There are few things that film fans love more than the story of the little movie that made it. Whenever a film comes along that defies the conventions of a hit and becomes one anyway, it generates a better feeling than most scripted underdog stories. That's part of the reason why horror movies are so beloved. If you have enough talent and know how to work a budget, history has proven that the horror genre can yield the kind of profit monster that gets you on the radar of movie studios everywhere. Many of the world's greatest filmmakers got their start scaring the hell out of people.
Before you take a look at the horror movies that did better than any others, let’s clarify the selection process. As factors like inflation can dramatically impact success over time, and because certain revenue sources like rentals and merchandise are often unknown, we decided to simply look at a movie’s box office returns weighed against its budget. With that information, the return on investment (ROI) that the movie generated is calculated and ultimately used to determine profitability.
Here are the 15 Most Financially Successful Horror Movies Of All Time.
15 The Last House On The Left
The Last House on the Left was not the first exploitation film; not by a long shot. Actually, many elements of this film’s plot are borrowed from the 1950 Ingmar Bergman classic The Virgin Spring. So what made this the exploitation film that rose above so many others? Well, some of that success does have to do with the film’s infamous marketing campaign, which used the classic “Just keep telling yourself it’s only a movie” tagline to great success. The Last House on the Left was promoted to be a grizzly film the likes of which viewers had never seen. The controversy surrounding the film’s release only seemed to support that claim.
That may have been the reason why The Last House on the Left initially found success, but the reason why it was able to stay a hit was because it was a genuinely great movie. Wes Craven displayed some growing pains in his directorial debut, but when the film is at its best, it was just as much of an art house film as it was a grindhouse movie. On an $87,000 budget, The Last House on the Left raked in $3.1 million box office dollars. That’s good enough for a 3363% return on investment.
14 The Exorcist
Looking back, it’s amazing how many filmmaking miracles it took for The Exorcist to get made at all. After Arthur Penn and Stanley Kubrick declined to direct the project, it seemed that nobody with enough clout would ever get on board. Then, not long after William Friedkin signed on to direct, accidents on set led to many deeming the movie’s production to be doomed. Even after the movie was finished, Warner Bros. was only able to put it in twenty-six theaters where it was greeted with incredible controversy. Long story short, The Exorcist was seemingly destined not to be made.
Once all the dust settled, though, The Exorcist became the monstrous hit that no one saw coming. It was the most shocking thing many moviegoers had ever seen up until that point. The hype surrounding it reached that rare level of critical mass that made it so anyone that didn’t see it suddenly felt like they were out of the world’s biggest conversation. While The Exorcist is one of the highest-grossing horror films of all time ($441 million at the box office), its $12 million budget means that it ultimately ended up with a (still impressive) 3475% return on investment.
If you’re scratching your head right now trying to remember which movie Annabelle was, don’t feel too bad. This will probably be the most surprising entrant on this list, as this 2014 horror film seemingly came and went without making too much noise, but actually achieved incredible box office returns. Annabelle was a spin-off of the very popular 2013 movie The Conjuring and, while many agree that this film is not quite as brilliant as the film from which it was spun, Annabelle’s lower budget helped it to earn a much more impressive profit.
To be fair, the movie isn’t exactly unwatchable. It’s a killer doll story that isn’t quite on the level of the classic Child’s Play franchise, but is still a fairly effective supernatural tale. Even still, it’s hard to argue that the reason Annabelle did so well is because The Conjuring managed to attract a fanbase comprised of critics, genre fans, and casual movie watchers. Even the poster for Annabelle features The Conjuring’s name in letters almost as big as this movie’s actual title. At the end of the day, though, that association helped Annabelle earn $256.9 million at the box office off of a $6.5 million budget, making for a 3752% return on investment.
It’s fascinating to think that if Steven Spielberg hadn’t decided to become one of the most respected all-around film directors in American movie history, he might have just ended up being the greatest horror film director of all-time. Spielberg’s debut effort, 1971’s Duel, was a suspense-filled stroke of brilliance that had little to work with and made the most of it. But even that movie could not have possibly prepared people for what Spielberg had in mind for Jaws. Infamously released in the summer during a time when summer movie releases were thought to be a death blow, Jaws shook up the expectations of its release time, its genre, and its premise en route to becoming a cultural hit.
Of course, you probably already know that. After all, who hasn’t seen Jaws? That’s kind of the point, though. If you were to add up box office, syndication advertising revenue, media sales, and everything else associated with Jaws, it might very well be the most lucrative horror movie of all-time. Going just off the box office receipts, though, Jaws' $470.7 million in ticket sales off of a $9 million budget add up to a 5030% return on investment.
11 Cat People
As the oldest movie on this list by quite a few years, 1942’s Cat People might require a little bit of an introduction. The movie follows a woman named Irena, who discovers she is a descendant of a group of people who morph into cats when they become aroused. It was produced by RKO Studios, who were in bad financial shape at the time and spent the last of the studio’s money on several cheap projects they thought might become a success. As it turns out, they really only needed to put their faith in this Jacques Tourneur film.
