While for most, Halloween is about watching the scariest, most spine-tingling movie on a cold autumn night, nostalgic and spooky Halloween films have always been more my speed. With films ranging from cult classics (Hocus Pocus) to Disney Channel Original staples (Twitches) to obscure animated TV specials (Scary Godmother: Halloween Spooktakular), the best of them is still Disney Channel’s 1998 Halloweentown. Starring none other than Hollywood legend and famous grandmother Debbie Reynolds, Halloweentown is a children’s film that doesn’t reinvent the cobweb-covered wheel, but its commitment to the relationship between Aggie Cromwell (Reynolds) and her granddaughter Marnie Piper (Kimberly J. Brown) makes it stand out from the rest—and even allows it to ring true to my own relationship with my grandmother. Halloweentown, more than any other film (Halloween-related or otherwise), has become a storied yearly tradition, one that has cemented a connection between my grandma, myself, and this movie through its immense heart.
Halloweentown follows Marnie as she learns that she’s a witch on her 13th birthday, the age at which witches must start using their powers lest they lose them forever. Marnie’s mother, Gwen (Judith Hoag), intended to keep her in the dark, but a visit from her out-of-town grandmother changes everything. In an attempt to get to the bottom of Aggie’s eccentricities, Marnie and her siblings Dylan (Joey Zimmerman) and Sophie (Emily Roeske) follow Aggie to a newly apparated bus stop, where they stow away on the magical dimension-jumping vehicle and end up through the veil in Halloweentown. Aggie encourages Marnie to embrace her true nature, which ends up saving the day, as the power of the Cromwell witches helps banish an evil that has been lurking in the shadows of the magical realm.
On its surface, Halloweentown is similar to Hocus Pocus or Casper the Friendly Ghost, in that it offers kids a safe-yet-spooky tale to cling to during the Halloween season, but it’s also so much more. The relationship between Aggie and Marnie is rich, highlighting the special bond between grandmother and granddaughter. From the very beginning of the film, it’s clear that the constantly bickering Marnie and Gwen have a strained relationship, and Aggie’s sudden appearance only serves to make it worse. Rather than argue and butt heads, Aggie and Marnie seem to understand each other on a much deeper level, free of the overbearing power dynamic shadowing Marnie’s relationship with her mother. Instead, Aggie and Marnie’s bond is forged in conspiratorial-yet-harmless secrets and unwavering support.
When Marnie and her siblings end up in Halloweentown, Aggie becomes the doting grandmother, finally able to show her grandchildren the culture she grew up in, and actually spend time with them beyond one night a year. In the short time between Marnie’s arrival and Gwen’s to Halloweentown, Aggie does everything she can to set Marnie up for success as a witch, even buying her a broom. One of the most iconic lines from the film is shouted enthusiastically by Aggie while teaching Marnie how to fly her new broomstick: “Magic is really very simple. All you’ve got to do is want something and let yourself have it!” Even though she’s explaining to Marnie the rules surrounding magic in this world, it’s also reminiscent of the unending belief and hope grandmothers hold in their hearts for their grandchildren: An earnest belief that their grandchildren can accomplish anything if they simply also believe.
About halfway through the film, Halloweentown’s magical villain uses a spell to freeze both Aggie and Gwen in time, effectively putting them out of commission. This leaves Marnie not only in charge of her two younger siblings, but responsible for the safety of Halloweentown. The siblings rush back to Aggie’s house, where they attempt to prepare their greatest weapon to protect the town. As Marnie struggles to focus through the overwhelming pressure without her mother and grandmother by her side, the film taps into the very real fear of growing up and losing that support system, hoping beyond hope that you took all the lessons they taught you to heart. And, when Aggie and Gwen are returned to the land of the living, Marnie is a stronger, braver person than she was before, all because of the lessons she learned from them through her trial by fire.
The fight between the Cromwells and the film’s villain (Halloweentown’s mayor Kalabar, who wants to take over the human world with the help of the town’s monsters) comes to a head in the climax, when Aggie, Gwen and Marnie each realize that they need the others to make them a stronger whole. Using the combined powers of every member of the Cromwell family (even non-believer Dylan), they defeat Kalabar and return Halloweentown to its previous joyous state. The reconciliation between Aggie, Gwen and Marnie is touching, but the true beating heart of Halloweentown rests with Gwen’s offer to Aggie in the film’s final moments: Gwen suggests that Aggie come live with her and the kids in the human world.
As showcased throughout Halloweentown, even just a single day with Aggie exposed Marnie to the joys of their family history and Halloween culture, and Aggie being willing enough to give up her comfortable life in Halloweentown to live in the human world with her grandchildren speaks volumes about her character. While living with Marnie, she can open up an entire world to her, one that she alone carries within the human world, since the portal is only open on Halloween night. Marnie’s exposure to witchy lessons and Halloween history will then be relayed solely through her grandmother, who will lovingly show her the ropes.
While the topic of those lessons may be fantastical, this thread still feels grounded in reality, especially in comparison to my own relationship with my grandma. Much like in Halloweentown, when Aggie introduces Marnie to the magic and wonder of Halloweentown and their shared power, my grandma has introduced me to many times and places, all experienced through her eyes and recounted back to me like magic of old. Just as Aggie gave Marnie all the tools she needed to become the best witch she could be in and out of Halloweentown (including a really sick broomstick), my grandma has given me so many precious tools that I have taken into my own life, helping to shape me into the person I’ve become.
My grandma and I watched Halloweentown together a number of years ago, and Reynolds’ joyous performance acted as a connection point, one that brought together her fond memories of seeing Singin’ in the Rain in theaters, and my fond memories of watching Aggie bring magic and laughs to the Disney Channel every Halloween. As cheesy as some of the takeaways from Halloweentown may be, it will always linger as a celebration of grandmothers and granddaughters, highlighting that special relationship through its supernatural metaphors and heartfelt sincerity. Aggie notes that “movies can teach us about life,” and she isn’t wrong—they can act as a gateway for even the most connected to deepen their relationship, resulting in a heartfelt sincerity that feels as warm and fuzzy as a spark of magic.
Anna Govert is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Indiana. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and the wonderful insanity of Riverdale, you can follow her @annagovert;.