Connected \\ October 29, 2021

“Hocus Pocus” returns to Salem and to PEM’s historic Ropes Mansion

Until this week, I had never seen the movie Hocus Pocus. There, I admit it. I don’t have a good reason as I love the Halloween season. My brother shares a birthday with the holiday, and I was born in Salem on Friday, October 13. But somehow I never embraced or understood the worldwide cult-like fascination with the 1993 film, one that continues to grow to this day. The seemingly obvious appeal of Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler dressed as 17th-century witches means that some people feel personally offended when they discover you have never seen the Disney classic.

But this year, fans have even more incentive to take a trip to Salem. Starting Thursday, October 27, and continuing through Halloween, the exterior of PEM’s historic Ropes Mansion will be decorated similar to how it appeared as “Allison’s” house nearly 30 years ago on screen.

Ropes Mansion decorated

Photo by Diana DiRamio/PEM.

Movie watchers may recall the brief scene of Max and his sister Dani sitting on hay bales in front of the house before joining Allison’s Halloween party inside. Today, nearly 30 pumpkins, eight corn stocks and over three dozen bales of hay adorn the exterior of PEM’s 1727 Colonial Revival home on Essex Street. At night, the dozen windows glow with amber lights and flickering candles. “I didn’t want to totally copy Allison’s house from the movie,” says Henry Rutkowski, PEM’s master electrician. As for the seasonal decorations, corn stocks were hard to come by this year.

A member of PEM’s education team hunts for pumpkins at Marini Farm in Ipswich. Side by side with Image: behind the scenes of edu team decorating house

Danielle Olsen, of PEM’s education team, hunts for pumpkins at Marini Farm in Ipswich. Photo by Diana DiRamio/PEM.

Behond the scenes team decorating Ropes Mansion

Photo by Diana DiRamio/PEM.

As for the Hollywood blockbuster, it has everything you picture when you hear the words “Salem, Massachusetts'' and “witches.” Broomsticks, black cauldrons, a spellbook, a black cat. But the movie fell flat for me, and that’s a controversial statement to say when you work in the Witch City (and alongside many movie buffs). Recognizable shots of the Salem Common, Old Town Hall and Pioneer Village made me smile and feel a sense of pride to grow up near such a historically rich city. But part of me couldn’t get past the Sanderson sisters’ frequent uttering of “I smell children” and campy script.

None of this deters fans from coming to Salem in droves every year. “It’s funny how Hocus Pocus was a flop in theaters and now it’s a cultural phenomenon,” says Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem. “As the film’s popularity has grown, so has the popularity of its stars, including Salem.” The Hocus Pocus landing pages on and are consistently in the top five of the most visited pages on each city site, she adds.

This is the first time the Ropes Mansion has been decorated in such a way since film crews descended upon Salem in the fall of 1992, says PEM curator Paula Richter, who lived in the mansion at the time as a curatorial staff resident. “It was a big deal to get the house set up and secure for filming,” she recalls. “It was one very long day and evening of filming. It was practically dawn by the time they were done.”

Curator Paula Richter remembers asking a police officer on site during filming to snap her photo outside the Halloween-decorated mansion.

Curator Paula Richter remembers asking a police officer on site during filming to snap her photo.

While the interior scene of Allison’s Halloween party was shot in a film studio, Richter says there were still a couple dozen movie extras in the front parlor who appeared as shadowy figures in the windows from the street view of the scene.

It’s hard to walk anywhere downtown without spotting tourists in graphic tees with references to the film like the words “Fourth Sanderson Sister'' or “I put a spell on you,” spelled out in loopy cursive letters. A free screening of the movie took place on Salem Common the week before Halloween. And the movie’s long-awaited sequel is currently being filmed in Rhode Island, with a 2022 release date. “It will be interesting to see if it’s able to cast a spell equal to the original film,” Fox adds.

The family friendly quality of the film also makes it stand out over time, says Jonathan Kieran, head of film curation and programming at Cinema Salem. The fact that it’s based in Salem also helps. “It paints the city as a place with this macabre quirky history, full of off-kilter but not quite malevolent characters,” he adds.

A copy of the 1993 Walt Disney Company Hocus Pocus poster found its way into PEM’s Salem Stories exhibition, fittingly under the letter “O is for October.” The museum’s Phillips Library acquired the piece while working on the exhibition, given the significance of Salem and its unique haunted happenings, Richter explains. “It gives people a visual and seasonal connection to Salem as a place,” she says.

The 1993 double sided Hocus Pocus Disney movie poster on view. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

The 1993 double sided Hocus Pocus Disney movie poster on view. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

As she does with many of the exhibitions she’s involved with at PEM, Richter always finds a way of going deeper and providing context to see art in a whole new way. “The film has become an integral part of people’s childhoods, holiday memories and how they experienced Halloween,” she says.

A 95-minute fantasy film may not be the most traditional form of “art,” but I appreciate how fans hold onto this nostalgia. Bigger forces are at play here and I’m seeing now that the movie is more than just a bunch of hocus pocus.

Visit the Ropes Mansion at 318 Essex Street and take your photo outside the historic home from Thursday, October 27, through Halloween.

Photos by Diana DiRamio/PEM.

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