If you are in the business of making films and want to, at the very least, break even on your investment or, even better, make a decent profit, make a horror film. Dollar for dollar, a horror film, regardless of budget, makes a much better return than any other genre of film. To put it into perspective, Avatar: The Way of Water needed to make $1.4 billion just to break even, which, with just under $2.2 billion worldwide as of this writing, it has done. 2007’s Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, made $193 million on a $15,000 budget. That’s a 57.1% vs. a 1,286,566.7% profit. A staggering number that would have been even significantly higher if it had cracked the top ten list of the highest grossing horror films of all time (adjusted for inflation), which is made up of these frightful features:
Honorable Mentions: Ghostbusters and Scary Movie
In the interest of keeping the list restricted to “true” horror films, we’ve left off two films that are more comedy than horror: Ghostbusters and Scary Movie. If included, Scary Movie would be number 10 on the list, with a gross of $262.5 million, while the comedy classic Ghostbusters would slot in at #3, with a whopping gross of $641.3 million. Those associated with the two films that may take umbrage with them not being included can cry themselves to sleep in their big piles of money.
10. The Omen (1976, $257.7 million)
Robert Thorn’s (Gregory Peck) wife Kathy (Lee Remick) gives birth to a boy, who tragically dies shortly after, unbeknownst to Kathy. Robert is persuaded to secretly adopt another baby, whose mother died, and convince Kathy that the child is theirs. Impulsive decisions on film never really seem to work out, and the decision to bring home this baby, who they’ve named Damien, sends a strong message about doing your homework beforehand. See, it turns out that little Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) is the Antichrist, and now people are dying, animals go crazy, and you can forget about bringing the young man to church.
9. What Lies Beneath (2000, $259.9 million)
Dr. Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford) is worried about his wife, Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer). A car accident has left gaps in her memory, their daughter has left for college, and she’s convinced that her next door neighbor Mary (Miranda Otto) has been killed by her husband Warren (James Remar). On top of all of that, now weird, unexplainable things are happening around the house. Logically, it must be the neighbor haunting their home … only it turns out Mary isn’t actually dead. So who’s doing the haunting? A former student of Norman’s named Madison (Amber Valletta), who Norman confesses to having had a brief affair with before realizing the error of his ways and breaking up with her. According to Norman, she didn’t take it well, threatened to kill Claire, and died of an overdose. Without playing spoiler, we’ll just say that Norman’s pants may be on fire.
8. Alien (1979, $286.4 million)
Commercial spacecraft Nostromo is on its way back to Earth when a transmission, possibly a distress signal, brings them to investigate its source on a nearby moon. Three members of the crew go to check it out, and in doing so lose contact with the ship. Damn cell service. Now Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) can’t warn them that the signal is actually a warning. They find out themselves when an egg-like object in the alien ship the warning is from opens up, releasing a face-hugging creature that latches onto Kane (John Hurt). Everyone gets back on board the ship, and the creature falls off and dies, no harm done, end of film. Wait, harm is done when a small alien creature bursts out of Kane’s chest and escapes into the ship. Now the creature is growing rapidly and taking out the crew one by one.
7. The Amityville Horror (1979, $310.3 million)
Based on the true story (cough, cough) of George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) Lutz’s experiences in their infamous Amityville home. Shortly after moving in, the Lutz’s invite Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) to come and bless the home, where a room full of flies and violent stomach sickness force the priest to leave. And it goes downhill increasingly from there, with ooze coming out of the walls, a hidden red room in the basement, a vomiting nun, and George falling out of character as he slowly draws closer to being repressed by the evil in the home. Eventually, the family leaves the home without their possessions, never to return. Lesson learned: If your realtor discloses that a wack job shot and killed his entire family in the home, maybe think twice about that down payment.
6. Jaws 2 (1978, $312.8 million)
The sequel to the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic doesn’t have Spielberg, but it does have Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and another shark terrorizing Amity Island yet again. The deaths of a water skier, two scuba divers, and a killer whale convince Brody that a shark is in the area. He reports to the mayor and the Amity Town Council, with a close-up photo of the shark in hand from one of the diver’s camera. Surely there couldn’t be a second shark, and Brody gets ousted as police chief. Naturally, Brody is right, and when he discovers that his sons and a group of teenagers are out sailing, it’s up to him to rescue them from the shark. An impressive shark no less, having taken out a helicopter on its own.
5. It (2017, $328.9 million)
Derry, Maine, keeps losing kids in the summer of 1989. That hasn’t happened for 27 years. And 27 years before that. 27, 27, 27. There might be a pattern, and sure enough there is. Every 27 years a shape-shifting monster awakens to prey on the children of Derry, one in the shape of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), the evil clown. Only this time, Pennywise killed the wrong little brother, prompting Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) to band with a group of friends, the Losers Club, to take the beast down for what he did to poor Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott).
4. Gremlins (1984, $409.8 million)
Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) comes into possession of Gizmo (Howie Mandel), a small, cute and furry creature called a mogwai. With the mogwai there are three rules that must be followed: Do not expose mogwai to light (with sunlight a big no-no), do not get a mogwai wet, and never feed it after midnight (yes, yes, we’ve all heard how that doesn’t make sense — get over it, man). Rule #1, not a problem. But little Gizmo gets water dropped on him, which prompts five mogwai to spawn off of his back. Oops. Well, rule #3 shouldn’t be a problem, provided the clock is right, which it is but only twice a day, as one of the troublesome mogwai has severed the power cord. Their past-midnight snack ends up with the new mogwai being engulfed by a green cocoon, and when the cocoon opens, green, reptilian and vicious creatures called gremlins burst out and wreak havoc in the town of Kingston Falls.
3. The Sixth Sense (1999, $518.8 million)
Director M. Night Shyamalan hit gold with his third film, The Sixth Sense, with Bruce Willis as Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist who begins working with 9-year-old Cole (Haley Joel Osment). The boy chillingly confesses that he “sees dead people” to Malcolm, which Malcolm passes off as delusion, but soon realizes that Cole actually can see ghosts, dead people unaware that they have died or have unfinished business in the living world. With Malcolm’s help, Cole gets over his fear and begins helping ghosts move on to the afterlife. The stunning twist at the end was, at the time, legitimately surprising, and plot twists would go on to become a staple of Shyamalan’s films to varying degrees of success.
2. The Exorcist (1973, $996.5 million)
The Exorcist made history by becoming the first horror film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and moviegoers, keen to see the film filled with signs so horrific that they induced fainting, vomiting, heart attacks, and even a reported miscarriage, ensured that The Exorcist became one of the most profitable horror films of all time. In fact, its worldwide grosses to date place it in sole possession of second place on this list (and, yes, that pun was absolutely intended). The film sees young 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair, in a stunning performance that earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination) become possessed by the demon Pazuzu and details the efforts of a pair of Catholic priests to perform an exorcism to free Regan from the demon’s grasp.
1. Jaws (1975, $1.154 billion)
Was there any doubt? Jaws is the film that launched Steven Spielberg‘s career, became ground-zero for the summer blockbuster, and instilled a fear of sharks into the hearts of millions. all with the shark only visible in on screen for four minutes total. It’s no-brainer for top earner (and should have been a no-brainer for Best Picture). When a great white shark haunts the waters around Amity Island, it falls to three men — Chief Brody, marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and crusty professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw in arguably his greatest role) — to stop the deadly fish.