The Success of PG-13 Horror – 7 Films That Did Well at the Box Office

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When The Last Exorcism was set to be released, horror fans took up arms to protest its PG-13 rating. For many, an R rating is an inextricable component of horror films, one that allows them to push certain boundaries not found in PG-13 films. How good can a horror film be if it’s rated PG-13?

While there are exceptions, the majority of PG-13 horror films, at least in contemporary cinema, focus on instilling a sense of dread and fear rather than outright shocking you with blood, guts, sex, and violence. 

If you look back over the past thirty years or so, PG-13 horror has been wildly successful, perhaps more so than R-rated horror, due in no small part to their ability to focus less on the object and more on the abject, and thus be more appealing to those unable to stomach extreme violence and gore.

Although I will always have a special place in my heart for graphic horror films (Evil Dead helped get me into horror), my preference for creepy, brooding thrillers remains unwavering, their rating by an arbitrary board of suits doing little to influence that. Of course, their financial success could also be due to their being open to a wider audience, but that’s always open to debate.

In honor of the release of the forthcoming PG-13 thriller Shadow People (read our review here), here’s a list of the films that sacrifice excessive gore, sex, and the f-word to be huge hits among genre fans and at the box office.

pg 13 horror - The Success of PG-13 Horror - 7 Films That Did Well at the Box Office

The Last Exorcism

The most recent film on this list to elicit cries of foul among horror fans, The Last Exorcism deftly blended a found footage approach with that of a faux-doc and helped kick off a new exorcism craze that just won’t go away. The scares are few and far between, with director Daniel Stamm slowly amping up the tension with subtle scare tactics that introduce Nell’s malady very slowly before ending with a very divisive climax. 

The Sixth Sense

The granddaddy of all PG-13 thrillers, it’s not a stretch to say that The Sixth Sense has surpassed Chinatown as the eminent “spoilerable movie.” It’s dark, it’s creepy, and most importantly, it relies on a slow build-up of tension and a delicate balance of drama to frighten the viewer. The Sixth Sense went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and while M. Night Shyamalan has yet to replicate the success of the film (Signs came close, even though the “they hate water” twist made the entire thing nonsensical BS), he can rest assured knowing that his groundbreaking debut has been fodder for parody by the Wayans Brothers. 

Drag Me to Hell

I’m going to go on record and say that I absolutely loathe this film, due in no small part to its horrible performances, plot hole-riddled script, and inability to balance the comedy with the horror, but there’s no denying its popularity despite its PG-13 rating. Although Sam Raimi’s much touted “return to horror” retains the distinctive style he cultivated with his Evil Dead trilogy, it favors old school frights and tongue-in-cheek gross-out gags over excessive blood, securing it a PG-13 ratings and performing admirably at the box office, making three times its $30 million budget. It has since gone on to be a fan favorite… and a major thorn in my side as I try to argue why it’s not a good movie. 

The Others

Admittedly, it’s been a long while since I’ve seen The Others, but I do remember it being rather frightening and yet another in a long line of haunted house/ghost films that focus on dread (do you see a trend here?) and it was certainly inspired by The Sixth Sense with its big twist ending. Of course, it works, due in part to writer/director Alejandro Amenábar’s ability to, like most of the other films on this list, slowly build up the tension with impressive and frightening visuals. 

The Ring

The Ring is one of the few movies to actually give me legitimate heebie jeebies, though much of this can be attributed to the insanely creepy ending. But throughout it all, director Gore Verbinski not only crafts a superbly effective thriller, he does so without the need for gore or foul language, relying instead on the almost detective-like nature of the story as Rachel attempts to figure out what the tape really means. It’s certainly one of the best horror films of the past fifteen years, and it achieved that role through good ol’ fashioned scares and atmosphere.


Poltergeist is an INCREDIBLY creepy movie, and one that would have assuredly earned the PG-13 rating had it, you know, existed. In fact, it’s kind of difficult to understand how it didn’t get an R rating in the first place. It features some incredibly dark and disturbing imagery–namely, the face melting scene–and the type of thematic content destined to wreak havoc on the imaginations of young boys and girls around the world. Haunted house movies represent a variety of fears, and the notion that you’re not safe in your own home is chief among them. Although made during a period when PG-13 didn’t exist, Poltergeist is a perfect example of a horror movie that treads the line between what’s acceptable for younger viewers and what isn’t, with Tobe Hooper’s direction and Steven Spielberg’s script proving that you can still make a terrifying horror movie without the need for an R rating.


Along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, we have Gremlins to blame for the creation of the PG-13 rating. Darkly comedic, yet filled with some incredibly disturbing scenes, Gremlins has become a cult classic, spawning a meta sequel that takes a far more slapstick approach to the violence than the first film. While the PG-13 was a seemingly necessary creation, had it been shot based on the original script, an R rating would have been secured. Although it went through multiple drafts, several scenes were cut, including an horrific death involving a steamroller and the head of Billy’s mother being thrown down the stairs. There has been talk of a Gremlins remake, and while the original is a classic in its own right, I would love to see a hyper-violent take on the adventures of Gizmo.

Bonus: Killer Klowns from Outer Space

Campy and badly acted, Killer Klowns from Outer Space is the one film on this list that I believe deserves an R rating. Despite how goofy it is on the surface, some of the scenes, especially the discovery of the dead and bloodied bodies in the cotton candy cocoons and the scene where John Vernon’s dead body is used a puppet by one of the clown, are so exceptionally dark that a modern upgrade of the film would guarantee it an R rating. 

Of course, this isn’t a successful PG-13 horror film and thus doesn’t really belong on this list, but I just wanted an excuse to talk about how awesomely dark it is.

Shadow People arrives on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment on March 19th.

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