Scary Numbers: Top 9 Grossing Supernatural Horror Films

(source warner bros)


With the Warner Bros. (NYSE:TWX) horror film The Conjuring making huge business at the box office — the success of the film is highlighting just how lucrative the horror genre can be. For a film business becoming increasingly obsessed with mega-budget tent-pole films, releasing a good horror film into theaters can be like striking gold when it comes to the film studios.

Look no further than the horror film taking the box office by storm presently: The Conjuring was made on a budget of only $20 million, making that money back and then some after only one weekend in theaters. Similarly, Universal’s (NASDAQ:CMCSA) The Purge, released in early June, made $78 million worldwide on a budget of only $3 million. That number means The Purge made 25 times its budget and had already made 5 times its budget in its opening weekend, putting it way ahead of over every other film this summer when it came down to return on investment.

The Conjuring might also point towards a growing trend when it comes to horror films: a return to old-school, relatively nonviolent horror. Although The Purge doesn’t follow this trend, it looks like the upcoming slate of films, along with The Conjuring, show a return to creepiness over blood — which is rather ironic because James Wan, the director of The Conjuring, was also the director of Saw.

Nonetheless, we’ll soon have a spate of horror films sure to scare up big numbers with creepy scares over severed limbs. On September 13 (Friday the 13th in case you wanted to know), James Wan will already be coming out with a new film, Insidious: Chapter 2, to hopefully follow up on the success of The Conjuring. The sequel to 2010′s Insidious, which made $97 million on a $1.5 million budget, the film will continue on from were the first ended. Then, on October 18, we’ll see the newest screen adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie, this time directed by Kimberly Peirce and starring Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role.

So with all of this discussion of lucrative horror films, what are the most successful supernatural horror films of all time? Using this Bloomberg list, here are the top 9 most successful supernatural horror films of all time, unadjusted for inflation and based on lifetime ticket sales that may include re-release.

1. The Sixth Sense, Hollywood Pictures – $294 million

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How times have changed. It wasn’t that long ago that M. Night Shyamalan, the director of The Sixth Sense, was being heralded as the next big thing in Hollywood with the enormous success of his first film. Starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, the horror film about a young boy who can see ghosts went on to make $294 million domestically and was a cultural phenomenon when it was released.

The Hollywood Pictures film, a subsidiary of Disney (NYSE:DIS), saw a consistent box office success for the entire summer. The film was so financially successful that studios have continued to show Shyamalan support even as his last several films have bombed. However, that all might change as the failure of his last film, After Earth, was so immense that Daniel Loeb recently used it as an example of why Sony (NYSE:SNE) needs to spin off its entertainment division.

2. The Exorcist, Warner Bros. – $233 million

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The Exorcist is consistently listed as the scariest film of all time in polls and the film has also benefited from re-releases as it terrified audiences to the tune of $233 million. Directed by William Friedkin, and starring Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair, the film revolves around the possession of a girl when the evil demon Pazuzu is released following an excavation in Northern Iraq.

The film, supposedly based on actual events, was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won two for Adapted Screenplay and Sound Mixing.

3. What Lies Beneath, 21st Century Fox – $155 million


This Robert Zemeckis-directed film might surprise a lot of readers, but when it was released in the summer of 2000, What Lies Beneath saw consistent box office success throughout the entire summer, totaling $155 million. The 21st Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA) thriller stars Harrision Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer as a mysterious haunting threatens to uncover secrets about their past.

The film seems to be an example of one of those films that was simply released at the right time, perhaps similar to the recent success of The Purge. The film currently holds a 46 percent overall score at Rotten Tomatoes and, while some critics praised the film’s Hitchcockian style, the film was largely criticized for a script that ultimately didn’t amount to much.

4. The Blair Witch Project, Lions Gate – $141 million


Released on July 30, 1999, The Blair Witch Project hype-train was explosive. The marketing of the film was revolutionary for its time, leading curious film-goers to ask whether the found-footage horror film — which at that time had a style only used by several cult-horror films — was actually real. The film went on to make $141 million domestically on a budget of only $22,500. Unbelievable to say the least.

Besides launching the careers of the filmmakers, the film is also credited with being the film that started the entire sub-genre of found-footage horror. Everything from the recent independent horror film V/H/S/2 to the big budget monster film Cloverfield, produced by JJ Abrams, is probably indebted to The Blair Witch Project and the style it brought to the mainstream, even if the found-footage style already existed on the cult-circuit.

5. The Ring, Dreamworks Pictures – $129 million

(source the ring)

The English remake of The Ring, from the original Japanese Ringu, came out on October 18, 2002 and went on to make $129 million. Starring Naomi Watts and directed by Gore Verbinski, the film benefited from a fitting release date right before Halloween. It also had something going for it: it was really scary.

In an example that fresh, scary ideas sell, The Ring benefited from a strong critical reception (currently 71 percent favorable on Rotten Tomatoes) along with great word of mouth as everyone was absolutely terrified when it came to the concept of the film. The famous scene where a decomposing ghostly girl crawls through TV static is still firmly embedded in popular culture. And it’s still scary.

6. The Grudge, Columbia Pictures – $110 million

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Another remake of a Japanese film, The Grudge stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and was actually directed by the Japanese filmmaker who had made the original. The film, which made $110 million, told several intersecting stories that revolved around a house with a powerful haunting.

Columbia Pictures, a subsidiary of Sony, released the film on October 22, 2004, and is another example of how important release schedule can be when it comes to movies — if prestige films are fall, blockbusters are summer, then horror films are usually October. Critics were mixed on the film, with many pointing out the similarities to The Ring, but it didn’t stop film-goers from packing theaters to be scared on Halloween.

7. Paranormal Activity, Paramount Pictures – $108 million

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Released on October 14, 2007, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity started a horror phenomenon which soon turned into a highly lucrative franchise. The independent feature, later distributed by Paramount (NASDAQ:VIA), was made on a budget of only $15,000 and made $108 million.

Besides its October release, this film can trace its success to a strong marketing campaign and word of mouth. The film’s popularity was similar to The Blair Witch Project in that the interest in the film slowly built up until it reached a frenzy. By the time it was wide released in time for Halloween, everyone was talking about it.

8. Paranormal Activity 3, Paramount Pictures – $104 million

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Paranormal Activity 3, came out in 2011 and you can probably guess when it was released. With a wide-release in October 21, just in time for Halloween, the film continued the haunting story from the first two films, making $104 million along the way.

So why is this film on the list and not Paranormal Activity 2? One reason might have been the new directors in the chair, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who had some interesting ideas on how to expand on the scary concepts of the earlier films. Substantial buzz led up to the film, and viewers were interested in the film previews which seemed to show new ways of making the series’ style of horror stand out.

9. The Conjuring, Warner Bros. – $99 million (and counting)

(source warner bros)

I won’t write too much about this one having already talked about it at length, but The Conjuring is a pretty special film. At the time of writing, this film had actually knocked off numbers 9 and 10 to make it to this list. Not bad for a film that will likely see consistent box office success throughout the final month of summer.

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