A sadistic burn victim, a cannibalistic psychiatrist, and several mask-wearing, knife-wielding psychopaths: they’ll haunt your dreams, and shore up scary big earnings at the box office.
The low-budget horror flick is a perpetually popular genre, with some of the scariest movies ever produced receiving little to no studio backing. The Blair Witch project was produced on an initial budget of just $25,000 (it shot up another $500,000 or so once Artisan Entertainment bought it) and earned more than $140.5 million domestic. The original Paranormal Activity was shot for just $15,000, a number it easily eclipsed on its way to a $100 million-plus box office take.
Perhaps it’s little surprise, then, that keeping with the low-budget theme, the first film in five of the eight franchises on this list were produced for under $2 million. The other three cost $12 to $15 million and enjoyed enormous profit margins. Though budgets steadily increased with each new film, all of these series remain incredibly profitable.
Adjusted for inflation, The Exorcist is the highest-grossing horror franchise of all time, and its namesake 1973 film is also the top-grossing single horror film. It brought in $193 million domestic, the equivalent of about $860.76 million today (for reference, the current gross of this year’s mega-hit Jurassic World is $651.5 million).
The final numbers used in the slideshow are the domestic box office grosses, adjusted for inflation according to Box Office Mojo.
The Exorcist: $1.145 billion
The Exorcist franchise boasts the top-grossing single horror film and the top-grossing series on our list. The first movie alone, which earned $860.76 million at the box office, would be enough to take the top spot. Add in the other five films, and you have a 10-figure franchise. While none of the subsequent films even came close to the original, Exorcist II: The Heretic, the second-highest earning film in the series, earned a respectable $115 million.
Friday the 13th: $773.4 million
With 12 films total, it’s perhaps little surprise that the Friday the 13th series is so high up on the list. The original film, from 1980, remains the most profitable of the bunch: made on a $550,000 budget, it grossed $39.75 million, or $123.25 million when adjusted for inflation. And it has major cultural currency beyond its box office success, with television spinoffs, comic books, and novels based on slasher Jason Voorhees, as well as turning a white hockey mask into a perennial symbol of terror.
Hannibal Lecter: $688.9 million
Propelled by the success of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, the Hannibal Lecter franchise is one of the most successful despite being comprised of just five films. The original film, 1986’s Manhunter, was the least lucrative, grossing just $19.38 million (adjusted for inflation), while The Silence of the Lambs grossed over $130.7 million ($259 million adjusted) on a $19 million budget. It was also a critical success, winning the Academy Awards for Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter), Best Actress (Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling), Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture.
A Nightmare on Elm Street: $656.9 million
Wes Craven’s classic horror franchise comes in close on the heels of the Hannibal series, its nine films grossing well over $650 million to date. This is another franchise where the original film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, is not the top-grossing – and in fact, its inflation adjusted box office sales of $60.88 million place it seventh in the series, behind even the 2010 remake of the 1984 classic.
Halloween: $623.8 million
The film that ignited the slasher genre, the original Halloween grossed about $47 million in 1978 ($167.5 million today) on a shoestring budget of $325,000, making it one of the most successful independent movies of all time. It catapulted the original Scream Queen, Jamie Lee Curtis, to fame and made Michael Myers a household name, and produced one of the creepiest and most recognizable scores in horror films to date (not to mention it turned a $1.98 William Shatner mask into one of the most terrifying murderer getups on film).
Scream: $548.2 million
Wes Craven’s Scream reignited a tired genre and became one of the most profitable and critically acclaimed slasher flicks of all time. It was made for $15 million, with subsequent movies getting increasingly larger budgets (Scream 2 was made for $24 million, and Scream 3 and 4, $40 million apiece). Scream 4, which hit theaters in 2011, didn’t fare nearly as well as the first three films — it made just $39.5 million domestic, though worldwide box offices more than doubled that figure — and it’s unclear whether reports of a fifth and sixth installment will come to fruition.
Saw: $510.5 million
Ah yes, torture porn. A little less sophisticated than some of the other franchises on this list, Saw nonetheless dominated the box office, with Saw II and Saw III grossing over $100 million apiece. The, um, appeal of the films may be wearing off, though, with the last two in the series — Saw VI and Saw 3D — earning significantly less than the other films, at $30.35 million and $47.95 million, respectively. Although, with budgets of $11million to $20 million, maybe we’ll continue seeing Saw in theaters.
Paranormal Activity: $415.1 million
Despite its latest iteration tanking at the box office this past weekend, the Paranormal Activity franchise remains highly lucrative, earning over $415 million domestically. The first film was made for $15,000 (and acquired by DreamWorks for $350,000) and became the most profitable film ever based on return-on-investment, according to some sources.