Hocus Pocus Was A Critical And Box Office Failure Until Fairly Recently

Movies | October 26, 2019

Everyone loves Hocus Pocus now, but when it was first released, it was panned by critics. Source: (hollywoodlive.com)

As soon as the calendar page flips to October, fans of the 1993 movie Hocus Pocus, which starred the fabulous Bette Midler and equally fabulous Sarah Jessica Parker, clamor for the Disney Channel and other media outlets to begin binge-broadcasting the newest Halloween classic. Hocus Pocus has achieved cult movie status in the quarter of a century since it was released, but back in 1993, few people would have predicted the staying power of Hocus Pocus. It had a dismal box office premier, mediocre ticket sales, and lackluster reviews. How did a movie with such a ho-hum debut turn into one of the biggest, most beloved Halloween favorites? 

Bette Midler dressed as Winifred Sanderson from Hocus Pocus attends Bette Midler's Annual Hulaween Bash benefiting the New York Restoration Project at the Waldorf-Astoria Grand Ballroom in New York City. Source: (Photo by Rebecca Smeyne/Getty Images)

Hocus Pocus, a Synopsis

Directed by Kenny Ortega for Walt Disney Pictures, Hocus Pocus is a family-friendly Halloween comedy about an awkward teenage boy who accidentally resurrects a trio of witchy sisters who were executed long ago during the Salem Witch Trials. The three witches---portrayed by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker---have an unholy appetite for children, and they must feed on the soul of a child before the Sun rises on November 1 unless they want to return to the realm of the dead. They end up spending their precious evening back on the mortal coil pursuing the teen who brought them back, his would-be girlfriend, and the little sister he is stuck babysitting on Halloween night in their quest for eternal life and youth.

Hocus Pocus was once called an unholy mess. Source: (sheknows.com)

Panned by the Critics

When Hocus Pocus was released in July 1993, it failed to impress audiences and critics. Famed movie critic Roger Ebert sneered in his review of the film that the three witches "don't have personalities; they have behavior patterns and decibel levels," while New York Times movie critic Janet Maslin referred to the movie as "an unholy mess." Audiences seemed to agree. It came in fourth place on its opening weekend and plummeted from there, initially losing the studio about $16.5 million.

Hocus Pocus was moved to a July release date so as to not compete with The Nightmare Before Christmas. Source: (insider.com)

Unfortunate Timing

Astute readers will note that July is a pretty weird time to release a Halloween movie, and that was undoubtedly one reason for its uninspired debut. Why would a movie that revolves around October 31 be released in the middle of summer? Well, Walt Disney Pictures had another big Halloween movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas, scheduled for an October release that year, and they didn't want to compete with themselves. They didn't seem to care about competition from others, though. The weekend that Hocus Pocus was released was also the opening weekend for another hot family-friendly flick, Free Willy. The first installment of one of the most successful franchises of all time, Jurassic Park, had also opened just a few weeks earlier. Hocus Pocus never had a chance. It's almost like Disney didn't expect much from a movie that was mostly carried by an already washed up cabaret singer and the little girl from Patriot Games---and for a time, it looked like they were right.

Hocus Pocus found new life on the small screen. Source: (hollywoodreporter.com)

Recouping Its Losses

In a blind attempt to recoup their losses, Walt Disney Pictures began airing Hocus Pocus on the Disney Channel and ABC Family (now called Freeform). After the movie joined the line-up for ABC Family's annual "13 Nights of Halloween," a series of spooky family films that aired on the days leading up to October 31, something unexpected happened: People who chose to see the dinosaur adventure movie instead of the witchy romp during the dog days of summer fell in love with the flick on the small screen. It only took a few years for the movie to become one of the favorites of the "13 Nights of Halloween" lineup. More than 2.8 million viewers tuned in to ABC Family's first broadcast of Hocus Pocus, and those stats have shown no sign of falling in the ensuing years.

Millennials longed to relive their 90s childhoods. Source: (usmagazine.com)

'90 Nostalgia

On top of that initial revival, Hocus Pocus reaped the benefits of the '90s nostalgia phase of the late 2000s and early 2010s. People who remembered watching the movie as youngsters in the '90s longed to relive the experience and share it with their own children. Hocus Pocus became a pop culture phenomenon as a Halloween symbol for millennials.

Hocus Pocus is number two on Amazon's list of best selling movies. Source: (thewhisp.mommyish.com)

Raking in the Profits

Hocus Pocus was released on DVD and Blu-Ray in October 2008, and since then, it has earned more than $21 million in home media sales alone. In fact, Hocus Pocus ranks number two on Amazon's list of bestselling movies and number two on iTunes's list of family-friendly films. Not bad for a film that experiences the bulk of its sales during a single month of the year. (Guess which one!)

Meme creators loved using screenshots from Hocus Pocus. Source: (pinterest.com)

Hocus Pocus on Social Media

With the rise of social media came the rise of memes, and the trio of witches in Hocus Pocus happens to offer a variety of meme-worthy quotes and scenes. Naturally, Hocus Pocus--based memes spread like wildfire, and each one was akin to free advertising for the movie. For social media junkies, watching Hocus Pocus became an iconic fall activity, ranking right up there with drinking a pumpkin spice latte. Instagram influencers included references to Hocus Pocus in their October posts, inspiring the next generation of fans. 

Tags: Halloween | movies

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.