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Horror

In October of 1992, Hocus Pocus shot on location in Salem for two weeks (followed by several months of sound stage shoots in California). It was neither critically nor commercially successful upon its theatrical release in July of 1993, but annual airings on the Disney Channel and later ABC Family/Freeform helped an impressionable audience (re)discover the film. Eclipsing cult status, its popularity continues to grow exponentially each Halloween season.

Exactly 30 years later, Omri Katz — who starred as Max Dennison in Hocus Pocus at the age of 17 — returned to the historic Massachusetts town on October 22 for the first time since the shoot. Presented by The Horror Squad Podcast, the eventful day included a meet-and-greet and a Hocus Pocus screening with a Q&A.

Prior to the festivities, we visited some of the original filming locations. Three decades removed from the production and now sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, Katz was largely able to blend in with the crowds of tourists — but his voice still sounds exactly like it did when he delivered such quotable lines as “It’s all just a bunch of hocus pocus!”

“It’s nostalgic. Interesting,” Katz tells me regarding his return. “Many parts I don’t remember. It seems like the town has grown a lot. The flux of people is insane.” Salem — population 43,350 — has seen the number of tourists running amok exceed 100,000 on some days. Hocus Pocus, no doubt, played a part in popularizing Salem as a Halloween destination.

The informal tour included stops at the coastal house where Katz’s character lived; the Ropes Mansion, which served as the stately home of his love, Allison; Phillips Elementary School, his character’s alma mater; and Old Town Hall, which was used as the exterior for the film’s iconic Halloween party scene.

“I definitely remember the seasons. We filmed here in autumn, and it was the same thing with all the colors of the leaves.” Although Katz recalls the landmarks, as well as a visit to the historic Walden Pond in nearby Concord, his memory regarding the production specifics is hazy.

“It just felt like another job at the time. I would have never in a million years thought it would have grown to what it is. It didn’t do very well in the theaters. They obviously made some bad choices, but the fanbase grew. It’s pretty shocking.” He continues, “I think the internet really just blew the film up 100% more than it was at that time.”

Katz first took notice of the burgeoning following around the film’s 20th anniversary, when he was invited to participate in a live event alongside other cast and crew members. “I was kind of hesitant, but it was a great experience.” He stays in touch with several people from the film, often appearing alongside them at conventions. They also have a Hocus Pocus group text chain together.

Hocus Pocus was the second time Katz helped introduce young viewers to genre material. Earlier in his career, he starred as Marshall Teller on Eerie, Indiana, NBC’s Twilight Zone-esque anthology series for kids on which master of horror Joe Dante served as creative consultant. Despite only lasting for one season, syndication helped it gain a cult following.

“That was truly an amazing experience,” Katz enthuses. “I was already a big Joe Dante fan, so when I got blessed to work on that show, to me it was really one of the highlights of my acting career. Not only did I get to work with some of the most amazing talents in the industry, but the sets and the writing and Joe Dante; I was like a kid in a candy store. Every week was a new adventure.”

Working with Dante got Katz interested in the filmmaking process. “For a long time after that, I figured I was going to continue in the industry, until I got older and changed my mind, and directing was definitely the direction I wanted to go in. No matter what I was working on, I was always sitting on the camera, always trying to figure out how things were done, asking questions. Working with [Dante] and seeing his imagination, it was very inspiring. He’s like the biggest kid, and that’s another thing I think I was drawn to. He’s just a lot of fun.”

With the rise in popularity of the anthology series format and more kid-centric genre material, he agrees that the show is ripe for a reboot — and he’d be open to returning to Eerie. “I’m not out pursuing opportunities, but if the opportunity came knocking on my door, I would be happy to. There was a long moment in my life where I didn’t really want to be in the public eye, and I’m kind of opening back up to that.”

Along with Hocus Pocus, 1993 also saw Katz appear in Dante’s Matinee, in which John Goodman stars as a William Castle-esque B-movie director. Katz admits he’s not familiar with Castle’s work but looks back on Matinee fondly. “We had a great time in Florida for two months. I went from Eerie to Matinee, so I had already worked with Joe.”

The young actor was excited to collaborate with the veteran cast. “I’d say John Goodman is one of the most professional actors that I’ve witnessed working. He was very critical of his performances. He always wanted to do better. Cathy Moriarty was sweet, very humble. I’d seen Raging Bull, and I couldn’t believe I was working with her.”

Katz eventually made a conscious decision to step away from the entertainment business. “I grew up in the industry, so that’s kind of all I knew. I think I was soul searching and wanted more of a human experience; just see what else is out there, see the world, and be normal. I didn’t really have that growing up.”

That’s precisely what he did: Katz used his acting money to travel, surfing and snowboarding along the way, before returning to Los Angeles. “I wanted to get back into acting for all the wrong reasons — to make money so I could escape again — and that didn’t work out too well. I had to get a real job, the first one in my life!”

He found joy in hairdressing for a period before pursuing his passion for cannabis in 2002. “Obviously I had to be discreet, stay under the radar, but I’ve been doing it ever since. I have my own brand called The Mary Danksters. We’re doing everything the legal way, and I’m really excited to see where this industry takes me. It’s been a tough thing to navigate, but I feel confident that I’ve got something to contribute.”

As our chat comes to a close, I ask Katz why he thinks Hocus Pocus continues to connect with people. “It’s kind of baffling. I think part of it is the witches; people love the spirit that they brought to it. Digging a little deeper, there’s this human relationship aspect to it that feels really heartwarming and touched a lot of people. So many people grew up with having those experiences, and now it gets passed on generationally.”

He concludes, “It’s really a trip. It seems surreal. I’m excited to see what the future has in store.” He’s certainly not the only one; that rabid fanbase we discussed was out in full force for a non-stop 4+ hour meet and greet at Silver Moon Comics followed by a sold-out screening and Q&A hosted by The Horror Squad at Cinema Salem.

Many fans were quick to express how much they missed Katz and co-stars Thora Birch and Vinessa Shaw in Hocus Pocus 2. Although he would have been happy to return for the long-gestating sequel, Katz’s lack of involvement didn’t stop him from watching it. “It was palatable. At first glance, I was kind of disappointed. I watched like 30 minutes of it and fell asleep, but then I watched the rest of it and surprisingly enjoyed it.”

He elaborates diplomatically, “We’re in a different time now, and I think Disney has a different formula. The movie just seems to be missing certain elements, in my opinion. I guess I’m entitled to critique it! The witches were great. I’m glad to see the franchise continue. it leaves the door open to continue, so if they want to bring us back and do a different story, I’d be grateful.”

What does Katz think his character is up after 30 years? “Max is either in a psych ward or moved back to Cali. Maybe he’s running a cannabis collective,” he chuckles, alluding to his own trajectory. Wherever he may be, Hocus Pocus fans of all ages are eager to see. So, Disney, let’s light this sucker and meet the old broads again!

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