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Highest-grossing horror movies of all time and where to watch them

Thrill, suspense, despair, heroism and the age-old concept of good vs evil — the highest-grossing horror movies of all time have these ingredients. But what makes them stand out from other genres is their profitability.

The first horror movie ever made was Georges Méliès’s three-minute short film Le Manoir du Diable (The Haunted Castle) in 1896. Captivating moviegoers since then, the best horror movies of today are known for their special effects as well as engrossing storytelling.

This also indicates that the budget of some horror movies has grown. But a quick look at the numbers reveals that the box office returns on horror movies are much better when compared to other genres.

For instance, It (2017), the highest-grossing horror movie of all time, was made on a budget of just USD 35 million (INR 290 crore approx.). It ended up earning more than USD 700 million (INR 5,816 crore approx.).

The Sixth Sense (1999), which is hailed universally as one of the greatest supernatural horror movies ever made, was made on a budget of USD 40 million (INR 332 crore approx.), with lead actor Bruce Willis’s salary alone comprising half of it. The movie earned over USD 670 million (INR 5,566 crore approx.) worldwide, with producer Spyglass Entertainment and distributor Walt Disney Co. each making close to USD 100 million in profit. Willis went home richer by another USD 50 million (INR 415 crore approx.).

By comparison, Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), was made on a budget of close to USD 1 billion (INR 8,308 crore approx.) and needed around USD 1.4 billion (INR 11,626 crore approx.) in worldwide gross just to break even (the point where the total cost and total revenue are the same). Its worldwide gross of USD 2.3 billion (INR 19,101 crore approx.) is certainly outstanding, but not as high a return in terms of box office percentage of horror movies as It or The Sixth Sense.

How to define horror movies

Even though everyone understands horror as a genre, a problem is defining what exactly it constitutes. ‘Horror’ is today an umbrella term, with sub-genres, including slasher, supernatural, torture and even comedy movies.

Typically, horror films should trigger a sense of dread or fear among viewers. There may be jump scares and frightening, sometimes grotesque, characters depicted as pure evil or demonic entities.

Most of the earlier horror films were about malevolent entities coming back to life and causing havoc. Examples of such movies are Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Werewolf of London (1935). These spawned retellings or movies with similar themes.

But at the same time, movies such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), both of which were based on acclaimed literary works of the same names, were also seen as horror movies even though their stories are more of mystery and tragedy than horror.

In later years, films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s crime thriller Psycho (1960) and Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece Alien (1979) also came to be counted among horror films. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), a landmark film about a killer shark, is also seen in some quarters as a horror movie.

Thus, because of the absence of a definitive outline within which the genre can be described, there is no specific agreement to rank the best horror movies. So, while some believe that The Sixth Sense or Jaws do not necessarily fall in the horror genre, others believe that they do.

But a general list of all the best horror movies certainly reveals that all of them have one common element — they can make the viewer feel a sense of dread.

12 of the highest-grossing horror movies of all time

1 /12

Directed by: Andy Muschietti

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott

Release date: 8 September 2017

Worldwide gross: USD 700,381,748

RT rating: 86 per cent

Synopsis: In the summer of 1989, seven kids, all of whom are victims of bullying, in the small town of Derry must brave their personal fears and band together to take on an ancient shape-shifting evil known as the Pennywise (Skarsgård), who they have named “It.”

Image credit: Brooke Palmer – © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc/IMDb

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams

Release date: 6 August 1999

Worldwide gross: USD 672,806,292

RT rating: 86 per cent

Synopsis: Cole Sear (Osment) is a young boy who has the ability to see ghosts. He is approached by child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Willis), who wants to understand the boy’s ability. In the process, Cole realises the worth of his power, while Dr. Malcolm confronts a reality that changes his perception of everything he believed was true.

Image credit: © 1999 – Buena Vista Pictures/IMDb

3 /12

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Will Smith, Alice Braga

Release date: 14 December 2007

Worldwide gross: USD 585,410,052

RT rating: 68 per cent

Synopsis: Robert Neville (Smith) is a brilliant scientist and one of the few human survivors of a devastating plague that wipes out almost all of humanity and changes most survivors into monsters. Alone in New York City with his loyal dog, Robert tries to find a cure using his own blood which is immune to the virus while the monsters are closing in on him.

Image credit: IMDb

4 /12

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Cast: 20 June 1975

Release date: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary

Worldwide gross: USD 476,512,065

RT rating: 97 per cent

Synopsis: The New England tourist town of Amity Island is threatened by a shark which has killed some of its residents. When the mayor, Larry Vaughn (Hamilton), refuses to close the beach, the town’s police chief, Martin Brody (Scheider), joins hands with a marine biologist, Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss), and an eccentric shark hunter, Quint (Shaw), to capture or kill the shark.

