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"It's just a bunch of hocus pocus"
A Halloween Disney film, a boy and my queerness
It’s 1993, I’m eight, and I’m eating my favourite meal: an oily thick-crust margherita at Pizza Hut. I can smell the mixed salad my mum’s brought back from the buffet, and my eyes are on the boy sitting across from me at the table. Let’s call him Adam. A Lebanese American, or just Lebanese with an American twang, he’s the fastest runner in our class – these things matter. Now he’s in the middle of telling me about a cool new movie he caught on a recent trip to the States.
‘There’s these three witches, they’re sisters, and they suck the lives out of kids because it makes them younger.’
He has my undivided attention as he regales me with the plot of this film. The witches are brought back from the dead thanks to a Halloween curse, and three 1990s youths must stop them before they take the lives of all the local children. I don’t even mind the spoilers as Adam rambles; I like seeing his excitement as he acts out entire scenes. We’ve been spending a lot of time together since he moved to Cyprus and started at my school. We’ve played in his garden, where we toss a baseball back and forth, laughing about teachers and whatever else annoys us at school.
‘What’s bawse?’ I ask my mum one day.
She looks confused. ‘I have no idea. Where did you hear it?’
I tell her Adam used it when I threw the ball and accidentally hit his crotch. ‘He said, Ow, my bawse!’
A startled, baffled smile as she explains it to me. I’m bothered by the explanation, and replay the memory of Adam, a second after the incident, in my head.
Finally, my favourite day of the week arrives: Friday. I’ve started to resent having to go to school, a waste of my time when I could be drawing and watching TV. The day comes with a feeling of elation, but it’s not only because it signals the weekend. Friday is the day new movies come out at the cinema, and it’s my dream to become a film director. I flip through the Cyprus Weekly my mum has brought home and go straight to the Entertainment section. There, in black and white, is the poster of that movie Adam acted out for me:
The Disney logo jumps out at me, a fact my friend neglected to mention, possibly out of ignorance. I gasp. So obsessed am I with Disney that I sketch Aladdin multiple times a day, crouching with his monkey Abu on his shoulder. I’ve read all I can about the company, and harbour dreams of working for them when I grow up. When watching their animations I pause the VHS and click the button that makes it move frame by frame, so that I can see how they achieve particular moments; from an eruption to a flick of the hair.
I stare at this magical poster as if to absorb every detail for a future test. The three witches, flying in the air on a vacuum cleaner against a full moon. I recognise the name Kathy Najimy from Sister Act, and am even more thrilled. I beg my mum to take me.
In the darkness of the cinema, sitting between her and my older sister, I’m entranced from the opening shot: the shadow of a woman on a broomstick soaring over water and woodland, to target a humble farmhouse. A handsome older boy, with the floppy hair and open shirt of a Backstreet Boy incongruous in the 17th-century setting, is searching in panic for his missing younger sister. She, hypnotised by an otherworldly singing, is led to the house of the Sanderson sisters – a trio of witches who are brewing a potion to help them drink the young girl’s life.
By now I’m no stranger to darkness in Disney films; as a five-year-old I watched (from behind an armchair) that scene in Snow White where the Queen transforms into a cackling hag; I’ve gawped at the Horned King in the Black Cauldron and his army of the dead. This being Cyprus, I’ve even seen adult horror on afternoon TV thanks to cavalier broadcasters. I’m still wary of answering the phone due to a particular scene in Terminator II.
But there’s a gleefulness to the horror in this film that utterly captivates me. I don’t have the words for it yet, I lack the means to analyse it, but I recognise its spirit of sheer camp.
‘Oh, look! Another glorious morning,’ says eldest witch Winifred, breathing in the air at her open window. ‘Makes me sick!’
My laugh is the loudest in the room. In fact, I continue to giggle and chuckle and outright honk throughout the movie, enjoying myself with an abandon I’ve never experienced before and possibly never will again. The Sanderson sisters, though murderous villains, are a riot. There’s Winifred/Winnie (Bette Midler), with her bright red hair and buck teeth, enormous nails telekinetically moving children as well as books bound in human skin. There’s Mary (Kathy Najimy), with her away-with-the-faeries eyes and crooked smirk. And Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), breathing lustily over every male in sight while begging to have them hung on hooks ‘to play with’. By the time an impromptu musical number rolls round, I’m almost choking on my popcorn. On leaving the cinema, I know I’ve just seen my favourite movie of all time.
