Brown didn’t expect a lifetime of bewitching when she signed on as Marnie Piper in Disney Channel’s Halloweentown at age 13. Now on the 20th anniversary of the original TV movie’s 1998 debut, Brown, 33, still fully embraces the festivities surrounding Oct. 31, having released a Halloween-themed children's book, operating an Etsy shop filled with Halloweentown swag and attending Oregon’s Spirit of Halloweentown event.
“It’s such an honor to have people come and relive the film,” Brown tells PEOPLE of the annual celebrations in St. Helens, Oregon, where Halloweentown filmed. “The role and the friendships and everything that I’ve created from that, it’s fun for me to go back and feel that nostalgia. Having people still wanting to talk about all that is the ultimate honor. I never imagined it would grow to what it is now.” ”
Young witch Marnie and her family’s adventures in a foreign realm where skeletons drive taxis and werewolves work as barber inspired three subsequent films, all based on the previous one’s success. “Those sort of came about as the years went on and the popularity grew for the movie,” Brown says. “When we did the first one, I was only ever aware of there being one movie. As they got more popular, they wanted to do more.”
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After fans followed the Piper clan — led by magical matriarch Aggie Cromwell (Debbie Reynolds) — back to Halloweentown for Kalabar’s Revenge in 2001 and then to Halloweentown High three years later, they were shocked by Brown’s absence from the fourth and final film, in which Marnie attends college. Sara Paxton took over the role for the 2006 installment, and Brown, who started acting as a child, recalls feeling “disappointed” by Disney’s decision.
“Doing this since I was 6 years old and unfortunately, with the entertainment industry and I’m sure plenty of other industries, there are lots of decisions that are made along the way that happen,” Brown says. “It certainly hasn’t been the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me. We kind of chalked it up to that and moved forward.”
Brown didn’t need to be casting spells and fighting warlocks to stay close with her on-screen grandma, though.
“We would hang out in Los Angeles,” Brown says of Reynolds. “She had such a spark of fun energy, and she loved signing and making people laugh. She never wanted to stop doing it. She really showed me what a gift it was to be in that position to make people happy. She was such a warm, sparkly person.”
Brown will never forget how Reynolds — who quips the movies’ most iconic line: “Being normal is vastly overrated” — kept the magic alive even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
“She was always wanting to have a good time and she loved keeping that fun, whimsical energy on the set,” the Maryland native remembers. “She was always wanting to have a good time and she loved keeping that fun, whimsical energy. She embraced every ounce of that grandmotherly type figure with a fun streak.”
Aside from keeping in touch with Reynolds until her December 2016 death at age 84, Brown remains close with many other members of the Halloweentown cast, some of whom gathered for the first time since 1998 at Saturday’s Spirit of Halloweentown.
Since last appearing in the franchise in 2004, Brown formed an unexpected bond with her Halloweentown II: Kalabar’s Revenge costar Daniel Kountz.
“He’s been in some of my sketches — I do a lot of original content for YouTube — and that was sort of how that came about as far as us hanging out more often,” Brown reveals. “Then it grew to something else.”
When she first shared a photo of the two kissing in July, fans couldn’t help but freak out at the sight of the former nemeses (his dad did try to take out her family) locking lips. “I’ll get comments on Instagram being like, ‘Wait a minute, did he take your spell book again?’ and it cracks me up,” Brown says.
Brown won’t be sitting down for a Halloweentown marathon with Kountz, 40, this year (“That would be so weird!” the actress protests), but her October celebrations do include indulging in candy corn and dressing up. In fact, she even used to surprise trick-or-treaters when she handed out sweets as Marine.
“Debbie actually gave me the idea years and years ago: She said she used to give out candy in her Aggie cloak. I think it was after the first movie,” says the former teen star, who partnered with Goodwill to help fans find affordable and socially-conscious DIY costumes this year. “And then maybe around the time the second one came out, I did that for a while because I have Marnie’s clock from the second one.”
She continues, “I would open up the door and would stun a few kids and fans, which was so fun. It then got a little out of hand where I would start getting visitors year round and had to take a step back on a little bit.”
Though her supernatural days may be behind her, Brown still dreams about coming into magical powers just like Marnie did on her 13th Halloween.
“The idea of teleport, or snap your fingers and be somewhere else would be a great power to have, especially as an adult living in Los Angeles,” Brown jokes. “I could talk forever on those possibilities.”