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Same Moral Panic, Different Movie
Christian fundamentalists are freaking out about witchcraft again. Here's why we can't just laugh it off.
Halloween is nearly upon us, and though I’m tempted to blog about razorblade-in-candy memes or something with slightly more levity, instead I am bringing you tales of something equally spooky: overblown conservative backlash throughout the years!
Specifically, I want to talk about the ties of moral panic that bind two stories: one about a Texas woman whose opinions on the new Disney film Hocus Pocus 2 have become national news, and another from my own upbringing.
Earlier this month, a video of Central Texas mom Jaime Gooch made the rounds online when local news station KWTX interviewed her about a Facebook post she had made encouraging other mothers to not watch Hocus Pocus 2. (Please enjoy the trailer of said film, embedded below.)
The film is a sequel to the 1993 original Hocus Pocus, in which, as I hope you were already aware, three witches known as the Sanderson sisters (Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker) are brought back to life on Halloween, and attempt to suck the soul out of a child to make their resurrection permanent.
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Though I would have suspected Gooch’s warning to contain some language lambasting liberal media from the coastal elites (brb, googling what new offensive bullshittery Midler has been up to), her message was far more literal about the film’s content. Though the post is no longer public, here are a few lines excerpted from her screed, courtesy of the news coverage:
…I would be wrong not to sound the alarm and warn you to protect your children. After all the whole move is based on harvesting the purity of children’s souls so that witches may live on … What are we welcoming into the homes of our families?
[…] Please hear me when I tell you the truth that the Witches and Warlocks in the satanic church abuse and sacrifice children in their ‘spiritual rituals’ to gain more power in the underworld.
[…] Ask yourself if not only your mind but your children’s minds are strong enough to ward off hypnotization and bewitching trance that will be coming through the screen to aid in the desensitization of the coming evil in this world.
[…] Awaken and rise up Mommas, there’s a war being waged in our homes and WE are the gatekeepers.
Lol YEESH! Where do you even begin! I admit, because one of my most toxic traits is not believing people when they tell me who they really are, my first impression of the post was that she was evoking provocative imagery to make some larger point about “exposing” children to “sinful” messages. ALAS, her warning was NO metaphor:
“Everybody thinks it’s fake and innocent, but they could be casting any type of spell that they want to,” Gooch said in the interview above. “Anything could be coming through that TV screen into your home.” In short, Gooch is quite literally worried about the demonic possession of her children via Disney film reboot.
I was raised Catholic—though it’s been a decade since I’ve seriously practiced—and the kind of extreme internalization of supposed Christian theology that Gooch appears to have embraced is very familiar to me. I grew up being told that the passages in the Bible really happened, and taught (in public school) that God might have been responsible for the Big Bang. I remember being scared into submission by other stories of fire and brimstone.
I also grew up with many similar warnings about witchcraft in children’s entertainment. Until sometime in high school, my dad had a rule in our household that my sibling and I weren’t allowed to watch the Harry Potter movies. We weren’t allowed to watch Harry Potter movies because they showcased witchcraft, and witchcraft, as all Good Christians know, is the work of the devil.
I don’t quite remember how this ban started, or when. What made it weirder was that I wasn’t banned from reading the books, which I spent hot summer nights devouring by lamplight, or from watching the original Hocus Pocus or Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But when the Harry Potter films began making their way onto VHS and DVD, the line was drawn. We could read about witchcraft all we wanted, but no child of my father was going to watch it acted out. (Where did our mom stand on this parenting decision, you ask? When recently asked, she recounted that she hadn’t watched or read the Harry Potter series when she was a kid, and that is all you really need to know to understand how little she cares about it.)
Thus began a decade-long charade between myself and my sibling and our dad, where he’d tell us we couldn’t watch Harry Potter, we knew we couldn’t watch Harry Potter, but then we’d slink off to friends’ homes for playdates and sleepovers and mainline the shit out of Harry Potter anyway. Sometimes a proactive parent would tell our dad that party plans included watching a Harry Potter movie, resulting in us being summoned home immediately after cake and opening presents. Sometimes I’d feign purity and tell friends, “Sorry, I know I’m a guest in your home but we can’t watch that! I’m not allowed!” But Harry Potter was ubiquitous, proving most verbal parental controls to be useless. When the movies made it to cable, we’d watch them in our parents’ room with the volume turned low and the “previous channel” button pre-programmed should either parent walk by.
Eventually, we outgrew this rule, because as we previously established, it was unenforcible. One day he caught us watching one of the movies on the TV in their room, and when I remarked, “Aren’t we a little old for this to matter anymore?” he stopped appearing to care. I vaguely remember him looking disapproving when I returned home from my junior year band trip to Universal Studios in Florida with a wand from Harry Potter World (Ginny Weasley’s, TYVM), but then later that year I watched the final film at the theater with my boyfriend without incident.
