History of Horror Films at the Box Office

From Universal monster classics to mid-century thrillers to modern spine-tinglers, take a look through time at the films that have frightened the most.

The Early Days of Horror Films

In the late 19th century, filmmaker Georges Melies created what is widely considered the first horror movie, “Le Manoir du Diable.” Released in 1896, this three-minute short film featured an impish devil tormenting the occupants of a castle. While horror films were still in their infancy, this early example set the stage for the supernatural and eerie themes that would become synonymous with the genre.

Horror Blockbusters in the 1930s Through the 1960s

The 1930s through the 1960s saw the advent of horror blockbusters, with titles such as “King Kong” (1933) and “Frankenstein” (1931) filling theaters. An iconic example of this period was Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho” (1960). This film not only terrified audiences with its suspenseful score and shocking twist ending, it also redefined the standard for psychological horror movies that continues to influence contemporary films.

The 1930 pre-code Ingagi was a fake documentary that was presented as real. Its horrifically racist plotline told of a white English explorer discovering Africans in the Congo giving women to gorillas as sex slaves. The film’s trade association disclaimed it, but more than 12 million tickets were sold for a gross of $4 million and prompted RKO to make “King Kong.”

In 1935, “Bride of Frankenstein” dethroned Ingagi at the top of the horror list, selling 18.3 million tickets while garnering critical acclaim.

The noir-ish thriller “Cat People” pounced in 1942. A horror-movie record 33 million tickets were sold, for a gross of $7.9 million.

It took more than a decade and a new gimmick to knock “Cat People” off its perch. “House of Wax” was the first major color 3D film to hit theaters. Audiences responded in a big way, buying up nearly 40 million tickets. The films $23.8 million gross put it at #6 for domestic releases of any genre at the time.

It was bested by the shocking “Psycho” in 1960, and then again by “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1969. But the horror genre’s biggest hits were still just a few years away.

The Golden Age of Horror Films

The horror genre experienced a significant surge in popularity during the 1970s and 1980s. This era produced iconic horror films that continue to captivate audiences to this day. Movies like “The Exorcist” (1973), “Jaws” (1975), and “Halloween” (1978) became box office sensations, drawing in audiences with their terrifying stories and groundbreaking special effects. These films not only generated significant revenue but also solidified the horror genre’s place in mainstream cinema.

“The Exorcist” was first released the day after Christmas. Ironically, director William Friedkin was opposed to the date, believing it would hurt the film commercially.

Instead, the demonic blockbuster brought in more than 2.4 million ticket sales that last week of the year, and more than 77 million more tickets in 1974. It quickly outpaced every other horror film released at the time. It’s been re-released several times since, and in 2023 sits at #10 on the list of best-selling films of all time.

In June 1975, Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” completely changed the box office game. It benefited from a new strategy to release the film wide across the country all at once and was accompanied by a national marketing campaign. It became not just the highest-grossing horror film at the time, but was also the highest-grossing movie of any sort until Star Wars.

Jaws is currently ranked #7 on the list of the best-selling films of all time.

The Rise of Franchises and Cult Classics

The 1980s and 1990s brought about the rise of horror film franchises and cult classics. Movies like “Friday the 13th,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and “The Evil Dead” became staples of the genre, attracting devoted fan bases and generating substantial profits at the box office. These films often had relatively low budgets but were able to captivate audiences with their inventive storytelling and memorable characters.

In the 1990s, horror films underwent a renaissance with the release of groundbreaking movies such as “Scream” (1996) and “The Blair Witch Project” (1999). These films took a self-aware approach to the genre, blending elements of horror with humor and metanarrative. They resonated with audiences and redefined the horror genre, paving the way for a new wave of innovative and thought-provoking horror films.

It took until 1999 for any horror film to dethrone Jaws. “The Sixth Sense” soared to $293.5 million, $30.5 million more than Jaws. M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough blockbuster benefited from inflation – Jaws’ total came off more than twice as many actual ticket sales.

Modern Horror Hits

In recent years, horror films have continued to dominate the box office, with several standout movies capturing the attention of audiences worldwide. Films like “The Conjuring” (2013), “It” (2017), and “Get Out” (2017) have become major successes, both critically and commercially. These movies have demonstrated the enduring appeal of horror, appealing to a wide range of viewers and generating substantial box office revenue.

“It” is so far the only horror film to make more money than “The Sixth Sense” so far, with $327.5 million. It too has benefited from inflation: theaters sold 36.5 million tickets to “It” compared to 57.8 million to “The Sixth Sense.”