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The 10 most profitable horror movies of all time

We track down the horror movies that have been most effective at scaring money from audiences.

Valak in The Conjuring 2
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

Horror movies are increasingly big business. For decades, they’ve been imaginative springboards for outstanding talents in front of and behind the camera. The genre is famous for bringing massive returns for a relatively low investment. It’s a reputation that key innovators in the space, like producer Jason Blum and director James Wan, have built on with several recent successful horror franchises. The fear factor has a big draw for audiences, with the 20 top-grossing horror movies hitting over $300 million. The genre spans to include everything from straight-up slashers, to the more psychological or paranormal. If there’s a story that involves blood, guts, or creepy clowns, the horror movie genre has seen it, told it, and reproduced it.

The genre itself has been around since the late 1800s with the premiere of the 1896 short by Georges Méliès, The House of the Devil, which is generally accepted as the first real horror movie. Then of course came the 1910 classic Frankenstein, and the genre really took off from there, including classics like Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, and more. Once the 1970’s hit, The Exorcist and Jaws re-defined the genre and made it what it is today. In fact, those two still hold the title for some of the highest-grossing movies the industry has ever seen. Yet while they might have started the trend, they certainly didn’t end it, with a quarter of the highest-grossing movies being within the past 10 years. Check out which other horror movies earned their place on the list — and in viewers’ nightmares.

10. Scream (1996) – $173 million

The original Scream first premiered in 1996 and was such a success that it drew in $173 million in box office sales and spawned an entire franchise, with Scream 2-4 quickly following behind. There was also a Scream reboot that included two additional movies, making the entire franchise a six-film deal. The movies brought in a total of $913 million, with a budget for the group landing at only $175 million.

The original is a classic slasher-style film, directed by Wes Craven and starring some real Hollywood starlets, including Drew Barrymore (for the first ten minutes, anyway), Neve Cambell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette. In fact, it is on this fateful film set that Courteney Cox would meet her future husband, Arquette — the two got married in 1999.

The plotline follows the story of a shy high school student, Sydney, played by Neve Campbell, who experiences a all sorts of horrors when her town becomes terrorized by a mysterious and gruesome murderer, about a year after the death of her own mother. Long story short, it turns out that Sydney is part of a sick game played by two very unusual suspects. Scary masks, people jumping out of closets, and a long, winding “whodunnit” made this movie a big hit in the horror genre. The sequel was released only one short year later. While the second installment brought in similarly high numbers to the original, the original still eked out as the winner with a $14 million dollar budget and a $173 million turnaround.

9. Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) – $207 million

Impressively, Paranormal Activity 3 is the only “threequel” on this list, raking in $207 million worldwide on a budget of only $5 million. Paranormal Activity was the first bonafide franchise on the books of Blumhouse Productions, a production company that supports directors’ creative visions with tremendously successful small-budget productions. This third installment took a leap bringing in Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the directors of movie Catfish, and it seemed to pay off, as the third installment was the most lucrative.

Although the first two Paranormal Activity films brought in $194 million and $177 million respectively, they seemed to serve as a buildup to the third that brought in the highest ticket sales. It was a surprise, as the films featured fairly unheard-of actors and had an unusual premise, at least at the time of the original in 2007. The original film’s plot follows the story of a young couple who are experiencing some very unusual activity in their home. The couple sets up video cameras in their home to catch the disturbing occurrences and film their experience. The majority of the movie is the “found footage” from the cameras, similar to The Blair Witch Project, which made this unique style of filming famous. The original movie’s budget was a humble $15,000 but by the third, they were able to amp it up to $5 million.

The third movie serves as a prequel to the first two in the franchise, as it follows the childhood of the sisters Katie and Kristi, featured in the first two movies. The movie sheds light on the reason the girls’ adult lives are so fraught with frightful experiences and paranormal interventions. The movie sticks to the creepy film footage setup that gives it an even more insidious feel, which probably helped clench its spot as one of the most profitable horror movies of all time.

8. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – $248.6 million

The Blair Witch Project became the poster movie for horror-minded bean counters. This was understandable, given that the found-footage horror thriller made $248 million worldwide on a budget of $600,000. 1999 was a brilliant year for cinema, notably for horror. The Sixth Sense was the year’s second biggest hit, taking $672.8 million on a luxurious $40 million budget, but Blair Witch was the real news. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez unleashed “found footage” on us all. What’s notable on this list is that it failed to build a franchise from its buzz. It did, however, spawn a disappointing sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 which only brought in $47.7 million, which compared to the original, is quite low.