When I next see him at school, I’m babbling my love to Adam. But the moment is brief – he goes off to race some of the other boys in the minute before the bell rings for class. I don’t take part because I’m chubby and, as far as everyone’s concerned, unlikely to be good enough. Of course, Adam comes first. His reputation remains intact.
Unfortunately for me, and maybe to the lesser boys’ relief, his time at our school is drawing to an end. During a lunch break he mentions that he’s moving back to Lebanon. His mother tells me my sister and I will always be welcome to visit, in fact we must make a plan to do so.
‘It’s not even an hour away,’ she says.
I nod, and drink my rose cordial.
I become more obsessed with Hocus Pocus. It’ll be months before the VHS is available to buy, but I call the one legit VHS stockist in town every day to check if it’s out. In the meantime I rent a pirate copy from one of my three regular rental shops, which is run by a London-Cypriot man about my dad’s age, with mischievous green eyes. I watch the film day in, day out, each time noticing more in it than the time before and falling further in love.
I’ve lain awake at night thinking of death. I know my life is finite, and that one day everyone I love will die. I hope I go before my mum. Amazed, I watch the Sanderson sisters being hanged by the angry villagers at the start of the film, stockinged legs swinging in the light of the flaming torches. An act of vengeance for the death of a little girl. Her ‘90s-boyband-member brother, Thackery Binx, has not only failed to save her but also been transformed by Winifred to live forever as a cat. The idea of death is frightening, but the idea of no death at all somehow makes me sadder. I feel for Binx and his tortured endless life.
I also feel for Max, the modern-day protagonist. Not only is he struggling to adjust to the small new town he’s been dragged to by his parents, he’s also targeted by bullies. Though I don’t understand his revulsion for the picturesque avenues bursting with autumnal colours and elaborate displays of pumpkins on the grounds of mansions, I sympathise as two dingbat posers push him around in a graveyard and steal his shoes. I’ve started to feel different from the other boys in class, and I know they sense it. They’ve already been eyeballing me as a thing with undisclosed entertainment value, and in time they’ll chase me around the school pelting me with insults. On top of that, I’m at a private school where everybody else’s dad appears to be a shipping magnate, and I’m only privileged to be sitting next to them because this is where my mum teaches.
Like Max, I’m also attracted to Allison. With her girl-next-door aesthetic, even when dressed as a Versailles courtier at her obviously-loaded parents’ Halloween ball, and smart comebacks, Max’s rolling around on a bed hugging an Allison-substitute pillow and all but dry-humping the bed is totally expected. I, too, have admired her ‘yabbos’.
For a film so touched by the clammy hand of death, Hocus Pocus is also six-feet deep in sex. For one, there’s Max’s horniness for Allison. Then there’s Sarah Sanderson’s horniness for everyone. Even a zombie the witches reanimate in order to help them fight the children on hallowed ground had been having a fling with Sarah before becoming a different kind of stiff. The sudden appearance of a Madonna cone-bra at a Halloween party is par for the course.
Most importantly, the Sanderson curse relies on a virgin lighting the black-flame candle in their house to bring the villainous sisters back to life. From little sister Dani rolling her eyes at it to another man’s incredulity at it, much is made of Max’s virginity, which I understand to be a star sign. The idea that something about you, so fixed and incontrovertible that it follows you around like a spotlight, unsettles me. Because while I have feelings I barely understand for Allison, I have feelings I understand even less for Max.
Before he even leaves for Lebanon, Adam stops talking to me. His sister stops talking to my sister, their mum stops talking to ours. We’re no longer invited to the house we talked in, played in, watched the Tom and Jerry movie in, where I gorged on lahmajun and tabbouleh. So much for going to visit them in Beirut. And I’ll never find out the reason for this sudden silence. Gradually, all the boys in my class stop talking to me. No explanations, only a series of closing doors as I carry on walking down a darkening hallway.
Every day after school, I make the phone call I always make: to the VHS retailer of legit merchandise.
‘Hello, do you have Hocus Pocus yet, please?’
‘Sorry, darling, no.’
I notice how quickly they’ve started to answer me.
