Horror movies have changed a lot since I was a kid. Or at least, the way they're marketed and sold to their target audience has. When I was young, the perfect rating for a horror movie was 'R'; kids knew that any horror movie that had a 'PG' (or later, 'PG-13') had skimped out on the real scares. We all knew somewhere that didn't check IDs, or someone older who would buy us a ticket, and if that failed, we could always find some independent video store that would rent without looking too closely at who was renting. (I was ten years old when I watched 'Return of the Living Dead' for the first time. I rewatched it as a grown-up, and commented to a friend that I was surprised at how vividly I remembered the film. He looked at the screen, where a naked punk played by Linnea Quigley was being eaten alive by a horde of ghouls. I looked back at him and said, "Yeeeahh...we, um...we weren't very well supervised.") We were always able to get access to the 'R'-rated movies, and movie studios knew it. They amped up the scares as hard as they could, even releasing some movies unrated when the MPAA squawked. 'Evil Dead 2' and 'Dawn of the Dead', two of the most iconic horror movies ever, were unrated.
But all that changed because, in the immortal words of Helen Lovejoy, "Won't someone please think of the children?!" Independent movie theaters and video stores were driven out of business by the big chains, who proved to be more susceptible to pressure from parents' groups. Those groups forced theaters and video stores (notably Blockbuster, who began their upswing slowly but inexorably in the late 80s and early 90s) to start enforcing the 17-and-up part of the 'R' rating...which drove profitability for 'R' movies way down. The producers responded by slowly, but inexorably weakening their product to qualify for the teen-friendly 'PG-13'...but therein lies a little twist.
Because this is also the point at which first home laserdiscs, then DVDs really started to take off. The era, if you will, of the 'Director's Cut'. More specifically for horror movies, the 'Unrated Director's Cut'. Because you can make it hard on kids to go into a theater, or to rent a horror flick for the night...but once you're selling these things, then anyone can get them. Even when Wal-Mart started enforcing the ratings and refusing to sell unrated films to kids under 17, it was about as meaningful a restriction as putting a chain-link fence up to stop a river. The theatrical product became nothing more than a loss leader, a suggestion of the truly scary stuff that was to come on DVD.
And, to some extent, that's as it should be. Because when I was a thirteen-year-old, I was the perfect audience for a horror movie ostensibly aimed at seventeen-year-olds. That age between thirteen and seventeen is an age where you're starting to edge out into the deeper waters of adulthood, and you don't always get to choose where and when you start dealing with things that are intended for children. Your body is changing (sort of like in 'The Fly'), you're starting to think about sex and it's a little bit scary (like in 'Shivers'), and you're having to deal with a whole new world that you're not ready for.
Just about every really good horror movie out there is, in some allegorical way, about this mystical, alchemical transformation from childhood to adulthood...and on an emotional level, it makes sense that you should have to access it through a means forbidden to you by adults. Because adults forbid these things to children because they're only intended for grown-ups. They only let the "safe" things be seen by children, and part of growing up is learning that sometimes the unsafe things fall into your lap whether you want them to or not. The forbidden knowledge is the knowledge you need, usually before adults are willing to accept you need it. If you don't have to sneak into the movie, it's not telling you about the things you really need to know.
Does this mean I'm going to let my daughter watch and/or read whatever she wants to? No. (Especially not now--she's not even seven yet.) But I'm aware that part of the ritual of growing up is me telling her, "You don't want to watch that movie. It's too scary for kids..." And the other part of the ritual is that she'll watch it when I'm not around. Because as sad as it makes me, she's going to stop being a kid before I'm ready for her to stop being a kid.