Here's Why You've Got the Hots for Billy Butcherson in Hocus Pocus

The special effects artist behind Salem’s sexiest zombie walks us through how he made being undead look so good.

still of doug jones as billy butcherson in hocus pocus 2
Matt Kennedy/Disney
People love to share hot takes about Hocus Pocus, the classic Disney film that was released in July of 1993 (oddly enough) to relatively no critical acclaim. Roger Ebert himself said, “Of the film’s many problems, the greatest may be that all three witches are thoroughly unpleasant. They don’t have personalities; they have behavior patterns and decibel levels. A good movie inspires the audience to subconsciously ask, ‘Give me more!’ The witches in this one inspired my silent cry, ‘Get me out of here!'”

“No personality?” I respectfully disagree, Mr. Ebert. (May he rest in peace.) You have to give the film credit — the ROI alone has served Disney well. Eventually, The Sanderson Sistahs won the hearts of children and adults alike — so much so that it’s become a staple on Freeform’s 31 Nights of Halloween programming, Spirit Halloween stores carry endless paraphernalia from the movie, like costumes, kitchenware, and decor, and in 2020 Disney announced they would be reviving Winifred, Sarah, and Mary from the dead (yet again) for a sequel. Hocus Pocus 2 aired on Disney+ on September 30 with two musical performances from The Sandersons, a trip to Walgreens to uncover the wonders of biocellulose masks and retinol, and a new plotline with hot zombie Billy Butcherson.

Yes, “hot zombie.” I didn’t realize until very recently that my personal affection for Mr. Butcherson was a nearly universal thing. Per Twitter, finding Billy hot is a guilty pleasure that plenty acknowledge. Given Billy had an affair with Sarah while allegedly dating Winifred, he was clearly a prize to be won. (Even though we learn in the sequel Winifred’s version of events isn’t the most accurate.)

photo of special effects artist tony gardner and doug jones as billy butcherson on the set of hocus pocus 2

Tony Gardner and Doug Jones as Billy Butcherson on set.

 Tony Gardner/Alterian, Inc.

When interviewing Tony Gardner, the founder of Alterian, Inc. and special effects artist for Billy in both the original and the sequel, the “hot for Billy” theme was further cemented. “[The film] made Doug Jones [the actor who portrays Billy Butcherson] a rock star by default,” says Gardner. He recalls that many of the people on the crew for the new film revealed their childhood crushes on Billy Butcherson. The first time Jones walked on set in full Billy glory, there were “a lot of jaws on the floor from the younger crew members.”

I also learned that Billy’s hotness was somewhat intentional. The zombie’s look is based on the protagonist in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. While the book doesn’t describe his looks in-depth, it mentions Ichabod was “tall and exceedingly lank” with “his whole frame most loosely hung together,” which Gardner clearly nails with Billy. Ichabod has been played by actors like Tom Mison and Jeff Goldblum for television and film who — dare I say it? — give the character a haunting hotness. (A far cry from how he’s portrayed in the 1949 Disney’s animated film.)

original pencil sketch of billy the butcher which would become billy butcherson in hocus pocus 2

The original design for Billy.

 Tony Gardner/Alterian, Inc.

“I always viewed Billy as sort of a cooler, hipper version of Ichabod Crane,” said Gardner. “Where he’s this gangly school teacher kind of guy that had that pseudo-punk ponytail that was unkempt.” Because Jones is tall and thin, they were able to bring this vision to life. “My concept was to start with the skinny awkward guy and then ‘punk’ him out in regards to hair and eye makeup. Even his ponytail is teased out. Everything’s a little bit bigger than it needs to be, but that also helps make him look a little skinnier as well.” (So in this case, emo is dead. Literally.)

Bringing Billy Back to Life

As for reviving Billy from his grave for the sequel, Gardner said he and Jones got a trial run in 2020 for In Search of the Sanderson Sisters: A Hocus Pocus Hulaween Takeover, a one-hour special which was put on virtually during the pandemic to raise money for Bette Midler’s charity, New York Restoration Project.

“We didn’t have any of the molds for Doug’s prosthetics anymore, but we had his body cast and his hand cast,” said Gardner. “Doug’s literally exactly the same size he was almost 30 years ago. There’s nothing different about the guy, if anyone was going to do an anti-aging commercial, it should be Doug Jones. His body, his face, everything is exactly the same.”

side by side images of special effects artist tony gardner and doug jones as billy butcherson in 1993 and 2022

Gardner and Jones, then and now.

 Tony Gardner/Alterian, Inc.

Even with some of the prep work already done, it took Gardner and special effects makeup artist Tom Flouts an hour and a half to transform Jones in total, utilizing gloves for his hands and a bodysuit to cover her legs and upper arm area just like the first movie. After the special aired, the sequel was announced. “I had done my best attempt for [In Search of the Sanderson Sisters] to match [Billy to the original movie],” said Gardner. “But once the sequel was announced, I became obsessed with being as true as possible to what he looked like and being as accurate to the first film as I possibly could.”

While there have been technical improvements and achievements in things like makeup materials available and glues for prosthetic application in the nearly 30 years since the first Hocus Pocus premiered, Gardner wanted to ensure Billy’s look remained nearly identical to the original to not take the audience out of the movie. Gardner used foam latex instead of silicone (a material used more now because of its more realistic qualities) and the same types of paints, makeup supplies, and materials he employed in the original. “I tried to literally match the wrinkle lines and the depressions in his face so that he was literally timeless — that it looked like he went to sleep,” he said. “As a zombie, he’s already dead. He’s not going to age and when he gets back up out of the grave, he’s gonna look exactly the same, right?”

three men working to create a life cast of doug jones' face and chest for the character billy butcherson in hocus pocus 2

Creating Jones’s Billy lifecast.

 Tony Gardner/Alterian, Inc.

Another part of Billy’s overall look that stayed consistent from film to film is how he appears more like a dried-out husk than a rotting, fleshy corpse. This was a different type of intentional Disney magic. “A lot of the way he looks was actually dictated by the script, because the script described him getting his head chopped off and his fingers getting cut off — that would normally be fairly gory and graphic for a zombie, but this is a Disney movie,” said Gardner. “I took the approach that [he] was more like driftwood or dried wood — when something broke, it would be like a stick breaking and there would be sort of a dried look inside it. The whole ‘dried’ idea drove the look of his face and the lines, that gauntness — like something losing moisture and drying to the bone structure.”

On top of all the details that were so painstakingly recreated, one piece of the original film literally made it into the sequel, thanks to Gardner’s almost 30-year preservation of it. “I had saved the original Billy wig from the first film and had it on display at Alterian Studios,” said Gardner. “I literally took it off the wig head and used it as-is, with all of the original dust, leaves, and the original fabric ponytail tie still in it.” Clearly, Billy is pulling it off, original dust and all.

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