As I grew out of religion, and into adulthood, I gave the Harry Potter rule very little consideration in the grand scheme of my upbringing. Hell, I was more upset realizing that I could have chosen to not get confirmed in the Catholic Church after my sibling successfully dodged the sacrament themselves. I set the whole thing aside until I started having to report on Rowling’s downward spiral from Trump Twitter Reply Guy to Public TERF No. 1. Sparked by my growing disdain for Rowling, I decided to do a cursory internet search for any insight into my dad’s decisions from decades before.
I was shocked to find out how big the conservative freakout over witchcraft in Harry Potter actually was. In a 2018 piece for Vox, writer Alissa Wilkinson reflected on her own experience of being forbidden to read the books in her youth. “The reasons for criticizing the series among those conservative Christians boiled down to two main camps. There were those who condemned the books as conduits to witchcraft, and there were those who viewed them skeptically as being influenced by secularism, potentially undermining Christian values,” she wrote.
In speaking with other people who were told they couldn’t read Harry Potter and parents who banned the series from their children at the time, Wilkinson discerned that Christian influences popular at the turn of the century — among them conservative media guides like “Plugged In” by anti-gay lobbying organization Focus on the Family — and the Satanic panic from the decade prior helped bolster the witch hunt against the series. From the piece:
The most often cited voice of opposition among those I talked to was Focus on the Family, an immensely popular and influential evangelical parachurch operation, and in particular the organization’s leader until 2003, author and psychologist James Dobson.
[…] In the end, while Plugged In praised the books in some modest respects, it also concluded that parents should “think long and hard before embarking on Harry Potter’s magic carpet ride.” And that attitude of suspicion toward the Harry Potter books’ magic — and the worry that it would attract children to the occult — is perhaps the single most influential source of opposition to the series among conservative Christians.
[…] Conservative Christians and evangelicals in particular have for decades tended to view mainstream popular culture with suspicion. And in the throes of the late Satanic panic, raging culture wars, and the sense that — even aside from these forces — children were likely being targeted by people opposed to their own values, warnings against Harry Potter presented themselves as a good enough reason to stay away.
Parents thinking that their children were being seduced by secularism, or the occult, or are being targeted by people “opposed to their own values” — now, where have I heard this before?
Having been subject to the Potter wars myself, it is eerie to revisit this cultural moment. An Italian priest claimed that “the Devil was behind Harry, luring children into supernatural adventures” and a British teachers union leader warned that “Children must be … taught in a responsible and positive way the risks of journeying into the unknown.” Snopes debunked far-right publications that cited an Onion article that “quoted” children on their journey along the Harry Potter to Satanism pipeline.
Same as it ever was! Two decades later, we have far-right ideological warriors scaring parents into believing that schools are teaching white children to be ashamed of their race, or “ideologically grooming” children into believing they are gay or trans. Conservatives have drummed up both of these narratives as a means of further entrenching white supremacy and eradicating queer and trans people from society. White race-shaming and ideological grooming are not happening in schools, but the truth matters little to the people who stand to benefit from stoking these fears.
When I first watched Gooch’s interview, part of me did think, “So this is what counts for news these days.” But while her immediate worry was about the demonic possession of her children, her broader concern also sounds familiar: “A spiritual war being waged against homes in America, and Hollywood is part of the problem.”
It is so easy to laugh off intense Christian reactions to secular media and dismiss conservative rhetoric as a minority opinion. But Gooch’s half-baked film opinions are fueled by the same far-right moral panic that fired up her Christian predecessors in demonizing Rowling’s books two decades ago, and that continues to fire up the racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic attacks on children, their parents, and their teachers today, including from Rowling herself (the irony).
It’s the same panic that’s leading schools to ban books by LGBTQ authors and authors of color from children’s libraries, state agencies to target and attack families of trans children, and local governments to shove Christianity into their faces. Trans children are losing access to healthcare and their parents are being investigated for child abuse. Children are learning to stigmatize queer people, and in turn learning that they’ll be dehumanized should they be queer, too. Children of color are learning that their history matters less than white American history.
Of course, adults suffer these consequences, too — far-right protesters are harassing and attacking drag performers who host family-friendly events, and the reproductive rights of all people, children and trans adults included, have sunk into further peril.
If the worst that could happen from Gooch’s interview is that her children couldn’t watch another witchcraft-based movie or TV series, then so be it. But the message she’s sharing has implications that reach far deeper than her immediate family. People will experience the dehumanization that comes with these consequences, and they will suffer. Kids will suffer, and kids will die. The outcomes of these moral panics are far scarier than any rumor the right could dream up, Hocus Pocus incantations included.