Iron straps bind an innocent security guard to a chair. He writhes and screams as a contraption comes near his face, a POV shot revealing buzzing blades, grinding gears, and a set of glowing red eyes. The security guard scrambles to set himself free, trying to control his hyperventilating long enough to shake loose one of the restraints. But it’s no good. The contraption settles on his face, drowning his screams under a mechanical mask.
No, I’m not describing one of Jigsaw’s new traps in Saw X. That movie does not shy away from eyeball-sucking vacuums or bowls of brain matter, befitting the franchise’s hard-R reputation. Instead, I’m describing the opening scene of Five Nights at Freddy’s, the video game adaptation that earned $80 million on its opening weekend. Despite earning middling reviews, the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie knew exactly how to please its target audience: tweens, teens, and young adults who have been following its Saw-like rambling backstory since the first game’s release in 2014.
Part of Five Nights at Freddy’s success comes from the game’s massive following. But it also comes from the producers at Blumhouse understanding their audience, and doing what made the company so successful in the first place. While some will contend that a PG-13 rating mutes the excesses inherent to horror, Blumhouse and other studios have proven that a softer rating opens the genre to new audiences.
The History of the PG-13 Rating
The PG-13 rating has its roots in horror. Sort of.
When the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) introduced its rating system in 1968, it included only the designations for G, M (suggested for Mature Audiences), R (no children under 16 without a parent or guardian), and X (no one under 16 admitted). That soon changed to the more familiar G, PG, R, and X system, with the limits for R and X raised to 17.
Then came Steven Spielberg. His Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, as well as the Spielberg-produced Gremlins and Poltergeist, drew criticism for their intense scenes of violence and gore, deemed inappropriate for a PG audience. The MPAA accepted Spielberg’s suggestion for a PG-13 rating, and the designation first went to the action film Red Dawn, the romantic comedy The Flamingo Kid, and David Lynch’s Dune.
The rating soon served an important marketing function, becoming the de facto rating for a “family” film. While PG-13 films do allow for two uses of the word “fuck” in a non-sexual context, they also can signify slightly more mature, but ultimately safe, cinematic fare. Most major franchises shoot for a PG-13 rating, and at least half of the top ten highest-grossing movies of the past five years have been rated PG-13.
In short, what began as a warning of material slightly too intense for all audiences has become the signifier of accessible, if slightly more mature, material, which makes it perfect for a certain type of horror.
The Power of PG-13 Horror
It’s easy to see why PG-13 horror got a bad rap so early on. In the same year that saw the release of R-rated classics such as Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and the first A Nightmare on Elm Street, the first PG-13 horror films were hybrids, such as the fantasy horror of Dreamscape or the horror comedy of The Night of the Comet. Both of these films have their charms, but they don’t pass the “purity test” of hard-edged, R-rated entries.
But as the PG-13 rating grew to signify accessibility, horror with that designation became a way to bring younger or more timid viewers into a genre that can be intentionally off-putting. No studio has taken advantage of this tendency better than Blumhouse, makers of the aforementioned Five Nights at Freddy’s. The company has released catchy, meme-ready movies targeted at young teens and tweens like Ma, M3GAN, and Happy Death Day. With the promise of campy fun, these movies invite people into the experience, promising that the carnage wrought by baby-faced slashers and middle-aged women who don’t want to drink alone will be more fun than disturbing.
Which is, of course, the point of horror for many. Some of us do certainly go to horror to stare into oblivion or to see the worst parts of society reflected back at us. But even those who watch horror with a monocle or a Swedish death metal t-shirt must admit that scary movies are fun. We cheer when Freddy smashes a couch potato’s head into a television and Jason teleports behind a fleeing teen. Even aggressively mean-spirited films such as last year’s surprise hit Terrifier 2 work best as a Looney Tunes cartoon taken to the extreme. PG-13 horror films teach fans in training the real first rule of horror: this is fun, so don’t take it seriously.
That said, the rating can apply to films with heavier themes and more dyspeptic worldviews. Babak Anvari’s 2016 film Under the Shadow mixes a ghost story with the psychological terror of living in war-torn Iran. The Others reveals the loneliness of a single mother trying to shield her children from the evil outside her door. Neither of these films has extreme gore, but they still both present the world as an inherently terrifying place, raising questions with no easy answers.
Furthermore, some of the best horror movies of all time have had a PG-13 rating, demonstrating that the drop in rating does not equate to a drop in quality. The Sixth Sense, Drag Me to Hell, and Tremors all aim at larger audiences, while still telling excellent and varied horror stories.
Of course, anyone who only sticks to PG-13 horror will miss out on a lot of excellent stuff the genre has to offer, but the same is true of those who like psychological horror and avoid heavy gore, or those who dismiss slashers as brainless trash. The genre is wide enough to contain Saw and Five Nights at Freddy’s. If the latter invites people to check out the former, all the better.