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What Fans Probably Didn't Know About Hocus Pocus

It's been more than 29 years since Bette Midler cast a spell on audiences as Winifred Sanderson in "Hocus Pocus," and fans have been speculating about a potential sequel ever since, like the Sanderson sisters waiting for a virgin to light the Black Flamed Candle. In 2019, the House of Mouse made it official, announcing that not only will a second "Pocus" movie finally be conjured, but that it will return the original core trio of Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy to resurrect their iconic witchy roles.

Although "Hocus Pocus" has grown into one of the most beloved non-horror Halloween movies of all time, there's probably a lot about it that even the most passionate "Pocus" fans don't know. Over the years, more and more behind the scenes tidbits have leaked out from the film's cast and crew, including rumored actors that nearly played major roles, quirky truths about the film's set, and possibly one of the most bizarre pieces of stunt work an actor has ever had to endure.

With the highly anticipated "Hocus Pocus 2" hitting Disney+, let's revisit the magic of the movie that started it all. Here are some spellbinding facts fans might not know about the classic Halloween flick.

Young DiCaprio said no

Although today he's one of the top actors in all Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio was young and unproven in the early 1990's. His first official movie credit came via "Critters 3" in 1991, and he starred alongside Robert De Niro in his next feature film, 1993's "This Boy's Life." According to him, the actor then had to make a difficult choice as to which film he wanted to appear in next.

In a 2014 interview with Variety, DiCaprio recalled being offered "more money than [he] ever dreamed of" to star in "Hocus Pocus." Instead of accepting, however, he opted to hold out for a role in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," a movie he hadn't even auditioned for yet. "I don't know where the hell I got the nerve," the Oscar winner admitted. "But if there's one thing I'm very proud of, it's being a young man who was sticking to my guns."

Kenny Ortega, who directed the movie, revealed to Entertainment Weekly (via ET) that DiCaprio had auditioned for the part of Max Dennison, which eventually went to "Dallas" actor Omri Katz. While Katz gave a fine performance as the film's leading man, you have to wonder just how different "Hocus Pocus" would have looked with a future A-lister like DiCaprio in the role.

The costume department had to get creative

Eagle-eyed fans on Reddit have noticed that in the Halloween party scene of "Hocus Pocus," there's someone in the background wearing what appears to be an outfit from 1982's "Tron." As it turns out, that man's costume is more authentic than you might realize.

When speaking to Glamour, Mary Vogt, the costume designer for "Hocus Pocus," admitted that she spent almost all the wardrobe budget creating the iconic looks of the Sanderson sisters and the zombified Billy Butcherson. This made for a particularly sticky situation when the script called for the Dennisons to attend a crowded Halloween party toward the end of the film and Vogt "had completely run out of money."

So what did she do? Well, she took advantage of the fact that she was working on a Disney movie, raiding the Walt Disney costume department and selecting outfits from a slew of old Disney movies. 

"I think that if you paid $5,000, you could have whatever you want," the Emmy-nominated costume designer recalled. "So I went through there and took everything that looked like a costume." No wonder so many of those Halloween outfits look so impressively genuine.

Moth got your tongue?

There's a scene in "Hocus Pocus" when the zombified Billy Butcherson finally catches up to Max and the gang — but then, in a plot twist, sides with the children against his ex-lover(s). You might recall that during this scene, Billy cuts open his sewn-up mouth and several moths fly out. Being that this was the '90s, the stunt was performed without the assistance of CGI. But you have to imagine that Doug Jones, the veteran physical maestro who brought Butcherson to life, wishes there was.

In an interview with Bloody Disgusting, Tony Gardner, the makeup FX master behind the magic of "Hocus Pocus," shared some photos and facts about the film's behind the scenes happenings, including that Jones actually had real moths in his mouth during that scene. Gardner explained that his team attached a latex pocket between the actor's upper and lower dentures, completely blocking his throat ... and then came the moths. "An animal wrangler would place several moths in the pocket with tweezers, under the supervision of a representative from the Humane Society."

Jones himself vividly recalls the experience, telling E! News that he could feel the moths fluttering around inside his mouth. Making matters worse, a light burst on set while filming the first attempt, so Jones had to redo the entire process again. In retrospect, Jones probably deserves an Academy Award for enduring such a disgusting act twice.

A peculiar rumor about this star's contract

There's a joke attributed to Jimmy Kimmel about a strict personal policy that he has: "I will not and do not publicize unsubstantiated rumors about anyone ... unless they're very funny." This must have been the mindset that Doug Jones had when he publicly shared a pretty wild rumor that had been going around the "Hocus Pocus" water cooler about his legendary costar, Bette Midler.

"I heard rumor that she [Midler] had written into her contract that there had to be an isolated shot of her feet walking somewhere in the film," the "Shape of Water" actor disclosed to E! News in 2020. While anonymous rumors are obviously not a solid source of information, there are actually two very suspicious shots of Midler's feet during the Halloween party scene that certainly lend fuel to the fire — one when she enters the room, and another when she's walking across the stage.

While it could simply be a coincidence, Jones isn't buying. "Why would they even bother to put that clip in there?" he questioned. "I think it was contractual."

Hocus Pocus flopped in theaters

Let's face it: sometimes it takes a good movie several years to become fully appreciated. There's a plethora of solid films that bombed at the box office because they were arguably ahead of their time, including cult classics like "Labyrinth," "Heathers" and, of course, "Blade Runner," which famously only took home $26 million on a reported budget of $28 million, but is now recognized as one of the best sci-fi flicks of all time. "Hocus Pocus" achieved a similar type of delayed appreciation.

