Horror movies have never really had the biggest draw at the box office unless there was something super special about them. That usually has to do with the rating of the horror movie in question, and as most horror fans already know, it really isn’t worth it unless they are rated R.
So how has the horror movie genre done at the box office over the years and what movies have really cashed in on the genre? It is safe to assume that everyone could probably guess the top two or three in the genre, but you might be surprised what has fared better at the box office than other truly great horror films.
For purposes of this Top 10 list, we are only going to include horror films that are horror to the core. That means that when they were released, they were only intended to fill seats based off the value of horror as opposed to a dystopian society, such as films like The Purge or They Live. I will also not be including films like Hannibal, The Silence of the Lambs and Seven on the list. But don’t get us wrong, those were truly remarkable horror movies. I will also be excluding movies that had a PG rating, which means that Jaws will not be on the list. But if it were on the list, the $260 million it made in 1975 would be near the top, after inflation was factored in.
Without further ado, here is my list for the Top Box Office Horror Films of All Time with data taken from Box Office Mojo.
The Sixth Sense
M. Night Shyamalan had an early string of hit releases, mostly with his blend of horror and suspense films that mixed quite frequently with science fiction. That was way back in 1999 when he was a hit filmmaker for a few years then his films dropped off the box office radar and he released a whole series of duds. But The Sixth Sense (PG-13) is what put him on the map with a $293.5 million return (domestic) and his box office haul did something that no one thought was possible: it passed The Exorcist.
Yes, The Exorcist (R) is not just what some people have hailed as the best horror movie of all time based off of critical response, but it is also the (2nd) highest grossing horror film of all time if you don’t factor in the rating. But for an R rating in 1973, The Exorcist pulled off one of the most remarkable achievements in horror cinema history, grossing nearly $233 million at a time when the cost of the tickets were below the price of a cup of coffee today. But when you adjust that number for inflation, The Exorcist made $956.6 million and is a Top 10 earner on the all time list.
World War Z
Although I struggled with including this on the list due to its near dystopian feel, the film did firmly associate itself with zombies so I was compelled to put it on here. I know that it was somewhat of a disappointment for most horror fans due to its family-friendly scenes with weak content, but it still pulled $202 million at the box office. So that means it gets a slot and a mention and I won’t say another word about it.
What Lies Beneath
If there was ever a movie that has you thinking “why the f**k is this on a top horror list,” then this one is it. First of all, don’t lie… you’ve seen the movie just because it had horror attached to it. Second, what would you expect of a horror movie that had two big names like Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford attached to it? It pulled in the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Batman Returns fan base. So yes, the film made $155 million at the box office and sadly goes on the list as a supernatural ghost story. Don’t fret, though, there are some better films coming up.
The Blair Witch Project
If there was ever a movie that has earned its stripes in the horror genre, then The Blair Witch Project is it. What those indie filmmakers did with the undiscovered value of a “found footage” genre was remarkable to say the least. For those of you who were around when the film first came out, you cannot honestly say that you did not park your butt in that theater not expecting to finally see proof of the supernatural following the sensational marketing campaign for the film that made millions around the world think that the footage was real. I can also think of about $140 million reasons at the box office to prove that I am not lying here either.
Everyone knew that James Wan was destined to be on this list at some point. The Conjuring pulled off something that hadn’t been seen since 1973 with The Exorcist, which was a major box office success on an R rated movie based solely off the horror content of the film and no nudity or extremely profane language. To modern horror film fans, James Wan is the resurrection of our genre and walks amongst us as a God. The Conjuring pulled in $137 million well-earned dollars at the box office and the sequel, The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Haunting, pulled in $102 million. It might be safe to assume that ‘70s era horror could become a trend with numbers like this.
It was back when the Japanese invasion took over our horror screens in the U.S. in 2002 that the remake of The Ring took audiences by storm and pulled in $129 million at the box office. The film gave Americans their first real taste of a revolution in J-Horror, which nearly reinvented the ghost film market.
The J-Horror film that immediately followed the success of The Ring, The Grudge, also pulled in a heat stroke for horror fans, adding $110 million to the list of successes at the box office in horror.
The “found footage” subgenre of horror finally made its way back to box office gold with Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 3, each earning $108 million and $104 million, respectively.
Wes Craven’s ‘90s masterpiece, Scream, also cleared a massive hurdle and pulled in $103 million at the box office in 1996. That even includes it being a late December release and the bulk of its earnings came in early 1997. As most people may know, the box office was least ripe for the pickens during the winter, at least way back when it came out.
Although there are many other noteworthy films that have come close to the $100 million mark at the box office, this list shows the horror films that had the most mojo on the theatrical circuit during their respective eras. Fans should remember that horror is now coming back in a big way and it just takes a good idea or two to get a massive box office return. So start thinking about what you would want to see next and let those ideas fly.