I was a pretty lonely kid. I’ve loved Halloween my entire life, but I don’t have any memories of going trick-or-treating with my friends. My only clear childhood Halloween memory is walking alone with my dad, holding my trick-or-treat bag as he asked me if I wanted to keep walking around or just go home. Staring at rows of houses on an empty street and feeling impossibly sad, I sighed and told him we could just go home.
My Halloweens didn’t look anything like the Halloweens I saw on TV: giggling children running up and down busy sidewalks as costumed adults handed out delicious candy from elaborately decorated houses. I always wanted them to, though, so I gobbled up these fictional depictions like so many Skittles. I watched every sitcom and every cartoon I could that had even a hint of Halloween in it, holding on as tightly as I could to these vicarious holiday celebrations.
What I never watched, however, were what I consider the Disney Halloween alpha and omega: Hocus Pocus and The Nightmare Before Christmas. I don’t even remember being aware of them until I was an adult and I heard other people my age reminiscing about what a great experience it was watching those movies as a kid. I felt left out once more: not only had all these people lived the Halloweens I wanted to live (or so I thought), they also spoke a Halloween language that I couldn’t understand.
I was too embarrassed to admit that my Halloweens didn’t look like theirs, so I pretended to speak their language. I smiled and nodded at every Pumpkin King or Oogie Boogie reference. I laughed and acted as if I knew exactly why “Amok amok amok!” was so funny. The longer it went on, the more reluctant I was to finally sit down and watch these movies. What if people found out I was watching them for the first time and judged me for my laundry list of perceived failings? Would I love these Halloween classics as much as an adult as I would have at nine years old? What if I had simply missed out on the magic?
When I was in my 30s, I decided it was time to answer these questions and finally watch Hocus Pocus and The Nightmare Before Christmas. I could no longer smile and nod and feign knowledge of Binx and Sally. I was nervous, of course, but to my relief and delight, I hadn’t missed out on any magic. Both films surpassed my expectations in very different ways. I was sad to discover that I would have adored these movies growing up and likely would have found fulfillment in them that I sorely needed as a lonely kid, but this sadness was mixed with joy at finding new ways to experience — even if only for a few hours — the Halloween I always wanted.
Hocus Pocus is a campy, clever delight that embodies the platonic ideal of a childhood Halloween. The residents of Salem respect Halloween and its history. They take the holiday seriously but they don’t take themselves seriously at all: they have way more fun than anyone else while respecting the very real consequences of interfering with supernatural forces. Houses and yards overflow with decorations; museums hold artifacts of witchcraft and warn of breaking supernatural rules; children wear impressive, colorful costumes; and even the adults have the time of their lives, attending the coolest town hall party in the history of town halls. This is a place where Halloween matters, and for the 96 minutes that I’m watching the movie, I feel like I’m a part of a community that values the holiday as much as I do.
Hocus Pocus is delightfully morbid: the Sanderson Sisters are hanged and burned alive, and Winifred’s Book is a gift from Satan himself that’s bound in human skin. Those are some pretty hardcore horror elements for a kids’ movie, and I admire the movie’s willingness to Go There. The movie never loses sight of its goofy fun for a second, though, and every time I watch it I’m magically transported to a childhood Halloween I never had. Cursed zombies, musical interludes from queer icons, mountains of candy, autumn ambiance galore, and kids having spooky adventures…Hocus Pocus is silly, scary, and full of life, and it represents the joyful Halloween that I wished for from the depths of my tiny, spooky soul.
While Hocus Pocus is the Halloween of my dreams — the one I always imagined other people were having without me — The Nightmare Before Christmas is closer to my own reality. Cold, lonely, and slightly out of touch with the rest of the world, the stop-motion residents of Halloween Town are ironically far more relatable to me than the flesh-and-blood characters of Hocus Pocus. The witches, vampires, and clowns with tear-away faces in Jack Skellington’s orbit don’t really understand people who don’t live and breathe Halloween…rather than devoting themselves to the holiday just on October 31, like the fictional Salem from Hocus Pocus, Halloween Town recognizes that every day of the year is either Halloween or a day leading up to Halloween.
If Hocus Pocus goes there with its macabre details, then The Nightmare Before Christmas lives there. Every conceivable monster, beastie, and ghoul populates this gorgeous world that’s essentially a German Expressionist playground. Heads found in lakes, sarcophagi, grotesque children on leashes, and countless other spooky elements make this film a feast for baby goths. Songs about kidnapping and torturing Santa Claus vindicate those of us who resent the encroachment of Christmas upon our beloved holiday and satisfy our desire for a little morbid humor. Still, there’s an inescapable sadness to the film that echoes my annual yearning for a satisfying Halloween that never arrives.
I realize that this essay may come across as self-pitying or overly indulgent as if I think I’m the only person who’s ever been lonely or whoever had a childhood that didn’t live up to their hopes and expectations. Don’t worry: I know now that I’m not special. That’s one of the worst things about being a sad and lonely kid, though…you think you’re alone in your emotions. You don’t realize at the time how many other people out there are sad and lonely too. If I had seen Jack and Sally struggle with ennui and an emptiness inside that they thought they would never fill, maybe I would have realized that everyone struggles with these things. Maybe our shared loneliness would have helped mine dissipate a bit.
That’s the gift and the curse of hindsight. You don’t learn things you desperately need to know in childhood until those days are long behind you. You don’t realize that other people are struggling with the same problems that plague you day and night. Even though it’s tempting to believe that you’re unique, there’s great comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. The enduring popularity of these movies proves that they strike a chord with kids and adults alike, that many more people relate to these feelings than I realized.
Maybe nobody ever had that idyllic childhood Halloween that I always imagined people were having without me. Maybe they did but they still felt that gnawing loneliness that’s been my constant shadow throughout life. The truth probably lies somewhere in between the festive, aspirational joy of Hocus Pocus and the cold, eerie gloom of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Both films capture what makes Halloween such an important part of my life, and while I may regret that they weren’t a part of my childhood, I can always visit them to feel that wondrous sense of belonging that I can’t quite reach outside of a cinema or television screen.