Everyone remembers the first movie that terrified them into a sleepless night (or week) of hiding under the blankets and praying for the sun to come up. Sometimes that movie was disguised as a family-friendly feature; other times, your parents saw the PG rating and decided because it lacked intense scenes or other mature themes that it would be juuust fine. Either way, those PG or PG-13 scary movies made a lasting impression. Maybe they scarred you for life, or maybe they turned you into a lifelong horror fan.
While horror masters like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie use grotesque imagery to intensify their disturbing tales, less inspired scary movies tend to rely a little too heavily on blood and gore to scare audiences. To the unvetted viewer, this grossness overload can be off-putting, and for the desensitized horror junkie, the lack of plot simply makes for a boring movie.
There are a number of cinematic gems in the horror genre that make particularly good use of tension, oppressive atmosphere, high stakes, intriguing characters, and downright creepy situations to create a truly horrifying experience that stays with you long after the credits have rolled. Here is a list of the best PG-13 horror movies (and one PG horror movie!) that are sure to haunt you.
Based on the Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge, this is the story of an angry spirit who exacts her revenge on the living. Told in a jarring and nonlinear style, it leaves the viewer feeling highly disoriented as various characters are hunted by one of the strangest ghosts in cinema. Kayako’s spirit appears as a sickly pale woman with stringy black hair covering her gaping eyes. An ominous gurgling, croaking sound heralds her appearances, and as the darkness grows, her specter emerges from the gloom to close in on her victims.
Despite the convoluted story, this movie packs some serious scare sequences that evoke the slow, thick frustration of having a nightmare and being unable to move to escape peril. The way that Kayako’s ghost twitches and undulates adds to her unearthly, unstoppable terror. She cannot be contained, and the protagonists' helplessness is shared by the viewer - and lingers even after the film is done.
Actors: Sarah Michelle Gellar, KaDee Strickland, Bill Pullman, Rosa Blasi, Jason Behr, + more
Directed by: Takashi Shimizu
The Others is one of the most atmospheric horror movies of the last few decades. The film takes place in 1945 in an English countryside mansion that is home to two highly photosensitive children and their overbearing mother, Grace (Nicole Kidman). Three new servants are hired to help manage the expansive grounds while Grace’s husband is away in the midst of WWII, but shortly after their arrival, a series of ghostly happenings distress the family.
The secret to the success of The Others is how it can take familiar tropes, such as the piano playing itself or the curtains being drawn of their own accord, and present them in a way that seems fresh and genuinely chilling. One scene involves Grace finding a photo album of cadavers in the attic and poring over their faded pages as quiet horror sinks in.
It’s hard not to get caught up in Kidman’s performance of a high-strung, neatly ordered character slowly descending into madness as she contends with otherworldly events that threaten her children. The whole movie is gorgeously Gothic, with grim, foggy landscapes and an antique home kept in eternal darkness. The terror ramps up after Grace is pushed into striking her own daughter, who appears to be possessed by the ghost of an elderly woman - and the film takes a turn when Grace slowly comes to terms with what she has done and the consequences of her actions.
Actors: Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston, Michelle Fairley, Fionnula Flanagan, Keith Allen, + more
Directed by: Alejandro Amenábar
The fact that this movie snuck by with a PG rating and still manages to be one of the scariest horror movies of all time speaks to its success. This is the ultimate haunted house film that contains a weird mixture of supernatural confusion, an evil clown doll, eerie spirits, face-ripping madness, and a totally out-of-control ending sequence that will leave you rattled.
Poltergeist employs a familiar horror premise - a middle-class family in a haunted home dealing with ever-more-frequent paranormal events - but the stakes are immediately raised when the young daughter, Carol Anne, is abducted by ghosts and taken to a spirit world. The family must go through hell to retrieve their child and figure out why these restless souls are lashing out in the first place.
So many of the spooky scenes in the movie make use of convincing practical effects that have aged well - particularly in an era oversaturated with CGI.
Actors: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O'Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Beatrice Straight, + more
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Naomi Watts stars in this bone-chilling horror classic directed by Gore Verbinski. This movie contains some deeply disturbing imagery that focuses on unsettling the viewer psychologically.
Rachel (Watts) is investigating her niece’s sudden passing when she discovers a VHS tape of unknown origin. On it is a series of bizarre and frightening images, including a cord being drawn out of someone’s throat, maggots transforming into humans, and the titular ring of light. After watching this video, Rachel receives a phone call warning her that she will perish in seven days. The tape’s content alone is enough to haunt the viewer, but things only get creepier from there. Rachel, now cursed, experiences a series of blood-curdling encounters and eventually tracks down the source of the tape to a young girl named Samara.
The Ring’s cleverness lies in just how much it decides to reveal. We never learn exactly where Samara came from or how she could make a series of disturbing "pictures" with her mind, but we are given enough of her story to both fear and empathize with her. It is this limiting of information in the exact right amounts that manipulates our fear of the unknown and impossible.
Actors: Naomi Watts, Pauley Perrette, Brian Cox, Amber Tamblyn, Sara Rue, + more
Directed by: Gore Verbinski