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Hocus Pocus, Tales from the Hood and the privilege of low-stakes horror
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Black horror comedy-drama anthology Tales from the Hood. It's a movie that's both a comforting and a stressful watch for me. It's also a movie that is inextricably tied to the movie Hocus Pocus in my head. Neither of those two sentences makes a lick of sense, but both are true because of the way we were introduced. This spooky season, I'm taking a trip down memory lane to share the story of how Hocus Pocus and Tales From the Hood took nine-year-old me on a journey that has stuck with me to this day because it was such an innocent moment that turned into a profound one.
Older siblings and cousins solely exist so they can expose you to movies that you know damn well you have no business watching at such a young age. Tales from the Hood definitely falls under that category twice. It's a socially conscious horror movie and a pretty violent one at that. 23 years ago on Turkey Day, while the adults were all upstairs chatting, playing spades, drinking, and having a genuinely good Black ass time, myself, my siblings, and my cousins decided to have ourselves a movie night downstairs in the partially finished basement. Unfortunately, things took a scary turn, thanks to the compromise between the younger kids and the older kids. The older kids agreed to let us watch Hocus Pocus if we all stayed and watched Tales From the Hood afterward. It would be an innocent enough activity, and for the first half of the double feature, it was. It sounded fair in theory, but we couldn't have been more wrong — all of us.
These two movies couldn't be more different both in tone and subject matter. I had never seen either movie. I couldn't watch Hocus Pocus because it was about witches and that was just a no go in my Black Pentecostal home at the time. I couldn't watch Tales from the Hood because it was an R-rated horror movie. So, it seemed like the perfect chance to get a two-for-one deal in forbidden movies.
I wish I could say Hocus Pocus was worth the nightmares I endured for weeks thanks to Tales from the Hood, but it wasn't. I remember really enjoying this movie about witches terrorizing the children in Salem, Massachusetts. It was high stakes but not really, because it was Disney and the PG rating pretty much promised a happy ending. The main characters got themselves in and out of a spooky adventure and lived happily ever after. There was singing, a young budding romance, sibling love, unassuming parents, a little teenage angst, and a talking cat. There was much to love about it (even though there wasn't anyone in it who looked like me or any of my family members huddled in front of the TV). Hocus Pocus was the quiet before the Tales from the Hood storm.
None of us were allowed to chicken out, so as one of my cousins removed the VHS tape from the Blockbuster case, I silently prayed the next movie wasn't as scary as I assumed it would be. I was dead wrong. Not only was the subject matter a little too much for anyone in that room to really process — it was scary as hell. The ending made matters worse because I realized they were in literal hell. All four tales were things I knew were real to an extent and had a better chance of happening to me than some witches in Salem trying to feed on my life force. I didn't understand what social commentary was because hello, I was nine, but I just knew that this horror movie was hitting me and everyone else in the room differently than Hocus Pocus. No one said anything for the duration of the movie. I don't even think anyone so much as blinked.
The first story was about police brutality, something I was aware of because of what had happened to Rodney King and members of my own family. Hell, I remember my parents drilling us about only calling 911 if the house was on fire, but never to call the police. Then the very next tale was no better because it was about domestic abuse. I thankfully did not have personal experience with this one, but it still scared me because it was the only story to feature someone close to my age. The stakes were high, and the resolution was violent.
But it was the third story that was the most terrifying. It shouldn't have been, since an old racist southern white politician was getting exactly what he deserved. However, it's impossible not to find the mini slave dolls scary as hell. This was actually what gave me nightmares for weeks. Not to mention that both my great aunt and grandmother had dolls that were similar but more polished that they kept in a decorative glass display cabinet mixed in with their nice decorative plates. I almost had a heart attack on the way out, leaving my great aunt's house that night while walking past that cabinet.
The final story was steeped in respectability politics, and even though I wasn't aware of that fact at the time, it was still extremely graphic. Plus, it wasn't fun watching Lamont Bently, who played Hakeem in Moesha, tortured while wearing a speedo, and then murdered. Fun times. And then to close out the movie, the funeral home turned out to be hell, and the mortician was the devil.
Again, I'm fully aware that Hocus Pocus and Tales from the Hood are not even close to one another in the video store. However, it wasn't lost that even without the horror elements, all of those stories were still scary on their own. They were a reality. Yes, the Salem witch trials happened, but the likelihood of some witches coming back to life 300 years later didn't have the same high probability as my dad got pulled over as we made our way home. Watching Hocus Pocus right before Tales from the Hood brought things to my attention that even if I didn't fully understand them at the time, there was a general understanding that the stakes were going to be higher for me and everyone else in that room even when we did the most mundane things. The kids in Hocus Pocus didn't have to worry about that.
Over two decades later, I can't watch one more without thinking of the other. I think even if we'd had Twitches or Vampires vs. the Bronx to watch back then, my cousins would have probably still made us watch Tales from the Hood, but it still would have been nice to have either of those movies in mind to remind us that we also deserve the same kind of high stakes but ultimately fun adventures as the kids in Hocus Pocus.