In ‘Hocus Pocus 2,’ Disney takes the panic out of witchcraft

Witches, and Americans, have come a long way since the days of satanic alarm.

(Matt Kennedy | Disney+) The Sanderson sisters — from left: Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), Winifred (Bette Midler) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) — return to torment Salem’s residents, and discover the rejuvenating magic of the Walgreen’s makeup counter, in “Hocus Pocus 2,” a sequel to the 1993 original.

Fans of “Hocus Pocus,” Disney’s campy 1993 Halloween movie about the witchy Sanderson sisters, will notice something weirdly off about “Hocus Pocus 2,” the sequel that began streaming Friday on Disney+. The droll hilarity of the original is preserved nicely, as are the original’s leading characters, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy.

But the film has an unexpected twist: Witchcraft is no longer evil. When “Hocus Pocus,” directed by Kenny Ortega, was released in 1993, “satanic panic” had been running wild across the country for more than a decade, as witches and satanists were falsely blamed for harming young children and corrupting teenagers. (For those of you too young to recall, the moral panic was depicted in the latest season of the Netflix show “Stranger Things.”)

FBI agent Kenneth Lanning wrote in 1992, “We now have hundreds of victims alleging that thousands of offenders are abusing and even murdering tens of thousands of people as part of organized satanic cults.” There was no evidence, he added, of any of it.

It was at this cultural moment that the original “Hocus Pocus” arrived, and it shows. On Halloween night in (where else) Salem, Mass., young Dani (Thora Birch) and her older brother, Max (Omri Katz), inadvertently resurrect the 300-year-old Sanderson sisters, unleashing the witches’ plot to gain immortality by killing the town’s children. With the help of Binx the cat and their friend Allison (Vinessa Shaw), the siblings set out to stop them.

In the abandoned, cobweb-infested Sanderson home, Allison reads an old museum plaque: “This is the spell book of Winifred Sanderson. It was given to her by the devil himself.” Later, when the sisters discover a Halloween reveler, played by Garry Marshall, dressed as a devil, they call him Master. “I can’t believe it’s him,” says one witch enthusiastically.

Near the end of the original, Salem’s children march zombielike through the streets, led by Sarah Sanderson singing “Come Little Children.” In a world in which many people believed children were being abandoned (and, some thought, abused) in day care centers by satanists, the scene read as heightened reality.

The film may have been too real for some: After being panned by critics as too scary for kids and too silly for adults, it performed modestly at the box office during its first run.

Over time, however, “Hocus Pocus” developed a cult following, largely due to the outrageous performances of Midler, Parker and Najimy, and became a Halloween viewing staple. Meanwhile, the growing community of Wiccans and other witchcraft practitioners, unexpectedly perhaps, fell in love with the Sanderson sisters.

Flash forward 29 years. Satanic panic is ancient history and modern witchcraft has fully emerged from the proverbial broom closet, legally recognized and accepted as a spiritual path and religion. Pentacles appear on gravestones even in veterans cemeteries. Prison chaplains host Wiccan circles and atanists fight openly for religious equality.

Occult practices, such as tarot, are now openly practiced by teens from all walks of life and all faiths.

The portrayal of witchcraft and the Sanderson sisters in the new film had to change to meet the times.

Disney’s writers did this by injecting a prototypical “Sabrina” teen witch into the narrative. “You’re a witch,” exclaims Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) to Becca (Whitney Peak), two of the three teenagers who make up the new movie’s new coven and learn to combine their girl power to fight evil magic. The writers add crystals, herbs and moon pendants, all available at the local metaphysical store. The teens banish a curse with counterclockwise movements and use salt as a means of protection.

In the new film, witchcraft is just a tool that can be used as its practitioners see fit. “Power,” Izzy says, “is meant to be shared.”

Director Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”) includes a glimpse of the 1993 Marshall scene as tribute to the original, but Satan is no longer the source of the witches’ magic — nature is. The forest, where the teens’ rituals are held, is called sacred and, as shown in a flashback to the witches’ childhood in old Salem, the spell book they use is given to them by another woodland witch, not the devil.

As in other stories based on Salem’s dark days, the Sanderson sisters are driven to witchcraft by oppressors who turn out to be an aggressive male leader and religious extremism itself. After fleeing town to save themselves, the sisters meet Mother Witch. “Hocus Pocus 2″ in this way reflects its own cultural milieu as much as its predecessor and gets in some kicks against authoritarianism, bigotry and bullying.

While the satanic panic is gone, it has not been wholly forgotten. Since the new film’s release, some viewers have mounted a backlash against the movie, alleging that it indoctrinates kids. One Texas mother, Jamie Gooch, asserted the film “unleashes hell on your kids and in your home.”

Gooch told KSLA news, “The whole movie is based on witches harvesting children for blood sacrifices.”

While that actually isn’t the plot of the second film, the remnants of the satanic panic do linger on today. And Disney no longer seems interested in being the bulwark of conservative morality that it was so many decades ago at its inception. Its executives are likely to shrug off any complaints.

Both “Hocus Pocus” movies are products of their time. In the new one, the Sanderson sisters once again steal the show with their antics, and, in the end, they gain a type of redemption, but this is not 1993. They are redeemed not from the sin of witchcraft, but rather from their own greed and pride.