Everybody loves spooky season, even the timid among us. Too often, those with weak constitutions skip out on the October tradition of watching horror movies because they equate the genre with its most extreme examples, the gore and disturbing imagery that fills R-rated films. But since the invention of the PG-13 rating in 1984, filmmakers have found a way to tell scary stories without pushing away potential viewers, creating a good time for the skittish and the hardened horror fan alike. Here are 25 of the best PG-13 movies for anyone who wants to be scared, but not too much.
1. Tremors (1990)
Tremors may not have nasty kills and excessive gore, but it has everything most people want and need in a horror movie. It has a fantastic monster in the form of giant underground worms dubbed “Graboids,” a witty screenplay by Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson that accentuates the colorful locals of the Nevada setting, and lovable leads in Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward. Director Ron Underwood balances humor, horror, and character to make Tremors beloved by even the most hardened horror fan.
2. The Sixth Sense (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan already had a few movies under his belt when The Sixth Sense hit theaters in 1999. However, none had the reach and popularity of The Sixth Sense, which made the director a household name. Shyamalan doesn’t skimp on the scares, as anyone who recalls the gunshot ghost or the bike-riding ghost can attest. But The Sixth Sense works so well because it wraps the story of poor haunted Cole (Haley Joel Osment) around an emotional tale about psychologist Malcolm Crowe’s (Bruce Willis) lost love.
3. Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
These days, genre fans know Mike Flanagan as the man behind soulful and philosophical Netflix series such as Midnight Mass and The Haunting of Hill House. Before crafting a monologue-laden television series, Flanagan made great low-budget flicks, including this sequel to the little-loved ghost movie Ouija. Origin of Evil uses its 1960s setting to tell the story of a mother (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters (Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson), who contact a demon while trying to communicate with their late father. Equal parts terrifying and moving, Ouija: Origin of Evil brings smart horror to a wider audience.
4. The Mummy (1999)
Most people think of The Mummy as more of an action and romance flick. Director Stephen Sommers does mimic the best parts of the Indiana Jones franchise, setting dashing adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and the book-smart Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) against the minions of Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo). But make no mistake, The Mummy is often quite scary. On his way to reunification with his love, Imhotep steals eyes from victims and covers his enemies with scarabs. Sommers keeps the action going fast enough to keep things from getting too dark.
5. Drag Me to Hell (2009)
For those who want something a little more intense, but not quite R-rated, there’s Drag Me to Hell. When not making the big-budget Spider-Man movies, director Sam Raimi crafts intense horror films such as The Evil Dead franchise. Raimi, along with brother and co-writer Ivan, maintains the edge of his best work while staying within PG-13 parameters. Allison Lohman stars as young loan officer Christine, who incurs the wrath of elderly Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver) after denying her mortgage relief. Ganush puts a horrible curse on poor Christine, but Raimi has a blast putting the girl through slimy and absurd trials before building to a shocker of an ending.
6. The Gate (1987)
Few movies capture the terror of a kid’s wild imagination like The Gate, written by Michael Nankin and directed by Tibor Takács. It follows a group of teens (led by a young Stephen Dorff) who discover a portal to Hell in their backyard. Despite its focus on kids, The Gate puts its leads through some pretty horrific situations, as if drawing straight from its audience’s nightmares. However, even the most timid viewer will be sure to love the film’s amazing effects, including a gaggle of stop-motion beasties.
7. Insidious (2010)
James Wan and Leigh Whannell gave the world one of the nastiest horror franchises of all time when they made Saw in 2004. Since then, however, the duo has been focused most of its attention on less-explicit, old-school scares. The duo are at their best with Insidious, a classic haunted-house film led by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne. Thanks to the duo’s first-class horror sensibilities, Insidious launched a franchise that continues to put out sequels to this day.
8. The Others (2001)
For some, The Others by Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar gets buried by The Sixth Sense, as both films are ghost stories with surprising twists. But even more so than its famous predecessor, The Others puts drama before scares, operating like a great Victorian novel. The Others follows a single mother Grace (Nicole Kidman) as she cares for her children while her husband serves in World War II. Her job grows more difficult when spirits emerge from the shadows of her house and take an interest in her kids.
9. What Lies Beneath (2000)
Robert Zemeckis made some of the most popular movies of all time, directing Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump. What Lies Beneath doesn’t have quite the same reputation, but that doesn’t diminish its quality. A tense thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, What Lies Beneath draws from some of the best horror films of the 40s and 50s to tell a scary, modern ghost story.
