Hear Me Out: The Sanderson Sisters Are Surprisingly Feminist Icons
I'm getting ready for Hocus Pocus 2, so let me make my argument, ok?
Spirit Halloween seems to open its doors earlier and earlier every year, popping up like orange harbingers of fall with huge vinyl signs and flashing window displays that draw me like a moth to a (black) flame. My six-year-old daughter, too, is completely invested in the ghoulish glory. While browsing costumes together one weekend — a couple months early, give or take — she gasped and grabbed a costume off the rack, holding it tightly to her chest.
“It’s … it’s … Winifred!” she cried. “Please please please, can I be a witch for Halloween?”
Sure enough, she was clutching a kiddie-sized version of Winnie Sanderson’s costume from Hocus Pocus with its trailing purple skirt and distinctive emerald cloak. The 1993 cult classic is my very favorite Halloween movie for so many reasons, not least of which is its relentless dedication to camp. But truly, the movie would be nothing without our trio of clever, anachronistic witches who give zero flying f’s about convention (or, well, morals).
When I first showed my daughter the movie — probably at too young an age — she wasn’t frightened at all. Rather, she was delighted. Afterwards, she immediately set to spell casting, chanting, “Twist the bones and bend the back…” with her fingers extended like claws. She wrapped herself up in blankets made to look like the witches’ swingy cloaks, coasting through the house on her Mellissa and Doug toy broom while practicing her most vicious cackles. And she’s not the only little one obsessed with witches. There’s a reason why it remains one of the most popular costumes among kids. Witches are just fun — a mix of creepy and daring, magical yet a little mischievous.
But what is it about the Sanderson witches in particular that makes them so wildly entertaining and captivating? Honestly, for all their evil impulses, I’ve come to the conclusion that they aren’t the worst feminist icons I could present to my daughter. Have I lost you? Let me make my case.
From the first lines spoken about them in the movie (“But look, they conjure!”), the Sanderson sisters are framed in mystique. The three of them live alone in a forest, self-sufficient except for their slightly troubling penchant for consuming the souls of children to prolong their lives. They are the farthest possible thing from maternal figures.
Sure, they’re intent on perpetuating their legacy — but they do it through incantation, through magic and theft, rather than through progeny.
Throughout the movie, they’re brash and flirtatious and determined — no passive femininity here. Most of all, they are confident in their powers, seldom second-guessing themselves, even when they should maybe exercise some caution. No wonder they never fit in with Salem’s Puritans. Interestingly, the moments where the sisters seem truly hurt (or pressed, as the kids would say) are when someone refers to them as “ugly” or “hags,” pointing out their lack of adherence to typical standards of beauty.
Their mission in the movie is defined by their boundless desire to live, which is something many of us can relate to, even if the means are repugnant. And the Sandersons do live, even when they’re transported 300 years into the future, in a landscape that makes little sense to them. They immediately express curiosity about modern conveniences like buses and television, exhibiting their flexibility and creativity every time they encounter something unfamiliar, like the time they take to the stage at a party, immediately capturing the attention of the adults through their virtuoso performance / incantation. The witches are both completely anachronistic and modern at the same time.
There’s such immense joy in watching the Sanderson sisters seize the world so fully, without worrying about consequences or others’ opinions. I admit I spend a lot of my own days worrying about what others will think, whether I’ve said something nicely enough or come off too strongly. How freeing it would be to, just once, let out my inner witch. To raise a bit of hell.
But it’s not all fun and games for our hexy trio. In fact, the whole movie is designed as an inside joke against them. We’re meant to laugh at their faux pas (mistaking a man in a costume for Satan, riding on vacuums when their brooms get stolen), but it’s not quite so clear-cut. While you’re not actively rooting for the witches, perhaps, many viewers can feel a certain sense of sympathy at the thought of being seen as passe, caught in a new world where you don’t belong. This betrayal of time becomes most evident when the sisters realize that All Hallow’s Eve is now a child-centric holiday of cavorting, rather than the serious moment of worship they’d been accustomed to. While Max represents cynicism in the movie, the Sanderson sisters are examples of blind faith. And there is something undeniably appealing about someone so determined to believe.
During the stage performance of “I Put a Spell on You,” Winnie sings, “Your wretched little lives have been cursed, because of all the witches working!” And truly, this is a movie that’s at least partially about sisterhood, if a little convoluted. For all their sniping, the sisters are never far from each other. They operate as a single unit, with a sense of unparalleled loyalty. And they are most powerful together. To them, men are accessories — enjoyable, but not essential. They are a fully sufficient unit unto themselves, which is enough to scare the pants off the patriarchy. In the final scene, we see the sisters’ loyalty come through, when Winnie is in peril and Sarah and Mary race to her side. Sarah’s last words, in fact, are, “Winnie, goodbye!”
The Sandersons aren’t the only witches peppered throughout the movie. Dani, Max’s little sister, is dressed up as a witch herself. And at one point, a trio of little witches (dressed as the Sandersons, of course), steal the sisters’ brooms and whoosh off on them. Haven’t we all wanted to be one of those witches ourselves? Even Allison shows undue fascination towards the book of spells, earning grudging admiration from Winnie as a “clever little white witch.”
Though with the upcoming release of Hocus Pocus 2, we know the Sandersons aren’t gone for good, the moment when the witches explode into clouds of sparkly dust has its own sense of tragedy. The witches are saying goodbye to their insatiable love of life, their beloved objects, and to each other. End of a witchy era.
This fall, though I won’t actively be pointing out all the feminist teaching moments in Hocus Pocus for my kiddo, I’ll think of them as I rewatch the movie for the 20-somethingth time. Because in my heart of hearts, I really wish I could be a witch too. Even if we all can’t fly across the moon ourselves, or cast retributive spells, we can steal some of that exuberant joy and dauntless confidence for ourselves.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins. Follow her on Instagram and sign up for her newsletter.