Movies Reviews

Hocus Pocus: A Look at the Film’s Real-Life Ties to Salem

There is no other place that conjures up the thrilling intrigue of witches like Salem, Massachusetts. With its integral ties to witchcraft and genuine obsession with Halloween, the town of Salem provides the perfect backdrop for Disney’s 1993 cult classic, Hocus Pocus. For many Millennials, the watching of Hocus Pocus every October is a ritual; as intrinsic to the season as pumpkin spice lattes and stepping on crunchy leaves. Best of all, the Sanderson sisters are back and running amok all over Salem in Disney’s recently released sequel, Hocus Pocus 2.

Hocus Pocus and its sequel both open with flashbacks to 17th Century Salem, a place where you should clearly stay out of the woods and in the good graces of the local villagers. Puritan bonnets and Old English aside, does the Salem of Hocus Pocus bear any resemblance to history? Is Halloween in Salem as big a deal as Max’s teacher makes it seem? Although Hocus Pocus is a fantasy, the film has ties to real-life Salem, including a leading actress who’s related to an accused witch! So leave your laid-back, California, tie-dyed point of view at the door because we’re delving into the world of Hocus Pocus and how it relates to Salem, then and now.


Were the Sanderson Sisters Based on Real Witches?

In the 17th Century, Salem was a genuinely scary place to be. Threat of illness, attack from neighboring tribes, fear of the devil, and family feuds would have all been part of Thackery Binx’s daily life. In 1692 Salem, a village doctor claimed two girls had fallen under witchcraft and sparked a period of mass hysteria known as the Salem Witch Trials. When accusations of witchcraft started flying around town, single women, like the Sanderson sisters, were the easiest targets of social prejudice. Add in a mole (considered to be the mark of the devil) and any association with a cat or small animal, and it was likely off to the gallows. Over the course of a year, more than 200 people in Salem were accused of witchcraft, on the grounds of everything from coerced confessions to dreams and visions. Though Sarah, Mary and Winifred in Hocus Pocus are not directly based on real-life figures, there were 19 accused witches hanged in Salem, typically in public executions like that of the Sanderson sisters.

What began as a dark and complex chapter of American history, laden with fear, became charming and downright campy in Hocus Pocus. The film draws interestingly upon the history of Salem; where towns and villages were considered to be blessed by God and the woods was where witches danced free. From black cats to broomsticks, Hocus Pocus also incorporates much of the familiar imagery associated with witches, so much so that Kathy Nijimy initially feared perpetuating stereotypes by accepting the role of Mary Sanderson. And yet, with a touch of Disney magic, sucking the lives of small children somehow comes together with Garry Marshall in a devil suit to create a much-beloved family film.

Related: Hocus Pocus and the Art of Kid Friendly Horror, Explained

Sarah Jessica Parker’s Ancestor Was Accused of Witchcraft in Salem

When Sarah Jessica Parker first donned her corset and serenaded Salem, she wasn’t aware of the spooky connection she shared with her Hocus Pocus character. During a 2010 appearance on the NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, the actress learned she is a tenth generation descendant of Esther Elwell, a woman accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Esther wasn’t found eating spiders or slow-dancing with Satan, but was accused of “sundry acts of witchcraft” by 17-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard. In November 1692, Elwell was taken to jail in Ipswich, MA, where she was to await her trial.

Fortunately, by the end of 1692, the mass hysteria of the witch trials was beginning to loosen its grip on Salem. Courts were no longer allowed to convict people based on “spectral evidence,” from dreams or visions. Elwell was released from jail and escaped being one of the innocents executed on accusation of witchcraft. While tracing through her family’s roots, Parker was relieved to discover her relative had survived the incident. Not to cast any doubt on Elwell’s innocence, but Parker did make a pretty convincing witch. The Sex and the City star even told Stephen Colbert (via ET) she was perfectly comfortable on a broomstick. Plus, she did eat that spider after all.

Related: Hocus Pocus Fans Can Vacation in the Sanderson Sisters’ Salem Cottage

You Can Visit Allison’s House in Salem

At the start of Hocus Pocus, Max Dennison is clearly the new kid in Salem. Spouting off about Halloween being invented by the candy companies is definitely not winning him any friends. In the film, Salem takes Halloween seriously — who wouldn’t want to go to that amazing party at the Town Hall? Turns out the depiction of Salem as a historic hub of witchcraft, whose modern-day residents are decidedly obsessed with Halloween, is perfectly accurate. Salem in real-life has embraced its infamous place in history, with countless witch-themed attractions and epic Halloween events all through October. The city’s tourism website even dedicates a page to Hocus Pocus filming locations you can visit.

Have you ever wanted to walk in the footsteps of Thackery Binx? Or take in the grandeur of Allison’s house? Many of the most memorable scenes in Hocus Pocus were filmed right in Salem. Prior to meeting his feline fate, Thackery steps out into the cold morning searching for his sister in a scene that was shot in Pioneer Village, Salem’s living history museum. Max and Dani share a brother-sister bonding moment out front of Allison’s house, shot at the Ropes Mansion, a prominent home in Salem. You can even snap a pic in front of Max and Dani’s house. Salem enjoys its connection to the film and asks just one thing from Hocus Pocus fans visiting town: don’t run amok!

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