The original movie follows the story of three doomed filmmakers, played by Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard. Three fairly obscure actors, yet another reason the movie was able to keep its budget low, no doubt. The filmmakers go off into the Maryland forest in search of a legend, and unfortunately, they find it. The “found footage” follows the filmmakers being stalked and ultimately disappearing. The footage is supposedly found in their abandoned belongings.

The genius of the film lies in its low-budget magic. Pretty much all of the movie is filmed on portable cameras, yet despite its low-budget approach, it is just as horrifying, maybe even more so, than many a high-budget production. The handheld cameras give the viewer a similar experience as to the filmmakers themselves, which only adds to the terror. The viewer feels like they are there in the creepy woods, being chased by some sort of weird witch urban legend with no way out. No wonder the movie scored such a high return in box office sales.

7. The Ring (2002) – $249.3 million

The Ring premiered in theatres and our nightmares in 2002, at the height of the low-budget horror film frenzy. On the heels of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, The Ring also worked its movie magic but on a much higher budget. The original budget for The Ring was $48 million, but turned over $249 million.

Part of that big budget most likely went to funding the high-profile celebs that made an appearance in the film, most notably Naomi Watts, Brian Cox, and Emily VanCamp. The film is actually a remake of the 1998 movie of the same name made by Japanese filmmaker Hideo Nakata, who based his movie on the novel of the same name by Joji Suzuki, which came out in 1991. A remake of a remake of a novel is a little confusing, but regardless, the movie was a hit.

The film follows the story of journalist Rachel Keller, who attempts to elude death while simultaneously trying to discover the origins of a cursed videotape that she accidentally watched. The creepiest part of the entire movie by far is the evil little girl responsible for the creation of the tape, Samara. Her story and the way she crawls around still haunt our nightmares to this day. Be sure to check it out, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.

6. Get Out (2017) – $255.4 million

All horror fans know that Get Out should have nabbed Best Picture at the Academy Awards but alas, it did not. Yet while it may have been snubbed at the awards shows, at the box office Jordan Peele’s feature directorial debut was a huge hit. With a production budget sitting at $5 million, it brought in an impressive $252 million. It was also a film that brought social and political relevance back to horror and placed it in the unsuspecting location of upstate New York.

The film featured a few familiar faces such as Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford, and it also introduced us to some rising stars such as British actor Daniel Kaluuya who won Best Actor for his role. The storyline is very unique, as it follows a young African American man visiting his white girlfriend on her family’s estate. Despite his run-of-the-mill nervousness, the visit goes above and beyond as things get weird – really weird. It turns out the family has a dark family secret that they are anxious for the young man, played by Kaluuya to be a part of. Be sure to check out this horrifying thriller with a twist ending and see exactly why it scored $252 million at the box office and the number six spot on our list.

5. The Conjuring (2013)- $319.5 million

The Conjuring is one of the most terrifying movies in the genre, made more terrifying by its true origins. Yes, that’s right, this nightmare of a film is actually based on a true story. That is probably a contributing factor in why it took off the way it did. The Conjuring became the first in a seven-film franchise, creating its own “Conjuring Universe.” The first movie had a fairly high budget out of the gate with $30 million under its belt, but its $319.5 million return was well worth the investment, making it one of the highest-grossing horror movies of all time. The others in the series had similar returns with Annabelle pulling in $257.6 million and The Conjuring 2 returning $321.8 million.

The franchise is based on the real-life cases of paranormal investigators and “demonologists” Lorraine and Ed Warren. The Conjuring is based on two of their most insidious cases, the horrifying case of the demon-possessed doll Annabelle, and the real-life Perron family whose dream home quickly turned into a nightmare. The storyline follows the Perron family and the paranormal goings on in their home which turned out to be one of the most well-documented hauntings to date. The film features Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warrens and Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor as the Perron parents. The movie is a wild ride and one that will have you leaving the lights on all night long.

