Once upon a time, in a bygone era, people felt comfortable leaving the house to watch a movie in theaters without fears of contracting or spreading a deadly virus. There were unexpected hits and some painful misses. But through the highs and lows, there was at least one genre that reliably drew audiences: horror.
For the most part, it didn’t matter if scary movies were good or bad. Something about the communal experience of getting spooked was enough to ensure people would turn out in droves. And studios have long been banking on the business of horror because their relatively low budgets almost guarantee outsized returns. These movies often get away with minuscule price tags because they don’t rely on special effects and actors agree to work for scale with the promise of future profits and back-end deals.
“Horror movies don’t take as much revenue to become profitable,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. And even better for studios, he says, “it doesn’t take a lot of money to convincingly scare people.” Many truly terrifying movies cost under $10 million, chump change compared to budgets for superhero blockbusters or sequels in popular franchises.
With Halloween around the corner, there’s no better time to watch spine-chilling thrillers or gory slasher films. In honor of the spooky holiday season, Variety crunched some numbers to determine the most profitable horror movies based box office returns compared to their budget. The list below assesses films purely as a ratio of worldwide grosses to production budget, but doesn’t include marketing fees, distribution costs or back-end deals for major stars.
Check out the most profitable horror movies below:
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Worldwide box office: $193 million
“Paranormal Activity,” staged to look like a documentary, sees a young couple haunted by the supernatural force lurking in their home. After becoming a breakout hit, five sequels followed.
The Blair Witch Project (1994)
Worldwide box office: $245 million
“The Blair Witch Project” is allegedly based on a true story of three student filmmakers who disappear while making a film about the legend of Blair Witch. The minuscule budget, compared to its massive ticket sales, makes it one of the most profitable movies ever — for any genre.
Worldwide box office: $47 million
Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first movie role, plays Laurie Strode, a babysitter stalked by a mental patient named Michael Myers, who escapes on Halloween 15 years after murdering his sister.
Friday the 13th (1980)
Worldwide box office: $59.8 million
“Friday the 13th” follows teenage summer camp counselors who are murdered one at a time by an unknown killer.
Worldwide box office: $103 million
Budget: $1.2 million
“Saw,” created by James Wan, revolves around a twisted killer who goes by the moniker Jigsaw and forces his victims to solve deranged puzzles to avoid a grizzly fate.
Worldwide box office: $99.5 million
Budget: $1.5 million
Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Barbara Hershey star in “Insidious,” about a couple whose son whose body becomes possessed by entities from another dimension.
Get Out (2017)
Worldwide box office: $225 million
Budget: $4.5 million
“Get Out,” the Oscar-winning smash from Jordan Peele, follows a Black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who uncovers a disturbing secret when he goes to meet the family of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams).
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
Worldwide box office: $207 million
Budget: $5 million
The third “Paranormal Activity” entry serves as a prequel and takes place 18 years before the original film. When two sisters start to notice weird things happening in the middle of the night, their father steps up cameras that reveal terrifying occurrences.
The Exorcist (1973)
Worldwide box office: $441 million
Budget: $11 million
Directed by William Friedkin, the supernatural thriller centers on a 12-year-old girl who is mysteriously possessed and her mother, who recruits two priests to perform an exorcism.
Worldwide box office: $32 million
Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror film centers on a secretary who gets embroiled in a series of murders after stealing thousands from her employer to run away with her boyfriend.
Worldwide box office: $257 million
Budget: $6.5 million
Part of the Conjuring Universe, “Annabelle” spotlights the satanic porcelain doll that wrecks havoc on a small town.
Worldwide box office: $82.5 million
Budget: $3 million
The supernatural thriller sees Ethan Hawke as a true-crime writer who discovers Super 8 home movies that reveal brutal murders.
Worldwide box office: $278 million
Budget: $9 million
The second installment in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” trilogy features James McAvoy as a man with 24 different personalities who kidnaps three girls and tortures them in a remote facility.
Worldwide box office: $255 million
Budget: $10 million
Curtis returns to the role that made her famous in the 2018 sequel, where the babysitter-turned-grandmother takes on the masked murderer Michael Myers for hopefully the last time.
Annabelle: Creation (2017)
Worldwide box office: $306 million
Budget: $15 million
The prequel to 2014’s “Annabelle” serves as an origin story for the creepy and demonic doll.
Worldwide box office: $701 million
Budget: $35 million
Based on the first half of Stephen King’s doorstop of a novel, “It” tells the story of seven children — affectionately known as the Losers’ Club — in Derry, Maine who are terrorized by the shapeshifting demon, Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
A Quiet Place (2018)
Worldwide box office: $340 million
Budget: $17 million
John Krasinski’s mostly silent thriller, co-starring his real-life wife Emily Blunt, revolves around parents forced to raise their kids in a post-apocalyptic world where even the slightest sound can trigger deadly monsters.
The Invisible Man (2019)
Worldwide box office: $130 million
Budget: $7 million
Elisabeth Moss stars in the recent adaptation of H. G. Wells novel about a woman who is stalked by her abusive ex after he apparently commits suicide.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Worldwide box office: $86 million
Budget: $4.7 million
The original 1979 “The Amityville Horror,” with James Brolin and Margot Kidder, follows a young couple who finds out their new home is haunted by supernatural spirits.
The Grudge (2004)
Worldwide box office: $187 million
Budget: $11 million
“The Grudge,” a remake of a Japanese horror film, centers on Americans who move to Tokyo and discover their house is the site of an evil curse that claims the life of anyone who comes near it.
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