Museums and the Movies: Hocus Pocus

After looking at the museum in Disney classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks I thought I’d continue this little theme and look at a museum that is at the heart of another well-loved film. So, I’ve decided to investigate the role of the museum in what the internet regards as one of the best films ever: Hocus Pocus.

Why does The Internet regard it as one of the best films ever? I’ll give you three reasons:

Actually, that alone would be enough to class it as The Best Film Ever, but wait – there’s more!

  • There’s a precocious child who get’s all the best lines and…
  • Thackery Binx, a human cursed to be a cat (long before Sabrina The Teenage Witch made that kind of thing cool).

That’s probably enough of that now. I’ll get to the museum-y bit, because there’s actually quite a lot to get through when you start to really look at it. Hocus Pocus is based around a fictional account of some witches who were hanged in Salem and part of the infamous Witch Trials and if you would like to find out more about it, you can visit the Salem Witch Museum. 

“Urgh, Rich People” says Thora Birch’s character Dani as she and her older brother approach the house of the latter’s romantic interest Alison. Alison provides some exposition regarding the witches and introduces us to the museum…

Alison: You mean the Sanderson sisters? I know all about them, my mom used to run the museum.”

Dani: There was a museum about them?

Alison: Yeah, but they had to shut it down because a lot of spooky things happened there.”

This exchange tells us so many things. The first, that museums are run by “urgh rich people” who (in this case at least) aren’t very good at running them. The second thing it tells us, is that children can get excited about the story a museum has to tell if it’s interesting and they can relate to it (at this point, Dani is dressed as a witch).

The kids, naturally, follow up this conversation by breaking in to the old museum, which just happens to be the Sanderson Sisters’ old house.

Now, what sort of museum has lighters in the gift shop?

Max reaching for a lighter in Hocus Pocus
Max reaching for a lighter in Hocus Pocus

No, really?

Anyway, this is what the museum looks like.

The Sanderson Sisters' House Museum
The Sanderson Sisters’ House Museum

In the glass case, you can see a book. According to Alison the expert, this is a spellbook gifted to Winifred Sanderson (Midler) by the Devil himself. For added creepiness, it was bound in human skin. A little bit like this book from Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh.

Another key item in the Sanderson Museum’s collection is the Black Flame Candle. This candle comes with a warning – If it is lit by a Virgin, the Sanderson sisters will rise again. Prompting uncomfortable conversations for parents everywhere as they explain what a virgin is.

I think you can guess what happened in the film.

“C’mon, it’s just a bunch of Hocus Pocus” – is it Max? Is it really?

Max lights the Black Flame Candle
Max lights the Black Flame Candle

See kids, this is what happens when you ignore the signs and the warnings. You unleash evil upon the world!

What happens next isn’t pretty for a museum professional to watch. Taking his cue from The Wizard of Oz, Max holds his lighter up to the sprinkler system hoping that that water will melt the evil witches.

It gets worse.

They also steal the book, which doesn’t get returned. By the end of the film, the museum has been soaked, one key item has been melted away and another has mysteriously “gone missing.” To be honest, when we get to this point, we’re too misty eyed from Thackery Binx’s story line to care much.

If we stop and think for a second, the whole film couldn’t have happened without this museum. If the people of Salem had disregarded their history then there wouldn’t have been a Black Flame Candle to burn. It was only by facing the town’s dark past that the heroes were able to make it safe for the future. It’s nice to see that instead of things coming alive, the historical figures that served as the focus were literally raised from the dead. Creepy, but an effective way to learn about personalities of the past (but please, don’t try it at home!).

I can’t help but think, however,  if Alison’s mum and the other ‘urgh rich people’ had made a better job of running the place it wouldn’t have been so easy to break in to…



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