4. A Quiet Place (2018) – $341 million

A Quiet Place presented a whole new premise in horror, just when you thought you’d seen, or in this case, heard it all. A Quiet Place had one of the higher production budgets on our list with a $17 million starting point. It starred the high-profile power couple John Krasinski and Emily Blunt so it’s no wonder its budget had so much flex to it. Regardless, it still turned around a very high profit with a $341 million return. We would expect nothing less from one of Hollywood’s favorite couples.

The plot followed two desperate parents, Krasinski and Blunt, in a post-apocalyptic world, who were just trying to keep themselves and their children alive. How? By being completely silent. The world is infested with blind alien forces with exceptional hearing abilities, meaning “if they hear you they hunt you.” It’s a new take on an old theme and one that did quite well with viewers. High returns, rave reviews, and a few awards tucked into its belt made this horror film one of the highest-grossing and highest on our list.

3. The Exorcist (1973) – $441.3 million

The Exorcist was a brilliantly controversial movie, with stories around its production, a supposed curse, and a convoluted selection of contradictory sequels still raging. With a budget of $12 million and a worldwide box office of $428 million, the returns on The Exorcist were incredible. Along the way, this William Friedkin-directed movie kick-started modern horror in terms of technology, sensation, and audience numbers, ending the gothic horror reign of Universal Studios and Hammer Horror.

It launched horror movies as we know them and still holds the record as one of the highest-grossing to date. The movie stars Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair and follows the story of a possessed little girl and the attempts of her family to free her. Many an iconic moment was spawned (pun intended) from this movie, including the unforgettable image of the little girl’s head spinning around as she spews pea soup everywhere. It’s an image you can’t trade for all the movies millions and unfortunately, one you couldn’t even if you wanted to.

2. It Chapter Two (2019) – $473.1 million

There is no doubt Stephen King is the master of horror and the adaptation of his creation, It Chapter Two, only provides proof of that premise. It is one of the highest-grossing horror movies of all time, and the one that probably haunts our nightmares the most. While the creepy clown concept is not new, Stephen King gave it a whole new life and fans agreed. It Chapter Two is the sequel to It, the adaption of the 1986 novel of the same name. It is set 27 years after the original and is possibly even more frightening. The film’s budget was $79 million, putting it at the top of the production budget hierarchy but its returns also sit at the top, as it brought in $473.1 million.

With all the pre-production hype around the movie, New Line Cinema knew they had to bring the heat, and bring it they did. The movie starred some big names in Hollywood including Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy, and even had a special appearance by Stephen King himself! The storyline picks up on the story of the Losers Club and their arch nemesis Pennywise the horrifying clown. Ok, maybe that isn’t officially part of his title, but it should be. The Club gets back together on a final mission to destroy the creepy clown who made their lives so miserable once and for all.

1. Jaws (1975) – $476.5 million

Well, we made it. The number one most profitable movie on our list, is the 1970’s hit, Jaws. It does not get more classic than the terrifying piano music indicating some horrible maritime malady was impending. The film had a budget of $9 million and while producers had hoped it would be big, they had no idea how big it would actually be. The movie brought in $467.5 million, which is still record-breaking, even by today’s standards. Steven Spielberg sat at the directing helm of this horror ship and the film helped launch his career. The movie was based on the book of the same name by Peter Benchley and starred Roy Schneider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Lorraine Gary. It even had the author, Peter Benchley make a cameo as an interviewer, a trend we have seen with Stephen King and M.Night Shyamalan also.

The movie was such a hit that it produced three sequels and more merchandising than it could keep up with. The premise followed a man-eating shark that wreaks havoc on a small town. The town must band together to send this terrifying creature of the deep to a watery grave. It is a classic in everything from its one-liners to its musical scoring and it is no wonder the film reigns supreme in the genre to this day.

The horror genre is one of the highest-grossing in the film industry and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. Multi-movie franchises with terrifying plot twists and turns continue to enthrall millions of viewers. It is a genre where low-budget films elicit high returns and allow filmmakers’ and directors’ creativity to really shine. We can’t wait to see what the horror movie industry comes up with next.

Matt Goddard
About the author

Matt Goddard

Matt enjoys casting Jack Kirby color, Zack Snyder slow-mo, and J.J. Abrams lens flare on every facet of pop culture. Since graduating with a degree in English from the University of York, his writing on film, TV, games, and more has appeared on WGTC, Mirror Online and the Guardian.