Witch, Please

The Manderson Sisters Fly into Provincetown!

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by Steve Desroches

The digital thermometer downtown says its 86 degrees as a gaggle of muscle queens sashays down Commercial Street in star-spangled Speedos. It may be a couple of days before the Fourth of July, but over at the Art House it’s Halloween, as ghastly shrieks come from behind the backstage door and three prop nooses ready to hang a trio of witches sway in the summer breeze awaiting their cue. The night after the Independence Day fireworks, Jinkx Monsoon, Liza Lott, and Peaches Christ fly in on their broomsticks as they open the spoof comedy Hocum Pokem, based on the cult classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus.

Neither a commercial or critical success when it was released in the summer of 1993, the Disney film Hocus Pocus has gone on to become one of the biggest cult films of all time, thanks in no small part to it being broadcast in heavy rotation every October. Starring Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the Sanderson Sisters, who return to Salem, Massachusetts, to seek their revenge on Halloween night after being hung by the townspeople 300 years earlier, the film is pure Disney magic, aimed quite deliberately, of course, at children. But Hocus Pocus has an enormous adult fan base, especially within the LGBT community, as is evident by how many people dress as the trio each Halloween in gay favorites like Wilton Manors, Florida, West Hollywood, California, and here in Provincetown. So why is this film for children so obsessively popular with gay men?

“These three women—Kathy Najimny, Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler—all have a lot of gay friends, and they are doing drag,” says Joshua Grannell, otherwise known as drag star Peaches Christ and the writer of the spoof. “It’s a drag performance. Cisgender women can do drag, just like Elvira. It’s a drag performance for sure.”

Of course the cult popularity of the film is not limited to any specific gender or sexuality, but the fandom of Hocus Pocus does have a decidedly queer aesthetic to it, similar to that of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s a film that’s beloved to the outsider and thus unites those communities that feel a kinship through the film, explains Grannell and co-star Jinkx Monsoon. The two portray the Manderson Sisters in Hocum Pokem, with Provincetown drag favorite Liza Lott (who was unavailable because she had to run to another job right after rehearsal) rounding out the cast. In their version, the story takes place here in Provincetown where the Pilgrims landed, and only the straight ones moved on to Plymouth, while the gay ones stayed, including the drag queen witches, the Manderson Sisters.

Hocum Pokem premiered in San Francisco at the famed Castro Theater in 2014, where Grannell hosts his Midnight Mass film series and presents his live stage shows. The show was such a hit it moved on to runs in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, before heading to the United Kingdom, (where Halloween has recently caught on as a popular holiday), with performances in Manchester and London. Grannell felt compelled to write the spoof, as it was the most popular request from fans. And upon the announcement he’d finally take on Hocus Pocus, the audience gave a thunderous ovation. Sold-out shows followed.

Despite having a deep affection for Halloween since he was a young boy Grannell hadn’t seen the film until about 20 years after its release. Now he gets the phenomenon and can’t believe it took him this long to join the cult of Hocus Pocus, especially since as a child he began planning his Halloween costumes in June and drafting scripts and holding auditions for the haunted house he and his family created every October in his hometown of Ocean City, Maryland. Halloween was always a big deal for Monsoon, too, when she could dress in early drag without fear, even though her mother insisted they were “boy” costumes. As for the film, it took the siren song of Bette Midler’s voice to enchant young Jinkx Monsoon, while he was still in preschool rather than the Continental Baths.

“As for me, when I was a kid, a little kid, I heard it was a movie with witches and zombies and was terrified,” says Monsoon. “I just refused to watch it when I was at day care. I was always afraid of horror movies. And this is how gay I am. I heard Better Midler sing ‘I Put A Spell On You’—my aunt raised me on Bette Midler—and I instantly began to watch it.”

“She made you gay,” says Grannell.

“She made me gay,” says Monsoon. “Bette Midler made me gay.”
Hocum Pokem is performed at the Art House, 214 Commercial St., Provincetown, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. through September 6. For tickets ($30 general/$40 VIP first 7 rows/$75 VIP first 3 rows and meet and greet) and information, go to the box office, call 508.487.9222, or visit ptownarthouse.com.