Super scary movies that somehow avoided an R rating

A lot goes into rating a film. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its independent division, the Classification & Ratings Administration (CARA), assess upcoming releases based on the extent to which they include nudity, sensuality, hard language, adult activities, violence, terror, drug and/or alcohol use, and various other elements — and then hand out ratings accordingly. 

This is all done to keep moviegoers safe and smiling as they enter and exit the theater, preventing inappropriate content from reaching eyes unprepared to see it. Dirty jokes, mature themes, graphic violence, and gratuitous nudity can all earn a film an R rating, letting parents know they probably don't want to take the family for a screening — and keeping ticket agents from selling passes to underage patrons. For the most part, it pretty much tends to work out well, but the system definitely isn't perfect — as highlighted by these standout cases of super scary movies that should have been age-restricted, but somehow avoided an R rating. 

Ouija: Origin of Evil

Life doesn't have any real set of rules, but if it did, "don't play with Ouija boards" would be near the top of the list. Movies that implement the creepy planchette that connects the living world with the spirit realm are a dime a dozen (The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, I Am Zozo, to name a few), but the 2016 horror film Ouija: Origin of Evil is in a class of its own. 

From director Mike Flanagan, this flick divulges the blood-chilling events that occurred before Stiles White's 2014 film Ouija, and follows single mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) as she runs a sham psychic business out of her home with her daughters Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). When Alice brings a Ouija board into the mix, in efforts to liven up her act with some supernatural flair, the three women unwittingly make contact with an evil spirit. 

As it shies away from Saw-inspired gore and maintains a constant sense of dread, thus causing each audience member to sit in a puddle of their own scare-sweat as they watch the plot unfold, Ouija: Origin of Evil also delivers violent deaths, a freaky demonic possession, and enough horrifying images (don't get us started on the blank-white eyes and gaping jaws) to keep you wide awake and restless at night. Just as we couldn't believe Ouija: Origin of Evil was actually a solid film following its vapid predecessor, we're also stunned it snuck into theaters without an R rating.

Drag Me to Hell

After spending five years on the superhero side of film, slinging webs through cinema's first-ever Spider-Man trilogy, director Sam Raimi returned to his horror roots with Drag Me to Hell, offering what he's called a "spook-a-blast" follow-up to his Evil Dead series.

Audiences watch as mild-mannered bank loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) turns down septuagenarian Sylvia Ganush's (Lorna Raver) request for yet another mortgage extension. Clearly vexed and on the verge of eviction, Sylvia crawls into the back seat of Christine's car, then attacks and places a curse on her. Now haunted by a soul-starved spirit known as the Lamia, Christine's life spirals into a blood-soaked horror show: She imagines flies buzzing in her stomach, experiences a projectile nosebleed (dousing her boss in the sticky red stuff as a result), takes part in a demonic goat sacrifice, jumps into a grave to dig up a corpse, and gets embalming liquid pumped into her mouth via a dead person's vomit. 

A film that features some of the most ferociously gruesome gags in recent memory, Drag Me to Hell is a hammy but horrifying splatter-fest that is somehow not rated R. 

The Gate

The 1980s was an interesting decade for pop culture, film especially. Fans flocked to theaters to catch spooky films like Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Child's Play, but also went in droves to see now-iconic family-friendly fare like The Monster Squad and The Goonies. Tibor Takács' 1987 movie The Gate was marketed as a pre-teen pic cut from the cloth of the latter, but was more akin to the more adult-oriented tone of the former. 

In The Gate, a young Stephen Dorff stars as Glen, a 12-year-old boy who happens upon a mysterious geode nestled in a hole in his backyard. The glistening rock isn't something to slice up and use as decorative bookends, however; it's actually a gateway to Hell. After Glen and his best buddy Terry (Louis Tripp) crack the geode open and read its accompanying incantations aloud, the boys unleash a horde of deformations, evil creatures, murderous monsters, and scary sights not fit for young eyes. 

Any film that includes exploding demons, disintegrating construction workers, melting faces, decapitations, and dead dogs in increasingly grisly scenes should be stamped with an R rating for its potential to traumatize its audience. The Gate is a shocking exception, having escaped with a PG-13 label. 

Insidious

Like Sam Raimi, director James Wan is something of a powerhouse in the horror genre. His ability to bring shocks and scares aplenty has been consistent throughout his career, helping him set a new trend after Saw had filmmakers churning out torture flicks like mad. Wan's 2010 film Insidious exemplifies exactly that. 

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne lead Insidious as married couple Josh and Renai Lambert, who bundle up their three tots — Dalton (Ty Simpkins), Foster (Andrew Astor), and baby Cali — and take them to their new family home. What should be a humble abode becomes the center of their nightmares as bad things befall the Lamberts, beginning with Dalton slipping into a coma-like state after he sees a figure hiding in the attic and only getting worse from there. After Renai is attacked and a bloody handprint is left on Dalton's bed, the Lamberts pack up and move to a new house — but the spirits haunting them persist. A demonic, Darth Maul-looking entity (played by Joseph Bishara) now stalks the family of five, and viewers soon learn the real reason for Dalton's unconsciousness and the startling truth behind Josh's identity. 