Cat People was a little more provocative than your average horror film of the era, which certainly didn’t hurt the film’s buzz, but it’s also regularly cited as one of the most subtle horror films ever made. So much of what makes the movie effective is based on what it doesn’t show you; a lot of controversial material is kept in the shadows. The need to hide this content forced the director to get clever with several plot elements, which in turn helped Cat People earn its legacy for being an immensely clever movie. It also earned $8,000,000 at the box office off of a $134,000 budget. When all was said and done, that’s a 5770% return on investment.
We’ve seen examples of films that benefited from tremendous marketing campaigns on this list, and now, we get to take a look at one that succeeded in spite of its marketing. This movie's commercials made it look like a particularly cheesy look at our social media and online content driven culture. As such, Unfriended was written off by many as a movie for gullible teenagers that was going to have to benefit from some great word of mouth if it was going to succeed.
Luckily, that’s what happened. Unfriended wasn’t met with universal acclaim, but it did find an audience that was excited enough to see it on opening weekend, one that subsequently spread its praises across the very same social sites that the movie was parodying. Unfriended isn’t a game-changing horror movie by any means, but it does take advantage of its premise and portrays a story that takes place almost entirely through the lens of a Skype chat session. It’s the kind of low-budget/high-concept set-up that have made horror films a profit darling in Hollywood. Off a meager $1 million budget, Unfriended went on to earn $64.1 million at the box office and claim a 6210% return on investment.
Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell felt that they had the next big horror hit on their hands when they started producing Saw in 2001. The only problem was that nobody in their home country of Australia agreed with them. Unable to find funding there, they made that classic trip to Hollywood with their film in tow and soon found that Evolution Entertainment was more than happy to give them a small budget and 18 days to make their vision a reality. It wasn’t the most glamorous of set-ups, but Wan and Whannell knew it would be enough.
Saw is usually labeled as a “torture porn” film, which is funny when you consider that there isn’t a lot of overt violence in the movie. Still, horror audiences during this time were starting to eat up gory films once again, and Saw found itself as the herald of a new era. People couldn’t stop talking about its premise, twist ending, and atmosphere of dread. The $1.2 million budget Saw was made with ended up being good enough for a $103.9 million box office return and an 8391% return on investment.
8 The Devil Inside
There was a brief period within the last few years when American horror filmmakers went through a fascination with the idea of exorcism films. In fact, you could argue that the era saw more films based on exorcism than the years that followed the release of The Exorcist. The cause of this resurgence is up for debate, but what cannot be debated is that the movies that managed to capitalize off this fad made a lot of money in the process.
Why did The Devil Inside succeed above all other exorcism films of this era? That’s a fascinating question. The movie didn’t present anything especially intriguing in its advertising. It was panned by just about every critic prior to its release. It didn’t even come out during the Halloween season. Something about this movie made people turn out in droves, though, and The Devil Inside took the number one spot in its first weekend. Maybe you should just never underestimate the appeal of a found-footage style horror movie. Whatever the reason, The Devil Inside weathered extreme audience backlash en route to a $101.8 million box office return off a $1 million budget. That earned Paramount Pictures a 9980% return on investment.
7 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
There’s something oddly satisfying about the bluntness of a movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s nice to be able to go into a movie and know just from the title what to expect. Actually, that’s not really a fair statement. It would be much fairer to say that very few people who walked into theaters on October 1st, 1974 to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre really knew what they were about to see. Indeed, much of the hype that preceded The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was based on the fact the previews hid a lot of plot details and focused more on how everything in the movie was true (even though it wasn't). It wasn't long after the film released that it gained a reputation for being a nearly unwatchable (for the common moviegoer, anyway) piece of gore entertainment that was banned in several countries.
That’s pretty amusing when you consider that there is almost no actual violence in the movie. Instead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre managed to earn its shock reputation based on its gritty visuals and unrelenting onslaught of pure terror. It would go on to influence a generation of filmmakers and earn $30.8 million off a $300,000 budget. Add it up, and you’ve got a 10,066% return on investment. Imagine what would have happened if it opened in more countries.
6 Friday the 13th
Much like how Nirvana came along and immediately defined the music scene of the early ‘90s, 1980’s Friday the 13th wasted no time in announcing to the world that the ‘80s were going to be the decade of the slasher film. There’s a reason why some people claim that Friday the 13th is the first true slasher film, despite the fact that history tells us otherwise -- it’s because this was the movie that drew the blueprint for what we now consider to your typical slasher flick. It gave us kids in a precarious setting ignoring obvious warning signs in favor of doing drugs and having sex, and it gave us a lone stalker hunting them down one by one.