10. The Last Exorcism (2010)
Even those disinterested in found-footage movies will find much to love in The Last Exorcism, thanks to its irresistible premise. Con artist and fake preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) wants to come clean, so he films a documentary showing the tricks he uses to fake exorcisms. But when Cotton comes to help young Nell (Ashley Bell), he discovers that evil exists beyond his scams. Director Daniel Stamm and screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland push their tale to its farthest extremes, but that just makes The Last Exorcism all the more memorable.
11. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Directed by the future maker of The Batman Matt Reeves, the found footage film gained attention with its ground-level look at a kaiju invasion. But the best entry in the Cloverfield franchise came next, with 10 Cloverfield Lane from director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle. Doing away with the found-footage approach of its predecessor, 10 Cloverfield Lane examines the tensions between Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), and their host Howard (John Goodman), who lets the young people stay in his bomb shelter during a monster invasion. Although safe from the creatures outside, Michelle begins to worry that the real threat comes from an unstable Howard, resulting in a well-crafted thriller.
12. Escape Room (2019)
Movies such as Saw launched the escape room craze, in which real people lock themselves in rooms and follow the clues to get out. So it only makes sense that the escape room craze would give back to movies with the teen-friendly Escape Room franchise. Director Adam Robitel and screenwriters Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik tell a compelling story about math whiz Zoey (Taylor Russell), who gets recruited into a team-building game that reveals itself to be far more dangerous than it seemed. With imaginative effects and strong performances from a cast that includes Deborah Ann Woll and Tyler Labine, Escape Room is far more than Saw Jr.
13. Happy Death Day (2017)
Nothing reinvigorates a tired trope like mixing it with another genre, as director Christopher Landon found with Happy Death Day. When mean college girl Tree (Jessica Rothe, in a star-making turn) gets killed by a masked attacker, she wakes up to find herself reliving the same day over and over again, which happens to be both her birthday and the anniversary of her mom’s death. As Tree tries to find the killer and break the cycle, she becomes more compassionate and empathetic, making the movie as heart-warming as it is funny and scary.
14. The Ring (2002)
The Ring might be the perfect horror movie for teens. In adapting the Japanese film Ringu for American audiences, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriter Ehren Kruger emphasize the mystery aspect of the tale, starting with the death of a teen girl. After her niece dies under inexplicable circumstances, reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) uncovers the mystery of a cursed videotape, which kills anyone who watches it. Verbinski doles out the terror, relishing in some of the most horrific images in any PG-13-rated movie.
15. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
Children of the 80s loved to give each other nightmares with the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. For their big-screen adaptation, director André Øvredal and screenwriters The Hageman Brothers combine those tales into a grand narrative. 1960s teen Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her friends discover a cursed book that puts her and her friends into ghastly tales. Stella must find the secret to stop the stories, but the real pleasure of the film comes from the well-imagined set pieces, which bring to life Schwartz's ideas and Gammell’s grotesque illustrations.
16. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Even the most squeamish viewer can watch the original Little Shop of Horrors from 1960 and not get scared. The 1986 movie may be directed by Muppets collaborator Frank Oz and include songs from Disney tunesmiths Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, but it packs a much chillier punch. When down-on-his-luck flower shop clerk Seymour (Rick Moranis) discovers an alien plant he dubs Audrey II (voiced by Levi Stubbs), he feeds it drops of blood to make it happy. But as Audrey II grows, it gets more hungry, and it's going to take human flesh to satisfy its cravings. Equal parts delightful and disturbing, with a standout performance by Steve Martin as a sadistic dentist, Little Shop of Horrors is a horror comedy with a dark heart.
17. Arachnophobia (1990)
Nobody likes spiders, least of all big-city doctor Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) who comes to a small town to replace the retiring local physician. In addition to the not-so-warm welcome he gets from the townspeople, Dr. Jennings also must deal with the threat of a rare, mutated spider, whose offspring run amok on the citizens. Arachnophobia director Frank Marshall and screenwriters Don Jakoby and Wesley Strick strike a satisfying balance of humor and horror, especially when John Goodman swaggers onto the scene as arrogant and air-headed exterminator Delbert McClintock.
