Pocus; she was offered the role of Mary Sanderson, which ultimately went to Najimy. 

Midler said on Katie Couric's talk show Katie in 2013 that she, Parker and Najimy "laughed the whole time" filming Hocus Pocus, adding, "We made it before the tidal wave of Halloween happened. Now it's like huge. It's huge—kids, grown-ups, everyone takes part in it. This movie was kind of like the beginning of the wave."

"For [Millennials], I think it's nostalgia," Freeform President Tom Ascheim told Vulture in 2017. "They get to wander back to that moment when Halloween was important in their lives."

In 2015, Midler said in a Reddit AMA that she was "shocked" by Hocus Pocus' cult status.

"All of us are just stunned," she said. "Kathy, Sarah Jessica and I have talked about it. We are totally thrilled to death. Because when it came out, it laid a tiny little bit of an egg, so we didn't expect much. And now look at it! OCTOBER is HOCUS POCUS MONTH!"