Insidious is light on blood and guts, but heavy on creepy imagery, psychological tension, and unsettling storylines, which is why it's so surprising that neither the original nor its two sequels (Insidious: Chapter 2 and Insidious: Chapter 3) received an R rating. 

The Woman in Black

Otherwise known as the film meant to prove Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe wouldn't be tied to his wizarding world past, The Woman in Black is peak Hammer Films horror. Scribe Jane Goldman and director James Watkins adapt Susan Hill's 1983 novel of the same name, bringing to the big screen gothic ghoulishness and a barrage of nail-biting scares. It follows Radcliffe's Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer whose overwhelming grief compromises his career and sends him to a mist-covered village in the middle of nowhere. There, Arthur is tasked with unraveling the mystery behind a recently passed eccentric, but his real test comes in discovering the secret tragedy the townspeople have experienced and learning that the ghost of a woman (the titular Woman in Black) will go to great lengths, including killing innocent young children, in order to reclaim what she has lost. 

The creepy kids and even creepier toys, blood-curdling screams and alarming images, and the knowledge that what hid in the low light could have jumped out and devoured a character at any moment should have made The Woman in Black an R-rated film. Alas, moviegoers as young as 13 were permitted to see it unaccompanied by an adult in the States. We just hope they aren't still scarred by what they saw.

The Grudge

Even if you haven't seen The Grudge, you've seen The Grudge. Nearly everyone is familiar with the white-faced, black-eyed, covered-in-blood monster that lurches down a staircase and gurgles gutturally as it grabs onto its victim. (They've probably imitated the crawling scene to creep out their friends at one point or another too.) And almost all can agree that the entity at the center the film alone makes it one of scariest entries into the horror genre in recent memory. 

An English-language remake of the Japanese film Ju-On, The Grudge tells the chilling tale of the Williams family, who move into a haunted home in suburban Tokyo. The house is the site of a brutal killing: Takeo Saeki (Takashi Matsuyama) murdered his wife Kayako Saeki (Takako Fuji) and his son Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) a few years back, and was then taken out by Kayako's ghost. In the present day, Matt (William Mapother) and Jennifer Williams (Clea DuVall) become prey of Kayako's lingering soul, which manifests as the pale and petrifying onryō, and are slaughtered. Anyone who crosses paths with Kayako — like exchange student Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Karen's boyfriend Doug McCarthy (Jason Behr), care center director Alex (Ted Raimi), care worker Yoko (Yoko Maki), and Detective Nakagawa (Ryo Ishibashi) — will either end up dead or haunted until they wish they were.

What The Grudge lacks in violent sequences, it more than makes up with its visceral images and disturbing sounds that should have made it R-rated but somehow didn't. 

Mama

With a producer like Guillermo del Toro and a director like It helmer Andy Muschietti behind it, a film is bound to be incredible. With a story that starts with homicidal men and two feral little girls and unfurls into a maternity-based supernatural myth, it's inevitably going to scare the daylights out of its audience. The 2013 horror drama Mama achieves both.

Led by Interstellar star Jessica Chastain as Annabel and Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as brothers Jeffrey (the murderous twin) and Lucas Desange (the grief-stricken one), the film follows Lucas' young nieces, Victoria and Lilly, and the figure they call "Mama" that looms over them. When Lucas and Annabel bring Victoria and Lilly home after they spent five years in isolation following their mother and father's deaths, Mama extends her monstrous maternal hand beyond the girls' reach to grip the lives of those around them. 

Mama's eerie imagery, tense and terror-filled story, and ending that's just as haunting gives us a case of the heebie-jeebies usually reserved for R-rated fare. How it skated by on a PG-13 instead, we'll never fully understand.

1408

Translating Stephen King's novels for feature films is no easy task, but director Mikael Håfström did a bang-up job in adapting one of the horror author's lesser-known short stories, 1408. The film, set in a haunted hotel room, zeroes in on John Cusack's Mike Enslin, a skeptical author who evaluates supernatural events he believes are farce. His viewpoint changes drastically after he receives an ominous postcard from the Dolphin hotel in New York City. "Don't enter 1408," it warns Enslin, but he doesn't listen. Taking the message as a challenge, Enslin books a stay in 1408, where nightmares beyond anyone's imagination (but ones tailored to Enslin's personal tragedies) await and attempt to murder him.

1408 skips over the gore standard of some of King's other works (lookin' at you, blood-squirting sink in It) and trades it in for psychological savagery, violence, and heart-stopping hallucinations — all of which come together for a film clearly scary enough for an R rating.

Fire in the Sky

A story based on a supposedly real case of alien abduction? Check. A graphic, gut-churning illustration of said extraterrestrial encounter and the torture that accompanies it? Double check. The R rating a film like that should receive? Close, but no cigar.

The sci-fi horror pic Fire in the Sky takes Travis Walton's book The Walton Experience to new, more terrifying heights. It's 1975, and loggers Travis Walton (D. B. Sweeney), Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), Allan Dallis (Craig Sheffer), Bobby Cogdill (Bradley Gregg), David Whitlock (Peter Berg), and Greg Hayes (Henry Thomas) travel home from their long day at work — only Walton doesn't quite make it there. After the men witness an unidentified flying object blaze through the sky, Walton vanishes without a trace, waking up five days later with not a single memory of what happened to him. But as time passes, the painful flashbacks of his alien abduction jab to the surface of his mind — and attack viewers' eyeballs. (The scene that should have been an automatic R rating for Fire in the Sky involves a needle and an eye socket. You do the math.) 

The Last Exorcism

Think of a well-known movie about or dealing with an exorcism, and we guarantee you that it's R-rated. The Conjuring, The Exorcist, The Devil Inside, the entire Paranormal Activity franchise — all scary enough to push the Motion Picture Association of America to label them "restricted." So how did The Last Exorcism, the found-footage possession pic that's appeared on many a "scariest horror films" list and been called by one cinephile "the most terrifying movie I have ever seen in my lifetime," slip by with a measly PG-13? We're not sure, but it's what happened.

Without spoiling the Daniel Stamm-directed endeavor, here's just a taste of what goes down in its petrifying 87-minute runtime, which begins with Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) embarking on what he thinks will be a routine fake exorcism he's grown used to performing: There's face slashing, animal killing, and finger breaking; horrifying hooded figures, decapitations, and people getting burned alive; and, of course, a possessed girl who contorts into a human pretzel and fills an already eerie barn with the sounds of her strained, demonic voice.

Clearly, The Last Exorcism isn't for the faint of heart — and it shouldn't be for anyone under the age of 17 unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian.

The Ring

To say that The Ring is one of the scariest PG-13 movies of all time isn't a stretch, and to say that it should have been rated R isn't either. Based on the Japanese film Ringu, The Ring is intensely terrifying with a weird concept — watch a VHS tape and die seven days later — only made odder and more unsettling by helmer Gore Verbinski's off-kilter directorial choices. Dead bodies and the disturbing videotape connect a handful of Pacific Northwest teenagers to journalist Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), who, after facing the death of her niece (Amber Tamblyn), ventures to find out the truth behind the murders and see if she can escape the unavoidable.

The entire film, not just the videotape, is filled with grisly images, most notably Daveigh Chase's drowned ghost Samara Morgan emerging from the screen and staggering across the floor, and a horse getting chopped to pieces by the blades of a ferry propeller — plus some disembowelments and ripped-up fingernails for good measure. What ultimately pushes The Ring into should-be-R-rated territory is its continuous sense of terror and persistent portrayal of disturbing imagery that leave you with a feeling of dread you can't shake even hours after the credits roll.

Poltergeist

Poltergeist has fit into the "super scary movies" category for decades now, earning its spot the moment it debuted in June of 1982. Its young actress (Heather O'Rourke as Carol Anne Freeling) had us all wary of blonde girls, static on our television, and the phrase "they're here," and the film instilled in everyone a sudden worry that ghosts would invade our homes through our TVs, phones, and kitchen appliances. 

For all of its decidedly not family-friendly frights, Poltergeist originally received an R rating from the MPAA, who gave it that label "not for violence, but for terror." Raters believed that certain scenes would be "too intense for small children to see without a parent or guardian," but director Tobe Hooper, writer-producer Steven Spielberg, and MGM president Frank Rosenfelt disagreed and eventually sweet-talked their way into a more lenient rating. We aren't talking a single step down to PG-13, though, as that rating wasn't implemented until two years after Poltergeist's release, first used in 1984 for Red Dawn. Poltergeist, with its gruesome face-peeling sequence and all, wound up getting a PG rating. (We can't believe it either.)

Jaws

Like Poltergeist, Jaws is both a classic scary flick — likely one of the first you were ever exposed to — and one that shockingly avoided an R rating. It, too, is rated PG. 

The 1975 Steven Spielberg-directed thriller sees a gung-ho group of guys (Roy Scheider's police chief Martin Brody, Robert Shaw's professional shark hunter Quint, and Richard Dreyfuss' oceanographer Matt Hooper) journey into the big blue in search of the man-eating great white shark that's been terrorizing beachgoers frequenting the fictional Amity Island. Things go just about as well as you'd anticipate they would in a shark-hunting venture. (If you thought seeing a woman get gobbled up in the first scene of the film was a lot to handle, the men's mission is something else entirely.)

The inclusion of many brutal fatalities, Quint's blood-soaked quietus, and the explosive shark death makes Jaws completely inappropriate for the tame PG rating it was given. (After all, it inspired in an entire generation of people a crippling fear of the ocean and marine animals.) Even though the MPAA had, at the time, only PG or R to pick when rating Jaws, the clear choice should have been the latter.