Relatively speaking, horror movies don't scare up much action at the box office -- even around Halloween.
When you take a look at the 100 top-grossing U.S. films of all time, adjusted for inflation, there are only a few examples of the horror genre scattered among the bunch. The 1975 mother-of-all-blockbusters "Jaws" ranks No. 7 with $1.1 billion in receipts (adjust for inflation from $260 million), while the 1973 possession of Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" ranks No. 9 of all time with an inflation-adjusted $983 million in box office revenue ($232.9 million without the adjustment).
It gets scarce after that. If you generously consider 1984's "Ghostbusters" a "horror comedy," it comes in at No. 34 with $632.7 million (adjusted from $242.2 million). After that, it's only 1999's "The Sixth Sense" at No. 67 with $511.9 million (up from $293.5 million).
Sure, others like 1953's "House of Wax," 1954's "Rear Window," 1984's "Gremlins" and 1987's "Fatal Attraction" make the Top 200. However, when it comes to hardcore rated-R horror movies, there are very few that put up big numbers.
In the late '70s and early '80s, when Michael Myers, Leatherface, Freddy Kreuger and Jason Vorhees were all making their big-screen debuts, the PG-13 rating didn't exist. You either went for the R with as much blood and nudity as you could muster, or you aimed for PG and came away with something that looked like "Gremlins." That rating debuted in 1984, but the slasher genre had grown so accustomed to the freedoms that the R rating offered that it left PG-13 to more supernatural fare summer blockbusters looking to put a few more teens in the seats and naughty words on screen.
Even at their broadest, R-rated horror movies have a limited audience because of what the R means: Restricted. When you take everyone under the age of 17 out of the equation, and take their expendable income with them, you're paring off a whole lot of moviegoers. However, directors don't seem to mind all that much and still revel in the adult language, situations and gore that the genre provides. The following 25 horror movies were the genre's biggest box-office successes, according to Box Office Mojo. That said, don't be surprised if some of them appear on this list for being slightly less than horrific:
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Released: Oct. 17, 2003
Box office gross $80.6 million
We aren't going to recap this remake of Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic. We aren't even going to knock the fact that much of the social commentary that surrounded Leatherface and family in the original has been stripped out of this.. No, we're instead going to inform you that Michael Bay is responsible for just about slasher-movie remake of the 21st Century. His Platinum Dunes production company had a hand in the "Texas Chainsaw" remakes, the new "Halloween," the new "Nightmare on Elm Street" and is behind both the "Purge" and "Ouija" series. So just in case you're wondering why any of the above are heavy on the effects and light on plot, Mr. Transformers has the answer for you.
Released: May 25, 1979
Box office gross $80.9 million
Before Aliens fought predators, before Ridley Scott's creation was filled with overwrought backstory, before space marines found out it was "game over, man" and before Winona Ryder shaved her head, you had this. A straight-up horror movie about a crew of a commercial ship finding a face-sucking, seed-implanting, chest-bursting, H.R. Giger-designed alien on a random planetoid and their doomed quest to fight it off once it finds its way onto the ship. Debate the merits of the franchise it created as much as you'd like, but the film that launched Sigourney Weaver's career and set a lofty bar for the horror genre in general deserves a place far higher on this list. Despite the best efforts of a director's cut released in 2003, it just couldn't get there.
Released: March 22, 2002
Box office gross $82.3 million
Horror? Really, BoxOffice Mojo? Yes, Wesley Snipes has fangs and, yes, a young Daryl from The Walking Dead shows up to lend a hand, but the Blade series was always comprised more of comic-book action sequences than true horror. The "Twilight" series has vampires in it, too, but there's nothing "horror" about it. Kudos to both Kris Kristofferson and Ron Perlman for putting in work on this one, but there's little horror to it.
Released: Nov. 13, 1992
Box office gross $82.5 million
For a Victorian period piece, there's something incredibly '90s about this film. The Gary Oldman big-hair iconography, Anthony Hopkins in an essential role, Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves in it at all. Director Francis Ford Coppola could've torpedoed the whole thing by casting Reeves, who is legitimately awful here, but Oldman throws himself right into Dracula while Ryder and Hopkins give one of the best performances of their career. It's a dramatic and aesthetic triumph, even if the Annie Lennox song at the end can't help but date the whole film.
