Note: Collider’s Halloween horror month continues this week with a look at horror’s most iconic, enduring franchises. So far, we’ve looked at the Halloween movies ranked, Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre Movies, Friday the 13th movies and the Alien franchise. Today, we’re taking a look at the biggest box office players of the 21st Century so far — and we’ve updated with the biggest box office sensation in horror history; IT! Stay tuned a monster mash next week and full-tilt Halloween horror content as we round out the month.
Here’s the movie industry’s dirty little box office secret: horror movies make studios a whole heck of a lot of money. They may always get the short shrift come awards time and A-list actors often treat their early horror roles like a dark mark on their resumes, but audiences love horror movies and there’s so many sub-par theatrical horror releases in any given year, that when catches a word-of-mouth buzz, genre enthusiasts will turn out in droves. Sure, horror films don’t measure up to the international tentpoles and box office juggernauts — superheroes, grand adventures, and space epics — but they also are made for a fraction of the cost. Get Out reportedly cost $5 million to make. Even if the advertising budget was double that, the film makes an utterly unreal profit.
There’s also a fascinating phenomenon that often happens when a genre film reaches a certain level of success — it’s pried out of the hands of horror and rebranded as a blockbuster, an awards contender, a prestige thriller, a dark drama, or any other number of subgenres people can re-categorize horror films into when they need to take them seriously. It’s how we get phrases like the dreaded buzzword of the summer “post-horror”, or why Get Out is being billed as a “social thriller” now that the film has dominated at the box office and conjured early awards buzz. Stranger still, we see it from horror fans as well, a certain amount of the audience who turns their nose up at genre-bending films and says “that’s not horror”. We saw it last year with The Witch, and again this year with It Comes at Night, though I can’t imagine how either of those films could be seen as anything else.
That said, I’ve obviously thought a lot about what counts as horror when putting together this list and, ultimately, decided to cast a wide net. It seems to me that we’ve become much more exacting and specific when it comes to what we consider horror these days. It’s not exactly a new debate. There are long-running academic discussions about the distinction between horror and terror (though oddly enough, that distinction is rarely a matter of contention when it comes to the debate over horror films), but when you get down to it, genres have always bled through the lines into one another, especially horror. Is Frankenstein science fiction or horror? It is, of course, both. Is The Witch horror or period drama? Again, both. Touching another genre doesn’t immediately drain the horror out of a story and drawing hard lines in the sand only detracts from all the ways creators can find to entertain us and freak us out.
Now before we get to the ranking, let’s take a look at the biggest box office horror hits order of how much they grossed. (Note: This list was crafted according to the highest grossing film at the domestic box office of each year since 2001, not total worldwide box office.)
- IT ($314,929, 521)
- I Am Legend ($256, 393, 010)
- War of the Worlds ($234,280,354)
- World War Z ($202,359,711)
- Get Out ($175,484,140)
- Split ($138,141,585)
- The Conjuring ($137,400,141)
- The Ring ($129,128,133)
- Shutter Island ($128,012,934)
- The Village ($114,197,520)
- The Grudge ($110,359,362)
- Paranormal Activity ($107,918,810)
- Paranormal Activity 3 ($104,028,807)
- The Conjuring 2 ($102,470,008)
- The Others ($96,522,687)
If you’re like me, you look at that list and look for the trends. If there’s one that’s immediately clear, it’s that supernatural movies have reigned supreme as the box office champions of the 21st century. Seven of the top fifteen are paranormal horror. Despite their genre dominance in the early aughts, zombie films and so-called “torture porn” barely edge their way in — I am Legend and War of the Worlds fared well, but also boast some of the most famous actors of all time. Saw II was on a previous version of this list, but got knocked from the Top 15 when IT dominated the box office. Slashers have seen little love since the Scream franchise fizzled out. Sequels are also surprisingly underrepresented, proving once again that studios don’t give audiences enough credit for their interest in original films.
Another box office champion of the 21st century? Blumhouse. Jason Blum‘s low-budget horror studio has been wildly successful in the seventeen years since it launched, landing four spots in the top fifteen. If we were to expand the list to the top twenty-five, that number would nearly double. Looking at what creators put butts in seats, there’s also the draw of prestige — awards contenders and big-name directors sell tickets. Then there are the household name horrorsmiths, and both James Wan and M. Night Shyamalan have been a driving force at the box office. But where Shyamalan has built his career primarily on standalone films and often dipped out of horror territory, Wan has launched three hit horror franchises (Insidious: Chapter 2 was only about $5 million shy of earning a spot on this list).
Now that we’ve looked at some of the industry trends over the last sixteen years, let’s see how the highest-grossing horror films of the 21st century stack up.