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This Salem Woman May Have Inspired ‘Hocus Pocus’

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures / MePrDB / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures / MePrDB / MovieStillsDB

Witches have long been a fascinating phenomenon that has captivated our imaginations. Bubbling cauldrons, bat wings, and broomsticks all come to mind, but what we picture a witch to be today has drastically changed since the witch craze took over the Puritan settlement of Salem.

Disney’s Hocus Pocus takes on the story of the Salem witch trials in an entertaining but inaccurate way – except for one character who was inspired by a real-life woman who lived through the horrifying witch hunts.

The Salem witch trials

The infamous Salem witch trials took place in the Puritan settlement of Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. The witchhunt began when three young girls, Elizabeth “Betty” Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam started to have “fits.”

Lithograph of a woman on trial for witchcraft
Witch trial in Salem, Massachusetts, lithograph. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

The fits included screaming, throwing objects, and convulsions – all signs of witchcraft, according to Puritan lore. The girls blamed three local women for their affliction: Tituba, a slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, a poor and elderly woman. By the time the trials were over, more than 200 people were accused of being witches and ultimately 2o would be executed for the crime of witchcraft.

More than three centuries later, popular culture is still captivated by the witch trials, which have inspired art, plays, and films including Hocus Pocus.

‘Hocus Pocus’ went from flop to cult classic

On Halloween night, teens Max Dennison (Omri Katz), his little sister Dani (Thora Birch), and their friend Allison (Vinessa Shaw) accidentally raise three witches from the dead. The Sanderson sisters are a trio of fictional witches that were executed in the Salem witch trials. Ultimately, the kids must defeat the witches, who feast on little children to maintain their youth.

The Sanderson Sisters with nooses around their necks
The fictional Sanderson Sisters at the gallows during the Salem Witch Trials as seen in the movie Hocus Pocus. (Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures / MoviePics1001 / MovieStillsDB)

Released in 1993, the film originally received poor reviews and was deemed a box office flop, but Hocus Pocus now represents a nostalgic childhood favorite that kids and adults return to every Halloween. Even though the Hocus Pocus story is entirely fictional, one character is likely based on a real-life victim of the witch trials.

Sarah Sanderson is based on a real suspected Salem witch

In the film, Sarah Sanderson (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) is the prettiest of the Sanderson sisters. Sarah is flirtatious and enjoys toying with people, especially men and boys. She plays a pivotal role at the beginning of the movie as she flies through the air on a broomstick and sings the haunting “Come Little Children” song that lures kids from their homes and into the arms of the sisters.

The Sanderson Sisters from 'Hocus Pocus'
The Sanderson Sisters: Sarah Sanderson (Sarah Jessica Parker), Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler), and Mary Sanderson (Kathy Najimy) in Hocus Pocus (1993). (Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures / crazycordy / MovieStillsDB)

Sarah Sanderson’s character was actually based on a real woman who lived through the witch trials: Sarah Cloyce. Cloyce was the younger sister of two other accused witches who were ultimately executed for witchcraft, Rebecca Nurse and Mary Eastey – just like Sarah Sanderson’s two sisters Winifred and Mary.

Sarah Cloyce’s own mother was accused of witchcraft 20 years before the Salem trials took place, which ultimately led to Sarah and her sisters’ implication as witches. An enslaved person named John Indian came forward and declared that a “spectral” vision of Cloyce had hovered over him at church and tried to drink his blood. His story was corroborated when 11-year-old Abigail Williams declared that Cloyce had done the same thing to her.

Accused witch in a courtroom with her accusers
“The Witch No. 1” – Salem witch trials lithograph. (Photo Credit: Joseph E. Baker / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Cloyce was arrested, serving nine months in prison before she was eventually released. Unfortunately, her sisters Rebecca and Mary were not so lucky. While Sarah Cloyce was the only one of her sisters to escape execution, Sarah Sanderson was executed along with her two sisters.

Sarah Cloyce spent the last years of her life trying to clear her sisters’ names. After her death in 1703, her two sisters were cleared of all charges. In 1706, one of the “afflicted” who began the witch frenzy, Ann Putnam, confessed to having falsely accused Sarah and her sisters of witchcraft.

More from us: The UK Tried This Woman for Witchcraft – During the Second World War!

Thirty years since the original film was released, the Sanderson sisters will return with the sequel Hocus Pocus 2 which is set to stream on Disney Plus in late September 2022.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast