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Terrifying PG movies that'll give you nightmares

If you're going to make a scary movie in the 21st century, there's a very good chance you'll want to make that film with an R rating in mind… or at least a PG-13, if you're trying to play it safe and get the teenagers to buy tickets. Horror films thrive when boundaries are pushed and taboos are tested, and that very often means fewer restraints in terms of content.

That is not to say that all scary movies have to push themselves into R-rated territory to be scary. Some of the most frightening movie moments ever were engineered not in R-rated or even PG-13 environments, but at PG-rated content levels. Sometimes limitations are what allow filmmakers to really get creative with how to bring the scares, and when your film is PG, you're more likely to bring in an all-ages audience, which means you can scare the pants off kids as well as adults.

It's in that spirit of frightening family friendly filmmaking that we present this gathering of films that somehow managed to induce nightmares with just PG content. Some were childhood horrors, others we found as grown-ups, but they all still pack in scares that stick with us in the dark.

Poltergeist

Poltergeist has the advantage of being released two years before the dawn of the PG-13 rating. If it had come out later, some of its more gruesome moments might have bumped it up the MPAA scale, but as it is the film is full of nightmarish sequences while still being family friendly enough that the older kids in the house (and maybe the slightly-too-young kids as well) could watch it over and over again. Let the nightmares begin.

If you're a kid watching this film, the very idea that spirits could abduct you into another dimension simply because you were too close to the TV one night is scary all by itself, but then you have to consider everything else the film throws at us. You've got the stacks of chairs, the face-shedding scene, the skeletons in the backyard, the creepy tree outside, and of course, that horrible clown toy with its horrible limbs. Even if you're just watching it for nostalgic purposes now, there's enough going on here to give the most jaded adults a bad dream or two.

The Witches

The fiction of Roald Dahl has produced countless moments of joy in the lives of children around the world, but Dahl also knew the power of fear better than almost any other children's author, and his stories have inspired plenty of nightmares. The most famous of these on the film side is definitely Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with its fever dream boat trip and girl-turned-blueberry, but even Wonka can't quite match the horror of The Witches.

The witches in the film masquerade out in the world as ordinary women, but in reality they are evil killers who want to destroy all children. There are plenty of creepy moments throughout the film, but the real horror comes from this idea hanging over the whole movie that the enemy could be right next to you the whole time, and you'd never know it.

This, of course, reaches its full potency in the scene in which the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston) allows the witches of England to remove their wigs, shoes, and even gloves, while she herself pulls off her face to reveal a horrific visage beneath. The initial reveal is scary enough, but what really sticks with you is the room full of women picking at sores on their bald heads.

Return to Oz

For the right audience, The Wizard of Oz is a scary film. The flying monkeys freak some people out, as do the talking trees, and then of course there's the Wicked Witch of the West, who's been freaking out children for 80 years now. When compared with Return to Oz, though, the original Technicolor classic looks like a walk in the park.

Return to Oz, an unofficial sequel with a story drawn from two different L. Frank Baum Oz novels, heads into dark territory right away when it's revealed that Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk in this version) is about to get electroshock therapy because her aunt and uncle think that Oz was all in her head. When Dorothy does get back to the land of Oz, she finds it in ruins, and in her fight to get it back she encounters everything from terrifying-looking creatures with wheels for feet to an evil woman who collects heads so she can change them out at will. It all culminates in an encounter with the evil Nome King, whose disintegration after he's poisoned remains one of the most terrifying stop-motion moments in movie history

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest films ever made, and is the standard that nearly every adventure film has been measured against ever since its release nearly 40 years ago. It's thrilling, it's funny, and it features some of the cleverest setpieces in its genre. It also manages to cross generational and age gaps despite being decades old, in part because it's a timeless homage to the age of movie serials. There's a universality to the storytelling that really works.

There's also a universality to the moments that really disturb viewers in Raiders. The level of disturbance may vary, but for some people there are two key scenes in this popcorn cinema classic that never quite leave us. The first is the snakes ("Why did it have to be snakes?"), particularly the moment when they start crawling through Marion's shoes. The second, of course, is the face-melting power of the Ark of the Covenant. Sure, on a lot of levels it's just cool, but if you watched that at the right age when you were a kid, it haunted your dreams.

Labyrinth

The Jim Henson Company is truly one of the most remarkable pop culture creative instiutions of the 20th century. The same group that brought us the delights of Kermit and Fozzie was also capable of conjuring up some truly nightmarish fantasy, and while The Dark Crystal is also a very worthy contender for this list, we'll go with Labyrinth this time because… well, it has David Bowie.

There are plenty of creepy sights in Labyrinth thanks to the Henson creature shop, and everyone has their particular favorite freaky scene that stuck with them long after the sleepovers where the film was marathoned. There's an overarching element to the film, though, that's perhaps scarier than any individual moment, particularly when you're a child. Labyrinth is a fairy tale about being careful what you wish for, and about how a seemingly harmless wish can transport you to places you never hoped to go, where you'll face terrors you never knew existed. It's a perfect metaphor for the uncertainty of teenage life, and for that reason it sinks into your brain and never quite wants to leave.

Arachnophobia

Arachnophobia is one of those movies that's going to give some people the creeps just by existing. It's right there in the name. It is medically recognized that one way to scare the hell out of some people is just to say, "Here are some spiders."

So yes, much of the film's audience is an easy target for nightmares, but even if you're not particularly scared of spiders as a concept, the film is often quite deft at sneaking the eight-legged critters into shots in a way that mimics the way spiders do freak you specifically in real life. They don't just appear at the end of the hall and start walking toward you. They're crawling across the ceiling when you're not looking, or swarming into the shower when you have your eyes closed, or hovering just out of reach of your hand.

And if all of that isn't enough to give you nightmares, then there's the finale, which is just buckets upon buckets of spiders all building up to the battle with the mother of all spiders. Even if it's not a fear you particularly cling to, Arachnophobia can light up your dreams.

Jaws

Steven Spielberg's Jaws is widely credited as the film that gave birth to the modern summer blockbuster. That means a lot of people saw it when it came out, and every year since, it has retained its reputation as a Film You Need To See. That means generations of viewers of all ages have taken the film in, and some of them had a hard time going back in the water afterwards.

Yes, it's a long-running joke that people are afraid of everything from swimming pools to toilets after they see Jaws, but that joke got started for a reason. The film is incredibly effective at establishing a sense of dread that something is lurking in the depths just beneath you. Spielberg's camera does most of the work in a purely suggestive way, but when the more visible horror kicks in — from the first kill to the corpse in the wreckage to Quint's demise — it really kicks in. Jaws still works nearly 45 years later.

Tourist Trap

If someone made Tourist Trap today, with modern horror sensibilities and markets, there's no way it would even come close to a PG rating. In 1979, though, this film managed to land at PG, and became one of those movies you might rent at the video store on a whim or catch on TV on a rainy night.

Much of the film resembles other slasher movies in its plot construction. A group of young people are looking for their friend when their car breaks down by a rundown roadside tourist trap. The seemingly kindly owner offers to help them, and then people start dying. That's simple enough… except Tourist Trap's killer also has telekinetic powers and turns people into mannequins.

The film is absolutely packed with special effects that, while a bit dated in places, create the sense that you're surrounded by murderous, animated plastic. It's an immediately and constantly unsettling film that'll stick with you long after your head has hit the pillow.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Ray Bradbury retained a childlike sense of wonder that infected his fiction throughout his decades-long career, even when he applied it to terrifying things. Something Wicked This Way Comes may be the best example of that, and the 1983 film adaptation of the story retains it in often startling ways.

The key to the film's terrors is Mr. Dark, played with chilling perfection by Jonathan Pryce. He's not always the most disturbing thing in the frame, but he presides over all of it with such mastery that you always feel that he's in charge. The best example of this comes when he confronts the town librarian Charles Halloway (Jason Robards) on the street, and asks him to identify the boys Will and Jim (Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson) via tattoos in his hands. As he squeezes the images, his palms begin to bleed, and the blood drips down on the boys as they hide beneath the grate just below him. It's a relatively simple scene, but it's immediately effective, and it's there in your head when the lights go out.

Coraline

Some people just find stop-motion animation to be inherently creepy, to the point that they'll be justifiably creeped out by things like The Nightmare Before Christmas, but then be equally creeped out by something like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There's something about the format, its manipulation of tangible figures in a clearly artificial world, that just never sits right with some viewers.

That's part of the reason why Coraline, director Henry Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's children's horror novel, works so well. It embraces the unreality of its stop motion, and that allows it to do particularly atmospheric things when the scares kick in. Everything from the garden outside Coraline's house to the tunnel connecting her to the Other world is infused with at least a little bit of creepiness.

But that's not the really nightmarish part of Coraline, of course. The really nightmarish part is the buttons for eyes. In tying a simple characteristic of so many dolls to his story, Gaiman created one of the creepiest children's tales in recent memory, and Selick translates that to the screen perfectly.