Did PG-13 change horror films, or just change us?

‘Gremlins,’ ‘The Sixth Sense’ and horror’s ever-shifting relationship with mainstream culture
by Court Mann

SALT LAKE CITY — When Crazy Ralph told the teens of Camp Crystal Lake that they were, in his words, “all dooooooomed!,” it was an understatement.

He and his “Friday the 13th” counterparts leveraged the horror genre’s biggest trope — vulnerable teens — to great effect. If a teenager is in a horror flick, then a murderer, monster or other baddie probably wants them dead.

Thirteen, then, is an important number in horror — in fact, it’s arguably the genre’s most important number. And in 1984, when the PG-13 rating was instituted, its importance cemented itself. PG-13 changed the horror movie industry, and pop culture’s relationship with it, in some major ways.

Change No. 1: Horror became less restricted

After 1984, the MPAA rating system had three “unrestricted” ratings: G, PG and PG-13. People under age 17 could see these films in theaters without a parent or guardian. And for that, 1984’s “Gremlins” is partially to thank.

Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Joe Dante, “Gremlins” was released a month before PG-13 went into effect. Though it got a PG rating and was marketed as family friendly, “Gremlins” was far more shocking. 

Dante’s resume included the R-rated horror films “Piranha” (1978) and “The Howling” (1981), and he brought the genre’s subversive ethos to “Gremlins.” Parents expected “Gremlins” to reinforce conservative family values, just like Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” or 1982’s “Poltergeist,” which Spielberg produced. Instead, they got a film about murderous critters that also satirizes notions of innocence and “the American way.”

“This movie is not the same sort of heartwarming, cheerful fable that ‘E.T.’ was,” Roger Ebert said when he and Gene Siskel reviewed “Gremlins.” “It has a darker sense of humor. There are some scenes in this movie where it really gets kind of gruesome — especially when that gremlin explodes inside the microwave oven.”

“It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting,” Siskel added, “only there’s blood on the turkey.”

Despite the controversy, “Gremlins” still made $153 million domestically. After the PG-13 rating was introduced that year, a stream of tamer, horror-influenced PG-13 movies aimed at tweens were released, including “Critters” (1986), “The Gate” (1987) and “The Monster Squad” (1987). The “Gremlins” sequel, released in 1990, was also PG-13. While most horror films were still R-rated, PG-13 horror began to carve its own niche.

In a piece for the Journal of Film and Video titled “Rethinking PG-13: Ratings and the Boundaries of Childhood and Horror,” Filipa Antunes wrote, “Spielberg and Dante’s attempt to negotiate horror and family entertainment … also suggests an attempt to renegotiate the boundaries of the horror genre, bringing it below the R frontier.”

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Antunes continues: “The characteristics of horror which fans appreciated, and which had previously been taken for granted, such as its unsuitability for children, its violence and edginess, were being put to the test, and the question of where to draw the line became a concern of the genre, not to mention parents and critics.”

For the most part, horror retrenched itself in its R-rated roots. Of the U.S.’s 20 highest-grossing horror movies during the 1990s, only four were rated PG-13. This trend began changing in 1999, though, with “The Sixth Sense.”

Change No. 3: Horror turned into a cash cow

The Sixth Sense” made $293 million at the U.S. box office, and $379 million internationally. The following year, the Harrison Ford/Michelle Pfeiffer film “What Lies Beneath” brought in $155 million stateside and almost $136 million internationally. These two were films weren’t strictly horror, weaving in fantasy and thriller elements, but they signaled a major shift in mainstream attitudes toward horror content. As mentioned, only four PG-13 horror movies cracked the genre’s top 20 during the ’90s. From 2000-2009, this number stayed at four, but these four made considerably more money than those from the previous decade, even when adjusted for inflation.

Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) saw dead people in the 1999 chiller “The Sixth Sense,” from M. Night Shyamalan.
Haley Joel Osment in a scene from the film “The Sixth Sense.”

This has continued in the current decade. Once again, four PG-13 films have made the top 20, with their earnings exceeding those PG-13 films from the previous decade. This means that in the 2000s, eight of the 20 most successful horror films were PG-13. 

It’s tough for any horror movie — be it PG-13 or R — to make the kind of money that a “Star Wars” or “Avengers” film would. But horror films are produced at a fraction of the cost, making their return on investment a pretty safe bet. Studios have learned how to work the margins with small-budget horror films, and occasionally hit a home run with a “Sixth Sense,” a “Get Out” or an “IT.” R-rated horror is still popular, but not nearly to the same degree it once was.

Change No. 4: Horror went mainstream

When “Get Out” was nominated for the best picture Oscar in 2018 — and won best original screenplay — it felt like a watershed moment for horror. The genre has migrated from pop culture’s periphery, and now occupies a more central spot among both audiences and critics. 

PG-13 horror flicks have increased, and in recent years, so have R-rated ones. Blumhouse Productions, which released the R-rated “Get Out,” has become the genre’s biggest champion this decade, releasing R-rated horror hits like the numerous “Paranormal Activity” and “Purge” films. Blumhouse has also produced PG-13 horror content such as the “Insidious” sequels and the “Happy Death Day” series. On the whole, audiences are turning to horror films a bit more than they used to.

“While it seems like going to a scary movie would be the exact opposite of what someone would want to do in times like this, there is also a cathartic release of fear that can be accomplished in a movie theater that is not possible in real life,” said Andrew Selepak, a professor in the University of Florida’s department of telecommunication, during a 2017 interview with CNBC.

It’s hard to determine if PG-13 actually changed the content of horror movies themselves. After all, pre-1984 horror films haven’t had their ratings retroactively changed: “Friday the 13th” was rated R in 1980, so it’s still rated R in 2019. What has definitely changed, though, is mainstream culture’s relationship to the genre. Once PG-13 became a thing, teens weren’t just the subject of horror films anymore, they also became a larger portion of the horror audience. And in the process, horror became way more mainstream. Both critically and commercially, the genre is far from doomed. 

Patrick Wilson, left, and Ty Simpkins in a scene from “Insidious: Chapter 2.”
Matt Kennedy, Film District