SALEM — A mother with four little ones in tow made the mistake of turning to Laurie Cabot in the movie theater just before the start of “Hocus Pocus” the other day, the movie about three witch sisters who return to Salem after 300 years to scare the bejesus out of the town’s children.
“How’s the movie?” she asked cheerfully.
“It’s not for children,” Cabot, a real witch, answered tartly.
“Really?” the mother asked. “It’s rated PG.”
“It’s about eating children,” replied witch Teri Kalgren. “Oh.” The mother turned away.
The movie began. It was 1693. Witches cackled round a steaming cauldron, having lured a little girl to their spooky mansion. With her fake buck teeth, Bette Midler as the oldest witch sister resembled an ugly cousin of Bugs Bunny.
“I feel nauseous,” said Cabot, as the movie witches threw some “dead man’s toe” into the potion. “I used to like Bette Midler. Look at her makeup. It’s ridiculous. It’s not even well done.”
As the “official witch” of Massachusetts — so proclaimed by Gov. Dukakis — Cabot is a high priestess in her Wicca temple in Salem, which has, by her count, a few thousand resident witches. She teaches Witchcraft (I and II) and started a witch store, Crow Haven Corner. She is on her third book, “Love Magic.” She also founded the Witches’ League for Public Awareness, a sort of antidefamation group to defend the image of modern-day witches.
The group will meet tonight to discuss the latest assault on their religion. “Hocus Pocus” opened last week and has done well at the East India Mall here. Arthur Alexander, the cinema manager, spied Cabot wearing her trademark black robes and black eye makeup and waved her through the long ticket line the other day.
Does he believe in witches? “One of my assistant managers was a witch,” he replied. He told the witches that they could, indeed, place some fliers about real witches on his candy counter.
Witches, or at least their image, are a dime a dozen in this town, which proudly proclaims itself “Witch City” and makes lots of money from witch-hungry tourists. The “Hocus Pocus” crew filmed in Salem last fall.
Cabot and Kalgren decided to screen the movie to see how bad the damage was. After the witch sisters turned a kid into a black cat, zapped him with electricity emanating from their fingertips and were hanged at the gallows — all in the first five minutes — Cabot said loudly: “There hasn’t been one redeeming thing yet. Does anyone think this is funny?” A man in the back guffawed.
When a book of spells was described as “bound in human skin and containing evil spells,” Cabot snorted “Spells are prayers, not evil.” In another scene, the children used water to repel the hags. “They stole that from the Wizard of Oz,” said Cabot. “Real witches don’t melt in the rain. Water is life-giving, not life-taking.”
When the film witches munched on a handful of spiders, provoking a chorus of “yuks” from the kids in the theater, Cabot noted that she’s never tasted a spider. “I prefer chocolate,” she noted.
And when the Bette Midler witch cast a spell saying, “Damn, damn, double damn,” Kalgren noted: “We’re not allowed to say that. It’s rude.”
Cabot did laugh when one of the witches, short a broomstick, rode off on a vacuum cleaner. “I could use a Hoover,” she quipped. “I drive a beat-up Hyundai.”
After the movie, in which the witches are pushed into a hot kiln and otherwise outwitted by three children, Cabot was upset. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to help people understand us,” she said. “This is teaching another generation of children that we are connected to the devil. I mean, I have a grandchild. They wouldn’t do it to any other religion.”
An 8-year-old boy came up. “Are you a real witch?” he asked Cabot.
“Yes,” she said. “And magic is not for harm. It’s for healing.”
“Can I see you do some?” he asked.
“I don’t do demonstrations,” she said, gently.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Real witches are older than 100,” the boy said.
Cabot laughed. “Do you go to church?” she asked.
The boy nodded. “So do we,” she said.
Just to set the record straight, the real witches of Salem want you to know: they don’t use dead man’s toes in spells; they use oils, herbs and stones. They don’t cast evil spells, because bad deeds come back to you three times. They don’t eat children. Their faces may be white, brown or black, but never green.
For her part, Cabot has cast a spell that “Hocus Pocus” doesn’t succeed.
Funny thing, the reviews haven’t been the greatest. . . .