Hocus Pocus and Virginity

I have mixed feelings about the movie Hocus Pocus.

It’s the movie with these witches.  Yeah.  That one.

I watched it as a kid, before I really understood what the word “virgin” meant, and it was easy for the kind of kid I was (am) to fall in love with a movie about an immortal talking cat, but I also really liked it out of an appreciation for all things spooky and Halloween.

So in retrospect, it’s disappointing to realize how much of the script revolves around making fun of the protagonist for being a virgin.

And so when I found out that my university’s movie night had picked this as its feature film, I decided to pass on the chance to see it again.

The virginity thing is (technically) relevant to the plot because the witches can be raised from the dead if a certain candle is lit by a virgin on Halloween night — although that doesn’t explain why almost all the characters keep treating the protagonists’ sexual inexperience as a salient detail the way they do — but as for that being one of the requirements of the witches’ resurrection, the story seems to be mimicking a wider media tradition of the “virgin sacrifice” plotline, a concept that has always bothered me.

Whether or not the word ever had a different meaning than now, in modern parlance, the mandate that the sacrifice (or what have you) come from a “virgin”, specifically, necessarily implies that anyone who has had sex, even if just once, escapes all the associated risk.  It’s a strange one as fantastical aesops go, but it also has a kind of resonance in my culture, where to be a virgin is to be unfinished and uninitiated.

Why virginity would even be magically relevant is another question — and considering how these kinds of sacrifices are usually women, ideas of “purity” and higher value assigned to virgins are likely to be involved, but the in-world logic of these clauses undercut the personal desirability of that value.  That is to say, virgins are wanted by others, but it’s not safe or beneficial to be one.  It’s rape culture from both sides.

Thinking about this has really made me wonder how this concept got popularized, because even if it has some “real” basis in the history of the occult, that wouldn’t necessarily make it a contender for mass proliferation.  Hollywood has never much cared for accuracy, after all.

So what is it about the “being a virgin can literally put you in physical danger” idea that so appeals to folks?

Is it the “have sex to escape the threat of harm” corollary?  Or the notion that “people who don’t have sex will (should) receive punishment for it”?  Or is it the “get out of trouble by confessing your sexual history like it’s the credentials for your safety” jokes?

Or should I assume it’s nothing?

 

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21 responses to “Hocus Pocus and Virginity

  • sablin27

    I took it as the other side of the “people who sleep around (or make out with their significant other, or are gay) die first in horror movies” thing.

    Sexual experience is life experience. Innocence is inexperience is incompetence.

    Just like no story comes out and says, “sexual activity is morally questionable and so somehow puts you first in line to be killed by amoral horrors,” no story says, “you can be a hapless innocent, preyed on by any predators around, or you can compromise your morals, lose your naivete and be a player with a chance at defending yourself.” And obviously sexually-experienced/ assertive females are morally darker than sexually-experienced/ assertive males, because women are naturally objects of lust, not sexual actors.

    So the main character chose helplessness over compromising her integrity, being an pawn over being a player.

    • Spade

      The main character in this movie is a guy. I presume that changes some things.

      For example, presumably him being a guy while being a virgin makes the virginity more “shameful”, because men perform virility and worth through heterosexuality etc. etc., but sexual inexperience still isn’t “helplessness” and (I assume you’re referring to this particular movie) he didn’t “choose” helplessness because he didn’t exactly know what would happen beforehand. Being “passive”, a “pawn”, “incompetent”, etc. aren’t traits inherently embedded in simply not having had sex before.

      • sablin27

        To address your last point first, I didn’t mean that traits like incompetence are in any way literally embedded in the state of not having had sex. However, they are strongly associated in the TV shows and films I have seen, to the point that it seems likely to me that the rarer “being a virgin can literally put you in physical danger” theme is an extension of those associations.

        The protagonist being male does change things. It makes me expect more emphasis on portraying him as incompetent and less on him being innocent, without agency or morally pure. (I think all the threads except sex always being wrong, are present to a significant degree with both male and female characters, just more common with one or the other.) It also makes the obsession with his sexual status much more threatening, because a woman’s sexual choices are less likely to be overtly disregarded by any character with any moral compunctions (though this is reversed for covert disregard on non-sexual choices).

        I don’t know if the film bears out these expectations.