Image credit: Bud Gray – © MPTV – Image courtesy mptvimages.com/IMDb

Directed by: Andy Muschietti

Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgård

Release date: 6 September 2019 

Worldwide gross: USD 473,093,228

RT rating: 62 per cent

Synopsis: The childhood friends who defeated the shape-shifting entity Pennywise, aka It, 27 years ago are now adults who have gone their separate ways. But when It returns to terrorise Derry, Maine, the friends, once again, must come together for possibly one last stand to end the murderous monster once and for all.

Image credit: Brooke Palmer – © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./IMDb

Directed by: William Friedkin

Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair

Release date: 26 December 1973

Worldwide gross: USD 441,306,145

RT rating: 84 per cent

Synopsis: Regan (Blair) is a teenage girl who suddenly starts speaking in tongues and levitating. When medical help fails, her terrified mother, Chris MacNeil (Burstyn), turns to two priests, one of whom, Father Lankester Merrin (Sydow), is an expert in exorcism who believes that Regan is possessed by the devil.

Image credit: © 1973 – Warner Bros. Entertainment/IMDb

7 /12

Directed by: Corin Hardy

Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Demián Bichir, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons

Release date: 7 September 2018

Worldwide gross: USD 365,550,119

RT rating: 25 per cent

Synopsis: Father Burke (Bichir) is a priest with a haunted past in the 1950s. When a nun in a cloistered abbey in Romania kills herself, the Vatican sends him with Sister Irene (Farmiga) to investigate. The two then uncover a terrible secret about the abbey and the demonic entity that haunts it, whose very presence puts their life and faith in danger.

Image credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture – © 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved./IMDb

Directed by: John Krasinski

Cast: John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe

Release date: 6 April 2018

Worldwide gross: USD 340,939,361

RT rating: 96 per cent

Synopsis: Blind but noise-sensitive alien creatures have killed most of the people. In a world where making a sound means certain death, Evelyn (Blunt) and Lee Abbott (Krasinski) must protect their two remaining children, Marcus (Jupe) and Regan (Simmonds), after their youngest is killed by an alien.

Image credit: Jonny Cournoyer – © 2018 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved./IMDb

Directed by: James Wan

Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson

Release date: 19 July 2013

Worldwide gross: USD 319,494,638

RT rating: 86 per cent

Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) and Ed (Wilson) are called to a farmhouse in Rhode Island in 1970 where a family of seven is living in fear of a supernatural force. In the process, they discover a terrifying secret about the house itself.

Image credit: Michael Tackett – © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved./IMDb

Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson

Cast: Milla Jovovich, Iain Glen, Ali Larter, Shawn Roberts, Eoin Macken, Fraser James, Ruby Rose, Rola, William Levy

Release date: 27 January 2017

Worldwide gross: USD 312,242,626

RT rating: 37 per cent 

Synopsis: After the events of Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), Alice (Jovovich) must return to Raccoon City with the survivors of a massive war against zombies to be able to completely end Umbrella Corporation’s ultimate plan to end all humanity.

Image credit: Ilze Kitshoff – © 2016 Constantin Film Produktion GmbH. All rights reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR P/IMDb

Directed by: James Wan

Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson

Release date: 10 June 2016

Worldwide gross: USD 320,392,818

RT rating: 80 per cent

Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Lorraine (Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Wilson) travel to Enfield in north London in 1977 to help single mother Peggy Hodgson (O’Connor) and her four children, one of whom has unwittingly released a demon in their house.

Image credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture – © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpack-Dune Entertainment LLC. All Rights Reserved./IMDb

Directed by: David F. Sandberg

Cast: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto

Release date: 11 August 2017

Worldwide gross: USD 306,515,884

RT rating: 70 per cent

Synopsis: Sister Charlotte (Sigman) and six young girls from a closed orphanage are given shelter in the house of Sam Mullins (LaPaglia), who used to make toys, and his wife, Esther (Otto). But the visitors are soon terrorised by a doll, who may have a connection to the deceased child of the Mullins from 12 years ago who was named Annabelle.

Image credit: IMDb

(All figures as per Box Office Mojo as on 21 August 2023.)

(Hero and Featured images: Courtesy Brooke Palmer – © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./IMDb)

This story first appeared on Augustman India.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

– Which is the highest-grossing horror movie of all time?

It (2017) is the highest-grossing horror movie of all time. It earned over USD 700 million at the box office.

– What was the box office collection of The Sixth Sense?

The box office collection of The Sixth Sense (1999) was more than USD 672 million.

Highest-grossing horror movies of all time and where to watch them

Manas Sen Gupta writes at the intersection of tech, entertainment and history. His works have appeared in publications such as The Statesman, Myanmar Matters, Hindustan Times and News18/ETV. In his spare time, Manas loves studying interactive charts and topographic maps. When not doing either, he prefers reading detective fiction. Spring is his favourite season and he can happily eat a bowl of noodles any time of the day.

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