18. Underwater (2020)
Writer H.P. Lovecraft inspired some of the greatest horror creators of all time with his stories about indescribable evil lurking in the depths. Underwater manages to tap into those same fears while keeping a PG-13 rating, thanks to the deft hand of director William Eubank. Screenwriters Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad borrow from Ridley Scott’s Alien to spin a spooky yarn about a researcher (Kristen Stewart) in a rag-tag team trying to escape a submerged facility under attack by mysterious creatures. Underwater ratchets up the suspense and minimizes gore, even when revealing the unspeakable beings from beneath the ocean floor.
19. Sweetheart (2019)
Most Hollywood actors have screen presence. But only talents such as Sweetheart star Kiersey Clemons can hold the screen by themselves, with no other actors to carry the load. Clemons spends so much time by herself because her character Jennifer has been shipwrecked, left on a deserted island with no one else around. Well, no humans around. Jennifer learns that a sea monster comes ashore at night, forcing her to use her wits while she stays alive long enough to be rescued. JD Dillard and his co-writers Alex Hyner and Alex Theurer come up with plenty of novel ways to keep the story going, revealing Jennifer to be more than a match for the aquatic beast.
20. M3GAN (2022)
Killer doll stories are nothing new, dating back to Talking Tina on The Twilight Zone. Writer Akela Cooper gives the subgenre an updated spin with M3GAN, directed by Gerard Johnstone. Short for Model-3 Generative Android, M3GAN came to life when roboticist Gemma (Allison Williams) invented a synthetic playmate/protector for American children. But when she tests M3GAN on her orphaned niece Cady (Violet McGraw), Gemma discovers that her creation can do much more than she intended. M3GAN has its shocking moments, to be sure, but its tongue-in-cheek tone ensures that everyone has a good time.
21. Black Christmas (2019)
Many count 1974’s Black Christmas among the first American slasher films, a nasty piece of work made all the meaner with a 2006 remake. For her 2019 remake, screenwriter April Wolfe wanted to not only address current themes but also make the movie more accessible for teenage viewers. So she and director/co-writer Sophia Takal dampened the grisly kills while keeping the same basic blot, about sorority sisters assaulted by mysterious attackers over holiday break. Takal and Wolfe also enhance their story with a punk-rock edge, making their Black Christmas as much an empowerment tale as it is a spooky story.
22. 1408 (2007)
Stephen King earned the title “Master of Horror” not just because he imagined gory death scenes, but because he knows the terror of the unseen. Director Mikael Håfström and screenwriters Matt Greenberg and duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski put that skill to good while adapting the short story, 1408. Over the objections of manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), professional skeptic Matt Enslin (John Cusack) stays the evening in room number 1408, expecting to find nothing. Instead, he finds a phantasmic experience that exposes the darkest place of all: the chambers of the human heart.
23. Countdown (2010)
There’s no way to deny it: Countdown has a very silly premise. It’s about an app that people can download on their phones to learn when they’ll die. At the allotted time, a horrifying demon arrives to deliver a convoluted execution. Dumb as that may sound, writer and director Justin Dec still offers a compelling story, one that acknowledges its unlikely core while still coming through with the scares. Carrying the movie is Elizabeth Lail as nurse Quinn, who learns about the app through her younger sister Jordan (Talitha Bateman). After Jordan downloads the app, Quinn must discover the mystery of the demon to save her sister.
24. A Quiet Place (2019)
It’s hard to say what made A Quiet Place such a phenomenon in 2019. Maybe it was the name recognition of director John Krasinski, who puts in solid work constructing the film and co-stars as a grieved father. Maybe it was Emily Blunt, who stars as a mother trying to give her children a normal life in the apocalypse. But it was probably the story by Krasinski and co-writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who tell a story worthy of The Twilight Zone, about alien invaders that attack anything that makes a noise. A Quiet Place keeps that difficult balance between satisfying scares and accessibility, never pushing the terror too far.
25. Critters 2: The Main Course (1988)
Given how often horror filmmakers rely on puppets to create their monsters, it’s shocking that fewer don’t tone things down for a wider audience. That wasn’t a mistake writer and director Mick Garris was going to make with his sequel Critters 2: The Main Course, co-written by David Twohy. Unlike its shoddy original entry, Critters 2 plays like anarchic satire, letting setting its all-consuming monsters loose on a town full of bumpkins. Garris and Twohy do occasionally include a few nasty moments, including a giant Critter ball that devours bystanders, but they manage to make everything feel like good, harmless fun.