Released: Aug. 15, 2003
Box office gross $82.6 millionIt killed both of the original franchises, but what a way to go out. Kids die at Crystal Lake, they die in dreams, they die at Westin Hills psychiatric hospital... it's all fantastic. Even the idea of Freddy using Jason as his own Frankenstein monster is pretty fantastic. Critics hated it, but fan service pretty much never makes critics happy. For '80s and '90s kids who've had this schoolyard fantasy for years, it was well worth the price of admission.
Released: Oct. 13, 2014
Box office gross $84.3 millionWe'll get into "The Conjuring" a bit later, but taking a creepy prop from that film and turning it into a franchise all its own is sheer genius. Apparently, the reason the Manson family has stayed largely locked up for so long is because if even one of the ever bleeds on a doll, that doll is straight-up coming for your soul. It doesn't matter if you're living in a cookie cutter Levittown home in suburbia or a multi-bedroom prewar apartment that likely fetches $4,000 a month now, that doll will gaslight you, make you look insane in front of your husband and not be satisfied until it takes the best actor on screen (sorry Alfre Woodard). Scarier that a horror spinoff franchise has any business being, Annabelle isn't just some throwaway: It's the film that's going to make the doll section of any antique store more uncomfortable than it already is.
Released: Oct. 22, 2010
Box office gross $84.7 million
There have been six films made in this series. The films premise is that security cameras pick up spooky demonic happenings between long stretches of mundane activity or nothing. The actual premise of this series is that if you film on security camera, hire actors nobody knows to perform minimal dialogue or acting and ride the word-of-mouth reviews of the first film, you can double your $3 million investment with one nationwide midnight showing. That is always the point of "Paranormal Activity": it's scary how little money it takes to make a profitable horror movie.
Released: July 18, 1986
Box office gross $85.2 million
This sequel to "Alien" is a great film in its own right, but when you swap James Cameron for Ridley Scott in the director's chair, you're exchanging noir and nuance for a whole lot of big guns blowin' stuff up. Fresh off of "The Terminator," Cameron opted to write this film himself and take Weaver's Helen Ripley, launch her 60 years into the future, kill her cat and drop her onto the alien planetoid with a bunch of space marines. Since it's 1986, Cameron has made this little alien tale a metaphor for the nuclear arms race, which results in Paul Reiser playing a shady arms dealer, a whole planet being nuked from space and the whole film ending on a ham-fisted, robot-suited metaphor about motherhood. Oh, and Bill Paxton delivers one of the most memorable lines of his career amid an alien slaughter.
Released: July 27, 1979
Box office gross $86.4 million
The walls don't bleed in the house that inspired 1977 "The Amityville Horror" book by Jay Anson and 1979 film of the same name, but the Dutch Colonial in Amityville, New York does have a bit of backstory to it. George and Kathy Lutz and their three children moved into the place in December 1975. The previous owner, Ronald DeFeo Jr., killed his father, mother two brothers and two sisters in the house and the Lutz family claimed paranormal activity drove them from the house less than a month after they moved in. This, naturally, led to the story of the talking, bleeding house, an entire film series and a 2005 remake. While this first film was an absolute blockbuster in its day, the Lutz family could have spared everyone the horrendous films that followed by just admitting they were a bit creeped out by living in a murder house.
Released: Oct. 28, 2005
Box office gross $87 million
If this isn't the series that launched the "torture porn" subgenre in the early 2000s, it's definitely the one that ran it into the ground. This series never cared, though, revealing villain Jigsaw's identity in the second film, sharing his backstory and tying a whole plot around crooked cop Donnie Wahlberg. We use the term "plot" loosely, as the whole film is basically a series of higher-stakes escape rooms that your company drags you to for "teambuilding" purposes. Instead of finding some key under a beater car in a storage space, though, you get your worst personality trait thrown against you. Yes, this means a drug dealer is likely going to be killed by some syringes and someone's going to be sealed in a bathroom to die.
Released: Feb. 4, 2000
Box office gross $89.1 million
Yep, Ghostface goes to Hollywood. The joke had worn well thin by this point, and cameos by Carrie Fisher, Roger Corman and Jay and Silent Bob couldn't prevent this from being the worst film of the original trilogy. We don't care about the rules of a trilogy: by playing by that rulebook, the "Scream" franchise became what it once hated.