        • Spade

          “To address your last point first, I didn’t mean that traits like incompetence are in any way literally embedded in the state of not having had sex. However, they are strongly associated in the TV shows and films I have seen”

          So a larger trend of having sexual history being equated with accrual of value. Creepy.

          • sablin27

            Creepy, but ubiquitous. Unless I’m very much watching the wrong things.

            If anything, this film sounds slightly subversive for letting a person designated a virgin actively do things other than worry about their love(/sex) life.

          • Spade

            Well, he’s a guy, so that should account for being allowed some agency, but his crush on Local Girl was a pretty big focus as I recall.

  • L

    As a practicioner of witchcraft myself, the “virgin sacrifice” thing has a VERY long and VERY complex history going back to the practices of ancient Greeks. (Back then being a “virgin” just meant being unmarried, actually.) The ritual cultuses (culti?) of Hekate and Artemis seem to be of particular importance to the history of the western magical tradition. It also probably has a lot to do with medieval anti-Semitism as lots of these kinds of rumors about the satanic practices of Jews got a lot of credence.

    …Of course none of that means one whit to Disney, but the point is the trope is there, and it’s immediately recognizable as one relating to ebil witches.

    I think it should be important to note that the only character that actually seems to think Max’s virginity is an important detail is his little sister, who continuously tries to make fun of him for it, but fails because no one else seems to actually care. Not even the love interest, who treats him with nothing but respect the whole movie.

    Sure, it’s a little grating to have it brought up so often, but I’ve always interpreted it as Dani just trying to get under her brother’s skin, and if it weren’t about him being a virgin, it would have just been something else.

    • Spade

      “I think it should be important to note that the only character that actually seems to think Max’s virginity is an important detail is his little sister”

      And the cop they talk to?

      • L

        Right, good point. He was a jerky fake cop, though.

        • Spade

          And the fact that the witches and even the cat kept using the word “virgin” while pointedly referring to him?

          • L

            I watched the movie last night, I remember what happened pretty well- and I still maintain my position. I lot my virginity really late in the game, so its not like the film isn’t potentially deriding me also. I guess I just disagree not wirh your premise, YES its used with derision, but NO I dont believe its as bad as you make it out to be in my opinion. At any rate I respect your negative feelings about the film.

    • sablin27

      L, out of curiousity, why would you say you don’t think the derision of the main character for being a virgin is not particularly bad?

      (Because derision generally isn’t particularly important? Because virgins deserve derision? Because virgins are derided in films so often that you’re desensitised? Because people are derided for no real reason in films so often that you’re desensitised? Because film characters getting picked on doesn’t generally bother you?)

  • Wilson

    Of all the movies you could be criticising that support the patriarchy you choose hocus pocus? You should be ashamed.

    • Spade

      Well, my intent wasn’t to set out to criticize something that supports the patriarchy so much as it was to reflect on Hocus Pocus because it was Halloween and this is a sexuality blog where I talk about how people talk about sexuality, but anyway, why should I be ashamed?

      And where are you getting this “patriarchy” focus from, anyway? I didn’t even talk that much about gender in the post.

  • madcap86

    When I first watched Hocus Pocus as a kid, I didn’t get the whole virgin thing either. Then I saw it as a teen, and was like “whoa, they really do bash on this a lot.” What’s even more disturbing is that Max is only in high school. He’s like 16. But there is definitely a shame factor on him being a virgin.

    I always interpreted this as being more of a male “why haven’t you had sex yet” take on it, just given the general attitude in the movie. But the overall theme of the virgin sacrifice and virgins being important in general is complicated. I know that unicorns are supposed to be attracted to virgins for their purity, and that most virgin sacrifices fall back on that trait–that virgins are more “pure” than those who have had sex.

    I also saw a review of “Monster Squad” recently, and in that movie, only a virgin can break some curse. The reviewer (the Nostalgia Critic, who is awesome) pointed out something strange. This group of kids–all around 10 years old, and all boys, except for one little sister–get a teenage neighbor to break the curse. Then they find out she’s not really a virgin, and scramble to find another one–even though nothing specifies that it has to be a female virgin, and technically any one of these kids should be able to do it. It’s just strange that in that movie, the virginity concept seems to be limited to females.

    Honestly, in terms of films, I have a bigger problem with “The 40-Year Old Virgin” than just about anything else. But just once I’d like to see a show or film that doesn’t treat virginity as if it is a vicious plague sucking the life from your soul until you get laid.

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