“For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
We live in a day when two competing trends are holding sway in our storytelling. The first is the fact that we love stories with happy endings. We want heroes to win and bad guys to lose. The second trend is our belief that there really aren’t any bad guys. In order to prove this, as we have made stories about all the heroes, film studios hoping to make some more money have started taking characters who were villains and attempting to rehabilitate them by having them star in stories as the sort of good guys. A recent and highly anticipated film on Disney+ not only puts these trends on display, but also reveals how silly this trend is. Let’s talk today about Hocus Pocus 2 and Disney’s loss of any kind of a meaningful moral vision.
The original Hocus Pocus movie came out when I was almost ten. I don’t remember when I first saw it, but I remember enjoying it. I probably watched it five or six times over the years. As obviously evil as they were, the Sanderson Sisters, wonderfully played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, were the highlight of the film. But in the end, as much comic relief as the trio provide, they are rightly defeated as the villains everyone knows they are. Although the movie makes fun of the Sanderson Sisters, and although their constant comic antics are somewhat endearing, there is never any question they are evil.
The movie was fun. It never took itself very seriously which is what allowed the audience to enjoy it so much. It became over time, not a classic because of any critical acclaim, but a definite cult classic wrapped in a robe of nostalgia. As a result, in our generation that worships Nostalgia as one of the chief gods of our modern pantheon, when Disney announced a few months ago that a sequel was in the works, the news was greeted with much excitement. It released last Friday to much fanfare. Disney announced it as the largest direct-to-Disney+ release ever. Its numbers suggest it may have even done well in theaters, which isn’t bad considering the originally was critically panned and commercially unsuccessful.
In the sequel, the Sanderson Sisters are resurrected yet again when a man, who as a boy thirty years ago, saw them fly over on their broomsticks and has been obsessed with bringing them back again ever since, tricks a couple of teenage girls (one of whom discovers she is actually a witch as well, but a good one, because it’s not culturally popular anymore to portray witchcraft as something only practiced by the bad guys) into doing just that. As for the rest of the plot, it’s really just a placeholder to let the original trio of leading ladies be funny. And they are. There’s no doubt about that. Bette Midler, at nearly 80, still has it.
But in this offering to Nostalgia, as is always the case, everything is just not quite as good as it was before. It’s not quite as funny. The plot has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. The acting is more over the top from everyone but the three teenagers whose seriousness throughout doesn’t fit the rest of the film. Of course, to portray the three girls as anything but noble and good would have attracted the ire of the very woke critics whose opinion Disney values so highly. It was not lost on me as my wife and I excitedly watched with our three boys in the room that there was not a single male character in the movie who was not portrayed as a clueless idiot. That’s par for the course for Disney nowadays. And we wonder why there is a crisis of masculinity and men failing by the thousands in our culture.
But the biggest problem for me came at the end. In the original film, the goal of the trio of vain witches was to provide themselves eternal youth and beauty by sucking out the souls of innocent children. Doing that in the past is what got them convicted and burned at the stake. This time, although they make several uncomfortable jokes about eating children, they’ve set their sights higher. Winifred is seeking to cast a spell that will make her the most powerful witch in the world so she can kill all the citizens of Salem in revenge for the town’s rejecting them and trying to make them conform to their ridiculous and hypocritical Christian values instead of accepting them as the evil witches they wanted to be when they were growing up.
By the end of the film, she manages to cast the spell. But she does so without reading the warning labels. The person who casts the spell will enact it at the expense of the thing they value most. In this case, while her own vanity has been the driving force of pretty much everything she’s done, we discover that the thing she really values most is her sisters…you know, the sisters she spent the entirety of the first movie and the whole of this one mocking and belittling and abusing and treating as if they were mere idiotic hurdles to her accomplishing her personal mission. With the spell cast, Winifred’s sisters gradually, peacefully fade away into magical dust as they go…somewhere.
Realizing they are gone, Winifred is stopped in her tracks as she reflects on just how much they meant to her and how no witch is anything without her coven. Then, in a moment of pity, the girl whose naive and foolish dabblings in witchcraft is what brought them back again in the first place, casts one last spell to bring her peace. Instead of bringing the sisters back, though, the spell sends Winifred to join them wherever they have gone. In the end, then, everyone lives happily ever after whether in this life or some peaceful place beyond it.
Just to get this straight, these evil witches who were rotten to the core in terms of their character, who had murdered who knows how many children in their attempt to preserve their youth and beauty for all eternity, and who had planned to murder all the citizens of Salem with their newfound power, suddenly became sympathetic characters who were rewarded with a peaceful send off to some place beyond this life. Exactly where this other place is, we are left to determine on our own. Really? There’s no sense of loss in that they never paid any price for their crimes. I mean, yes, they were originally burned at the stake when they died the first time, but there was no repentance or even remorse on their part. The first time they came back, they picked up right where they had left off. This time they planned to murder even more innocent people. And for all of this they got a peaceful send off to some apparently blissful spirit world.
Our culture – at least as Disney, one of the preeminent culture-creators in the world right now, envisions it – has apparently lost entirely the ability to recognize anything as ultimately or objectively evil. Relativism has won the day and we are expected to believe that whatever someone feels in their heart they most want to do (which, apparently, includes killing and eating children) is really okay and we shouldn’t judge them for it. I mean, sure, that level of an exercise in self-autonomy starts to cross the line in terms of impacting the lives of other people, but they aren’t bad people. They are wounded. It’s really probably the fault of the rest of us for rejecting them in the first place and pushing them to become the monsters we perceive them to be. The truth is that there aren’t actually any monsters. There are only misunderstood souls who deserve the same peace and rest as the rest of us.
And in the context of a single story, this can all easily be made to seem like a noble and good way of looking at the world. But in the real world, it’s all absolute hogwash. It’s worse than that, in fact. This kind of moral sludge should leave any clear-thinking person sickened to the point of distraction. In the real world there is real evil. Evil like this should not be tolerated. It should not be given space to find itself and explore its desires free of judgment and restraint. It should be stopped and removed. This doesn’t mean reducing anyone’s humanity. It means honoring it by taking seriously the decisions someone makes and holding them accountable for the consequences of those decisions. Of course, in a world that has lost any sense of an objective moral standard to which anyone can be held, we can’t really do this in a meaningful way. And that’s the problem.
Hocus Pocus 2 is merely a symptom of this much larger disease that is slowly sowing the seeds of our culture’s destruction. As a movie it was fun, although not particularly good. As a symbol of where our culture has gotten, though, it is entirely more sinister than that. Paul told Timothy days like this would come. We want what we want. We don’t want to be told we can’t have what we want. If we can’t find it in one place, we’ll gladly seek out teachers who will tell us what we want to hear. Disney is one of the chief of those teachers today and people are looking to them by the millions to describe the world they want rather than the world that is. A bit of escapism every now and then isn’t a bad thing, but getting lost in a fantasy world doesn’t do us any favors. That world is devoid of real justice and love and grace. There’s no meaningful hope to it. The truth is that the Gospel is better. It is honest about the world as it is, but hopeful in pointing us to the world God will one day give us to enjoy. Enjoy movies like Hocus Pocus 2, but don’t lose sight of what’s true while you do. The truth will always be better than any fiction.