It was a revelation in filmmaking despite the fact that the movie borrowed elements from several movies that came before. The way that director Sean S. Cunningham made it all come together just worked, though. Audiences had slowly been embracing a more exploitative form of horror for some time, and Friday the 13th managed to find the perfect mixture of terror and gore-filled entertainment. A legion of Friday the 13th copycats would soon follow, and that’s no surprise when you consider that this movie was made for $550,000 and would later boast $59.8 million in box office receipts, as well as a 10,672% return on investment.
5 Open Water
All shark films that followed Jaws will forever have to answer to Jaws. It’s been over forty years since that movie was released, and no shark movie has come close to matching its accomplishments. Well…except for profitability, that is. Open Water came out of nowhere when it was released in 2003. All it took was one look at this film, based on a true story about a couple who are left out in shark infested waters after being separated from their scuba diving group, and audiences everywhere suddenly became very intrigued.
That story premise is a nightmare come true for many people, but what really sold this film was its style. Shot on digital video, this movie featured very little in the way of studio filmmaking techniques. Instead, Open Water relies on its rough technical set-up to really drive home the idea that you as the viewer are stuck out in the same waters this couple is. The idea really worked. It worked so well, in fact, that even though Open Water was made for a paltry $500,000, it would go on to earn $54.6 million and change. That’s a 10,720% return on investment if you’re keeping track.
You can’t say enough good things about John Carpenter’s 1978 film, Halloween. In comparison to movies of the era such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist, Halloween was actually a pretty tame piece of work. It had a little nudity in it, but most of the violence was actually kept off screen. Given how popular ultra-violent horror movies were during this era, releasing a movie that didn’t capitalize off that meant that you risked losing that diehard group of horror fans that would see anything as long as it was violent enough.
What Halloween did was prove to studios and filmmakers everywhere that audiences were just as willing (perhaps even more willing) to go to a horror movie that was just plain scary. Halloween’s most terrifying moments are generated almost entirely by intelligent filmmaking techniques. It utilizes a couple of jump scares, but so much of what makes Halloween great are Hitchcockian moments of pure suspense. Indeed, many consider Halloween to be the first movie to really build off of what Hitchcock was trying to do with Psycho. All said and done, Halloween achieved $70,000,000 in box office returns despite its $325,000 budget. Unbelievably, that means it generated a 21,338% return on investment.
3 Night of the Living Dead
It’s almost impossible to imagine a time before zombies were an essential part of the horror movie world, but before the release of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, that was the situation. Night of the Living Dead didn’t exactly invent the idea of zombies, but if you’re looking for the piece of fiction that invented zombies as we know them, look no further. George Romero was years ahead of his time when he concocted the story of a group of people holding up in an old house while a legion of undead surrounded them.
Romero was inexperienced, the cast and crew were largely made up of amateur actors (at best), and all the equipment was second rate. It was all very rough, and that was the point. You could believe that what was happening on screen was somehow the equivalent of your look into another world. Night of the Living Dead absolutely shocked people when it was released, and really set a standard in terms of the kind of money indie horror movies could bring in. Specifically, Night of the Living Dead made $30 million at the box office despite its minuscule $114,000 budget. That’s a 26,115% return on investment.
2 The Blair Witch Project
One can only hope that in marketing classes across the best universities in the world, there is an entire semester devoted to The Blair Witch Project. At a time when people were just slowly starting to embrace the internet, a few filmmakers got the brilliant idea to launch a guerrilla marketing campaign online that hinted at the tale of a group of students who got lost in the woods during a supernatural investigation and the footage of their adventures that was recovered by police. What that means is that more than a few people went into The Blair Witch Project convinced that it was real.
It’s was an idea that will never be replicated again. Modern audiences are too marketing savvy nowadays, but back then, the notion that this movie was real was sold so well that even the biggest skeptic entered their showing with some doubt in their mind. Regardless, the movie itself was also pretty effective, as it used fascinating documentary filmmaking techniques to convincingly create a world of horror. The meager $60,000 it took to make The Blair Witch Project would later translate into a $248.6 million box office gross. That’s good enough for a 414,133% return on investment.
1 Paranormal Activity
Let’s buck the format a bit and start with the figures for this one, because they are even more shocking than anything that happens in this movie. Paranormal Activity reportedly cost $15,000 to make. That’s less than some of those kids on My Sweet 16 got for their birthdays. That investment paid off to the tune of a $193.4 million gross. As impossible as it is to believe, that means that Paranormal Activity’s return on investment comes to a whopping 1,289,133%.
The Blair Witch Project is the only film that even comes close to that figure, and it's barely in the same ballpark. Of course, it’s appropriate that The Blair Witch Project would be the only film that comes close to Paranormal Activity's financial success, given that Paranormal Activity generously borrowed that movie’s found footage style to tell the story of a couple that thinks their house is haunted. Paranormal Activity had the considerable benefit of releasing just as the torture porn fad was starting to wane, and it surprised industry experts by being an incredibly competent piece of filmmaking. In case you haven’t noticed, that means that the vast majority of the most profitable horror movies of all-time also so happen to be pretty good films. Go figure.
Did we pass over any hyper-successful fright flicks? Let us know in the comments.