Released: Aug. 26, 2016
Box office gross $89.2 million
Detroit and its scarred landscape have become a haven for great horror movies. The haunting "It Follows" was released just two years before and went rummaging through Detroit's abandoned relics. This tale follows home invaders who make a living by ransacking properties by undermining their security system. However, when you decide to rob a blind Gulf War veteran who's already had a daughter killed, you might want to consider how he's reacted to all of that. If you're answer isn't "by using his heightened senses to take revenge on his daughter's killer and to mow down anything that comes into his darkened house," maybe you should pick another house to pillage.
Released: Nov. 19, 1999
Box office gross $101.1 million
An oft-overlooked installment in the "Tim Burton keeps Johnny Depp employed" series, this take on Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is a far more entertaining romp that its appearance on this list would have you believe. Yes, there's still a headless horseman killing his way through Westchester County, but Depp's affable Ichabod Crane, Christina Ricci's strong supporting turn and a huge ensemble including Martin Landau, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Jeffrey Jones and Christopher Lee breathe new life into an old tale that Fox somehow still managed to run into the ground with series two decades later. Though released after Halloween, "Sleepy Hollow" still deserves a spot on the Halloween watch list.
Released: Aug. 11, 2017
Box office gross $101.1 million
So how does a porcelain doll get the ability to steal souls in the first place? Well, this "Conjuring" spinoff series answers the question you didn't ask in the most tragic way possible. Run down a dollmaker's daughter with a car sometime around World War II, find a demon to convince the grieving family to let it live in one of their dolls, have it torment some orphans and then have it all end in both a bridge to the movie "Annabelle" (aren't prequels grand) and with a teaser to yet another spinoff, "The Nun." This franchise's content may be losing steam, but its box office numbers say there's still plenty of life in this endless web of spinoffs. Welcome to 2017, where every film needs its own "cinematic universe."
Released: Dec. 12, 1997
Box office gross $101.4 million
Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson were still at the helm, everybody who didn't die in the first one came back and even wrongly accused Cotton Weary gets some big-screen time with help from Liev Schreiber. The twists are inspired, the pokes at sequels are still fresh and the mystery aspect of the plot still drives most of the screams. A worthy successor to the near-flawless original.
Released: Dec. 12, 1997
Box office gross $102.5 million
Ed and Lorraine Warren, the "paranormal investigators" who are the subjects of these films, are only as great as director James Wan makes them. Considering that they traded in fiction in real life, it isn't an issue that Wan takes license with that fiction for the sake of creating deeply disturbing fiction of his own. This sequel revolves around the Enfield Poltergeist, a series of disturbances in an English council house in the late 1970s now believed to be a hoax perpetrated by two young girls. Wan rightfully gives a nod to "The Amityville Horror" right off the bat, but quickly shifts the narrative to the London suburb of Enfield, a seemingly possessed girls, yet another demon and a demonic nun. Wan is incredibly adept at taking real-life hoaxes to their extreme, illogical conclusions, but this installment seemed design less to spook audiences and more to set up the next spinoff. The conclusion? New Line really wants you to see "The Nun" next year.
Released: Dec. 20, 1996
Box office gross $103 million
Sure, it made the slasher self-aware and put to rest many of its worst tropes. Yes, all of those jokes forced it to be far more clever with its writing and give far more thought to who was holding the knife. But the greatest achievement for "Scream" wasn't skewering the slasher genre, but reviving it and giving it a reason to live. Wes Craven saw the first wave peak and come crashing down in a sea of silly cliches. With "Scream," he gave it a second chance by clinging to the element he loved. He also made Neve Campbell's protagonist strong without canonizing her as a saint. Thanks for being less judgy than some of your contemporaries, Wes.
Released: Oct. 21, 2011
Box office gross $104 million
The series has an '80s flashback. If you haven't realized it yet, horror movie prequels start to crop up when there's even a sense that the revenue hose is losing pressure. We get some back story on the demon and why it's following Katie and her sister Kristi around. Original series creator Oren Peli is long gone, we're four directors into this franchise and despite this film's tremendous success against a budget of $5 million, it's all diminishing returns from here. Enjoy this installment, because it's the last one any large percentage of U.S. moviegoers seemed to care about.