When speaking to Forbes in 2020, director Kenny Ortega opened up about how poorly the film did at the box office, only grossing $39.5 million. "Honestly, at that point, I thought it was all over for me," he admitted. However, history had other plans for the director and his little film that could. Despite its dismal start, "Hocus Pocus" slowly but surely landed with its intended audience, evolving into something truly special. 

Looking back, Ortega is grateful for the example the movie set in his life. "What I've learned is don't give up. I believed in 'Hocus Pocus' ... and even though it wasn't found by audiences immediately, the generations have believed in it."

Kathy Najimy was Bette's biggest fan

They say don't meet your heroes, but Kathy Najimy would beg to differ. Before she landed the role of Mary Sanderson (the part that was reportedly offered to Rosie O'Donnell), Najimy was already familiar with her on-screen sister, Bette Midler. However, the two had never actually met. 

During a 2019 interview with Metro Weekly, the "Veep" actress explained that she had been a "crazy sycophant fan" of Midler's growing up, so getting cast to play her sister in "Hocus Pocus" was "really a full fate turnaround." 

Najimy admitted that not only did she have all of Midler's posters and records growing up, but she also tried to sneak backstage at her concerts several times. Najimy has a crazy story about one such occasion, wherein she posed as a worker for a singing telegram company and sang Midler a song while wearing a bunny suit.

When asked whether or not she ever told Midler that she was the bunny suit singer from her past, Najimy confirmed that she did come clean, but that it probably took Midler a while to come to terms with it. "I think it was just a very slow sort of like, 'Oh God, I'm making a movie with a crazy person,' into very good castmates and friends."

For SJP, witchcraft is in the DNA

While "Hocus Pocus" is obviously a fictional tale, the roots of witchcraft in early America are anything but. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 are some of the most fascinating events in American history, albeit a grisly example of how intense paranoia can lead to mass chaos. Over the course of seven months, more than 200 people in the Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts were accused of witchcraft, ultimately resulting in twenty innocent people being murdered.

One such person accused of witchcraft was named Esther Dutch Elwell, who, as fate would have it, is actually the tenth-great grandmother to actress Sarah Jessica Parker, the ditzy witch Sarah Sanderson in "Hocus Pocus." The "Sex and the City" star learned of this stunning relation in 2010, while appearing on the American version of the British TV series "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Fortunately for Elwell, the trial court for witchcraft was dissolved a few weeks before her hearing, so she was freed and able to live a full life. Still, the fact that one of her distant relatives would eventually play a witch from roughly that same time period is a rather fortuitous coincidence.

Salem had too much Holiday spirit

Although "Hocus Pocus" is clearly a movie intended for the Halloween season, it actually hit theaters in July (which was perhaps a contributor to its poor box office). This means that filming for the movie actually took place around Christmastime, which, as you can imagine, made things a little tricky.

While some of "Hocus Pocus" was filmed on studios in California, production did actually take place in Salem, Massachusetts for authenticity. When speaking to E! News in 2020, actors Tobias Jelinek and Larry Bagby (Max's teenage bullies, Jay and Ice) recalled that when the crew traveled to Salem, people were starting to put up their Christmas ornaments. 

While holiday cheer is great, this was for the wrong holiday. Thus, action had to be taken, so the filmmakers got out their checkbooks and began approaching the locals.

"They were having to pay them out, block by block, to take down all their decorations so we could get all the Halloween stuff," Jelinek explained. It ultimately worked out, though. "The autumn vibe was there."

Does that fountain look familiar?

One of the scenes shot in LA is the one in which Max, Dani (Thora Birch), and Allison (Vinessa Shaw) celebrate having just bested the witches by dancing around in a park outside the school. Although there's nothing particularly special about this short scene, vigilant internet sleuths have discovered an unexpected cameo in the background.

As it turns out, this scene was filmed at the old Warner Bros. ranch in Burbank, the exact same location where the iconic intro for "Friends" was shot. You can clearly see the fountain that Joey, Rachel and the gang play around in behind Dani as she prances in the park. As far as inanimate object cameos go, this one's pretty interesting.

Originally a bedtime story

As entertaining as "Hocus Pocus" is, the journey of the screenplay behind the movie is arguably even more interesting. At the 2018 Midsummer Scream, an annual convention for all things horror, some of the cast and crew members from Disney's fan-favorite Halloween flick reunited for the 25th anniversary of the film's release. One of the members on the panel was David Kirschner, the man credited with creating the story.

When asked how he came up with the idea, Kirschner explained that it started as a bedtime story he would tell to his daughters. He eventually wrote it as a short story and it got published in Muppet Magazine. Then, in 1986, the story was transformed into a screenplay, where it would sit in limbo for eight years. When Kirschner finally did sell the story to Disney, he reportedly brought in loads of Halloween decorations, including a giant bag chock full of candy corn so that the executives "smelled their childhood" while he gave his pitch. Talk about a sweet deal.

Several cats played Binx

There's more than one way to skin a cat, but in the case of "Hocus Pocus," there were more than one cat to play a role. The feline in question is, of course, Thackery Binx, a young boy from the late 1600's who was cursed by Winifred Sanderson to live forever in the form of a black cat. Binx is one of the high points of the movie, periodically cracking jokes at Max's expense while watching over Dani as though she was his own sister.

According to Humane Hollywood, there were several different cats that played Binx throughout the movie, and the handlers chose which cat would appear in which scene based on their skills and personalities. American Humane was present throughout production, ensuring that no animals were harmed during filming. It's truly impressive what the crew was able to accomplish with animal actors in a time before CGI had become prevalent in Hollywood productions.