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It’s Just a Bunch of Hocus Pocus

The queer love for all things Halloween

Anna Stezia, Akasha L. Van-Cartier, and Dixie Surewood as the Sanderson Sisters from 'Hocus Pocus'. Photo by Chad Isaiah.

Thirty years ago, Disney released a little film called “Hocus Pocus”.  In the film, legendary actresses Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker play the Sanderson Sisters, three witches obsessed with sucking the life force of children so they can stay young and alive as long as possible. When first released, the film did not do well but in the years that have passed since, it has found quite an audience and become a cult classic. There are many reasons why people love this movie. First of all, the cast is STACKED. Also, the film is just an all-around fun romp for all ages. And who can resist the charm of Bette Midler delivering a top-notch performance of “I Put A Spell On You”? Not many in general and especially not many queers.

For me personally, I see it as more than just a film. I see Hocus Pocus as a sort of metaphor for why queer people absolutely LIVE for Halloween as a holiday. You may be hoping I stretched enough for this extreme reach I’m going for, but give me some of your time and I will explain.

Photos by Chad Isaiah.

Many of the traditions currently associated with Halloween stem back to the ancient Celtic New Year’s festival of Samhain. The festival celebrated the end of summer and the harvest season. There was also a belief among the Celts that there was only a thin divide between the living and the dead during this time of year and if a soul did not get a chance to say a proper goodbye or had unfinished business, Samhain was the time these spirits could return to take care of what they needed to. These visits, so to speak, were expected and to hide from visits from unwanted spirits, people used to hide their faces with ashes at first and then later masks. Delicious foods were laid out by the living to entice the spirits of their loved ones to drop by.

Years later though, as Christianity started to take hold in much of the world, Samhain was demonized along with many other Pagan institutions and traditions. November 1st was deemed All Hallows’ Day –otherwise known as All Saints’ Day — and October 31st became All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween. So basically, the Celts were minding their business and having a nice time celebrating, and living their best lives, when the church came along and ruined it. Now that sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?

Akasha L. Van-Cartier as Winifred Sanderson. Photo by Chad Isaiah.

“The dressing up factor of Halloween gives you the sense that you can be whatever you want to be.” – Akasha L. Van-Cartier

At the beginning of Hocus Pocus, the Sanderson Sisters were living their best lives.

They had captured a child and were successfully able to feed off that child’s life force, which actually made them younger. With this new vigor, they were ready to take on the world. Yes, they killed a child but they were being true to themselves and expressing themselves authentically. As you can probably guess, things took a turn for the worse for them. They were captured and killed for their crime, but before they were slain, Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler) cast a spell that could eventually bring the trio back to live the lives they were meant to carry out.

300 years later, that spell actually comes to fruition and the Sanderson Sisters return to Salem, Massachusetts on Halloween. Because it’s Halloween, the entire city is dressed up for the festivities and that is why the Sanderson Sisters are able to hide in plain sight and have a night of merriment, music, mayhem, and multiple murders! (Well, murder attempts. It is a Disney film after all, but I just couldn’t pass up an alliteration opportunity.) If you ignore the juvenile homicide for shallow personal gain in the film’s early moments, you can actually find inspiration in this series of events.

Anna Stezia as Sarah Sanderson. Photo by Chad Isaiah.

“I was a very shy kid so the costume became a suit of armor for me in a way.” – Anna Steezia

Pittsburgh drag queen Dixie Surewood certainly found some inspiration from the film and produced a Hocus Pocus-themed drag brunch at 5801 last year and will repeat the event this year. The brunch featured Akasha L. Van Cartier as Winifred Sanderson, Surewood as Mary Sanderson (Najimy), and Anna Steezia as Sarah Sanderson (Parker). The brunch sold out on multiple dates both this year and last and has become a new Pittsburgh tradition. It was very likely that these queens would have a particular affinity for this film and Halloween so I spoke with them about that subject. I noticed a particular theme in their responses about what they loved about Halloween:

“Halloween is the one time of year that you can dress up and be any character or fantasy that you’ve always wanted to be,” said Anna Steezia. “One year, I really wanted to be Dracula. Sometimes, I think what I wanted to be had to do with the costume. That year, I wanted to wear a cape like nobody’s business and when the time came to put it on, it was just pure excitement. I was a very shy kid so the costume became a suit of armor for me in a way. I could come out of my shell by putting something on. Drag is kinda still that for me. And Halloween is actually the first time I ever did drag.” 

Dixie Surewood as Mary Sanderson. Photo by Chad Isaiah.

“I don’t understand why it needs to end the next day… If society is going to accept everyone for one night, what’s really the issue?” – Dixie Surewood

“The dressing up factor of Halloween gives you the idea that you can be whatever you want to be. It’s the same idea in the ballroom scene, for example. That’s how categories like ‘Executive Realness’ came about. People of color were not typically seen as executives but we could take that opportunity to look like one and then feel like one. That’s the gag of it all,” Akasha L. Van-Cartier says. “That’s why I do drag. It gives me the opportunity to be everything from an older mother/maiden type to a thicker Cardi B type. I’ve even done Shrek drag.” 

“I think queers gravitate towards Halloween because you can wear whatever you want and blend in and be accepted. I don’t understand why it needs to end the next day though. If society is going to accept everyone for one night, what’s really the issue,” Dixie Surewood told me.

The issue is that as much as society likes to pretend that differences are celebrated, the truth is being different is widely seen as not good. When we were growing up, many of us did not have a concept of what it meant to be queer but we did know that we were different and that made a lot of us not feel safe. In both our friend groups and our families we could’ve been ostracized simply for wearing, speaking, thinking, feeling or being anything unlike everybody else. Individuality was not truly encouraged. But there was always that one night in October when, for a few hours, you could not only wear something different but you could actually BE something different. And that something different could possibly be an expression of who you actually were on the inside. And it was safe to do so because mostly everyone else was doing it too! Plus, you got rewarded with candy for it! Those sorts of moments can stick with a person and grow fonder with time. The absolute freedom that Halloween covertly offered queer children planted a seed in our souls that grew to become our obsession with everything October 31st.

Photo and art composition by Chad Isaiah.

Once the Sanderson Sisters realized that they could blend into their surroundings because of Halloween festivities, they were absolutely unabashed in pursuing exactly what they wanted. Once many of us queer kids realized that we could express our authentic selves, even just a little bit, and blend into our surroundings on Halloween, we also ran with it. And we’re still running with it! For some, Hocus Pocus is just a silly film. For others, it’s a yearly tradition. For some, Halloween is just a holiday. For in the LGBTQ+ community, Halloween was and is a gateway to authentic expressions of self. If that resonates with you, I hope you get to celebrate accordingly this year and for many years to come! Happy Halloween!

Jason Shavers is a born and raised Pittsburgh native. He is an actor that has worked extensively on stage and not so extensively on screen. Jason is also a self proclaimed expert on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Musical Theater and sitcoms that feature 4 women leads. Yeah, he’s gay AF. Follow him on Instagram. (He / Him / His)