Released: Nov. 11, 1994
Box office gross $105.2 million
It seems so limiting to confine this film to the horror genre. Anne Rice seemed to have greater things in mind when she created New Orleans vampires Louis and Lestat and had an interviewer flesh out their immortality and suffering. The ensuing tale of love, loss, empathy, familial relationships and fluidity is more about humanity than horror. Even with Kirsten Dunst immolated and both Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise draining people of their blood, this film even goes so far as to mock the horrific characterization of vampires with its own, incredibly meta stage production put on by the vampires themselves. If there's anything frightening about this film, it's how Cruise has remained at roughly the same level as Dunst, Pitt, Christian Slater and Antonio Banderas have watched their careers fluctuate.
Released: Oct 16, 2009
U.S. box office gross: $107.9 million
It cost $15,000 to make as an indie, its actors were paid in the three-figure range, it had no script, it took almost two years to get to wide release, it was shown in markets based almost solely on online demand and long stretches of it involve absolutely nothing happening at all. It remains one of the most frightening examples of the "found footage" genre of horror films and, five sequels later, still holds up better than the films it spawned.
Released: July 19, 2013
U.S. box office gross: $137.4 million
Ed and Lorraine Warren wanted to take credit for "The Amityville Horror." They really wanted you to think demonic possession was plausible and worth being scared of. Director James Wan, with just a $20 million budget, showed audiences just how frightening that prospect could be by taking them into a run-down home in the Rhode Island wilderness and showing demons driving a family slowly insane. This slow burn of a film is at its best when the Warrens are at bay and the demons do their thing, and it's that steady march into a fugue state of suspense and outright shock that kept audiences rapt for months. This demon has taken on a life of its own now, but just four years ago it was simply a frightening movie willing to redraw "The Amityville Horror" template for a 21st Century audience.
Released: July 16, 1999
U.S. box office gross: $140.5 million
There wasn't a "found footage" subgenre in horror before this came around. However, this relatively simple black-and-white film about friends going off into the woods in search of the Blair Witch, finding a bunch of stick figures dangling from the trees, running around in the dark and crying into a camera's spotlight freaked out the nation and made this film the surprise hit of the summer of '99. Attempts at sequels were hideously unsuccessful, but this film that was shot in eight days, derived most of its buzz from the Internet and inspired several other found-footage horror franchises afterward (including "Paranormal Activity"), this was a success by just about every measure.
Released: Feb. 24, 2017
U.S. box office gross: $175.5 million
Comedian, actor and Key and Peele/"Keanu" star Jordan Peele's first foray into directing (he'd written the screenplay for "Keanu" as well as this one), just hit all the right notes for a 2017 horror movie. A young black man from New York meeting his white girlfriend's parents at the family home for the first time could've landed this firmly in the horror-comedy category if handled by a lesser director or writer, but Peele made it a statement that '70s horror directors before him would have loved. The fate that befalls this film's protagonist seems both frightening and plausible in the current climate, and that's no small thanks to Peele's reading of the current culture. This film had a far different ending when Peele initially envisioned it, but recent political action and protest gave "Get Out" a far more uplifting conclusion.
Released: Dec. 23, 1973
U.S. box office gross: $232.9 million
Linda Blair levitating beds and vomiting pea soup became pop-culture touchstones for much of the '70s, but this story about demonic possession that earned an Academy Award nomination for best picture was so much more than the sum of its parts. Writer William Peter Blatty's take on a postwar exorcism -- for which he won a Best Screenplay Oscar -- is often remembered for Blair spewing obscenities at priests and the defiling of a statue of the Virgin Mary, very little of it's more extreme depictions would've happened without director William Friedkin literally beating it those performances out of the film's stars. If you thought "The Exorcist" was horrific in theaters, it was far worse on set.
Released: Sept. 8, 2017
U.S. box office gross: $316.3 million and counting
Demon clowns have really stuck a nerve with Americans as a whole. However, for a novel written more than 30 years ago and a miniseries first aired roughly 27 years ago to have enough of a hold on audiences to stand out as a blockbuster today is extraordinary. Because it's a film made in 2017, though, it only focuses on Pennywise the Clown tormenting the poor Loser's Club in its childhood. If you want to see how the kids fare as adults in the second half, you'll have to cough up extra for the second installment.