I put the rented pirate copy in the VCR. I watch the Sanderson sisters kill and hang for it, reawaken and hunt to kill again. I choke back tears as Dani, who is my age, who is me, wanting fun and candy, cradle Binx when he’s been run over, then watch with her same relief and astonishment as he comes back to life, at the same time heartbroken that he has to live forever. I cackle as the witches confront tarmac, are tricked into a furnace, scream in horror as a trick-or-treater dressed as an angel says Bless you. I’m thrilled as Billy the zombie loses his head, as I Put A Spell On You becomes a show-stopping Bette Midler performance, as my crush Allison throws salt around her in a protective circle, as my other crush Max is lifted off the ground by his sweater to come face to face with the witch that aims to drain his life.
Every time I reach a particular scene I find it increasingly bittersweet: Dani, Allison and Max arrive at the Sanderson house to tell the witches they’re too late; they have failed to claim any children’s lives before sunrise, which according to the rules of the curse means they’ll turn to dust. Then, in the window, glows a rosy light. The witches fall over themselves, hands on foreheads like feeble women in silent films. But we see this is a trick on the kids’ part, and that the rosy glow is coming from a piece of acetate over the headlights of Allison’s car. This is the scene I most vividly remember Adam acting out for me, that night at Pizza Hut.
I come to realise that from my very first viewing of Hocus Pocus, I’ve always rooted for both trios: protagonists and antagonists, kids and witches alike. Dani is the carefree child I want to be, Max the ostracised cynic I am, Allison the brave girlfriend I want. The three Sanderson sisters are what I fear, and should fear, but they are also a spit-in-your-face rebellion I find appealing. They are anti-social. They laugh at their own wickedness. They are hated by others, who fear being destroyed by them. What a powerful way to be disliked by the people around you.
I learn to embrace being the pariah. I proudly go against the grain, and my peers begin to hate me for it. They don’t get me, and that’s fine. I don’t care. They’re simple. Beneath me. Mortals.
It’s 2020, I’m 35, living in England, and I have friends outside of fictional cats and witches. My social media feeds are full of Halloween; pumpkin bakes, Jack-o-Lanterns and ghoulish decor. Best of all, Hocus Pocus is everywhere. Over the years this film, bashed by critics upon release, has become a beloved classic of my generation. Tellingly, its biggest fanbase is the LGBTQ community, which I’m slowly starting to feel more included in. Gay friends take selfies sporting Sanderson t-shirts and mugs, timelines are littered with gifs from the movie. Drag queens have reworked the film for the stage, non-queens drag up Sanderson for costume parties. We can’t get enough of those outrageous witches, with their big hair, colourful outfits, cleavage and broomsticks and Hoovers. It’s as if the queer community has embraced the horror attached to it from the torch-wielding cishet townsfolk, claimed the evil witch as its winking avatar.
It’s 2019, Halloween, mere months before a virus keeps us indoors, and a local fringe-theatre venue in my new town of Nottingham is screening the film for one night only. I can’t resist. Along with my husband and a straight female friend, I once again have the time of my life watching Hocus Pocus on the big screen. And as always, it makes me think, if only fleetingly, of Adam.
The last time I saw him, he was visiting from Lebanon. We happened to meet at a mutual friend’s, a decent boy in the year below. It was summer, so we played outside. The others were kicking a ball around an empty plot of land, I was kicking a stone around in the baking dirt. I tried to engage my former buddy in conversation, about school, about his new life, about movies. He was friendly in a polite way, and he avoided my gaze. I felt like kicking him in the balls. But the afternoon turned to evening, and we parted ways. In the car home, I wondered how I’d gone and poisoned things.
It’s 1994, I’m nine, and I’m calling that shop for the umpteenth time.
‘Hello, do you have Hocus Pocus, please?’
This time there’s a brief pause.
‘Tell him it’s here!’ a woman’s voice says faintly in the background.
‘Yes,’ says the one on the phone to me, ‘it just came in today.’
My joy is through the roof. I beg my mum to take me right away, to purchase the movie I’ve already seen a hundred times. She does. And later that same evening, clicking open the case and putting the cassette in the VCR, I settle down to watch Hocus Pocus as if for the very first time. And this time it’s mine. It’s for keeps. It’s forever.