There are several ways to analyze the most popular horror films ever made. You can look purely at the numbers, and examine the top grossing horror films, or you can look at the list made by critics to determine some of the scariest and most resonant films in the horror genre. Some popular horror films didn’t have great box office performances, but have since become established classics. Others were made so long ago, that box office figures are comparable to present day box office and DVD sales returns.
From a purely economic standpoint, the most popular horror films that have made the most money include this top ten list:
Clearly some of these horror films wouldn’t make it onto anyone’s most popular list, especially the 2000 film What Lies Beneath. It had greater box office returns because of the popularity of its stars, Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, than because of a truly terrifying plotline. You’ll find only a few of these films on the most popular or most frightening lists compiled by amateur and professional critics.
Making a definitive list of the most popular horror films ever made would be impossible, since opinion is subjective. However, you’ll find most people would include Alien, The Exorcist, and Jaws as favorites. Some also include The Amityville Horror, but many critics panned the film. Other classic popular horror films that bear consideration are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, and Psycho. Some critics reach farther back to the good old monster movies like Nosferatu, and the first versions of The Thing, and The Haunting of Hill House.
Some of the newer popular horror films that critics might include were made in the 1990s or 2000s. Certainly The Sixth Sense had significant impact, as did The Ring, which many consider one of the scariest of horror films. Scream, Wes Craven’s meta-horror film and an homage to the classic slasher genre is considered by many to be at least in the top 20. Gorer pics, horror movies that are some believe are gratuitously gory, such as 28 Days Later and the Saw franchise, are so violent that they may even earn a strong R or NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
A few popular horror films are considered excellent films by any standards, and are respected by critics and award granting organizations. Silence of the Lambs for instance, won Oscars for both Jody Foster and Anthony Hopkins, and won Best Picture. Prior to that a few thriller films received nominations, including Rebecca, Suspicion, Gaslight and Spellbound. Before Silence of the Lambs the only true horror film to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture was The Exorcist. After Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense has thus far been the only other horror film nominated for best picture.
In all, there are so many choices as to the “bests” in this genre, you’ll have a hard time choosing. To quote Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist the genre “knows what scares you.” Choose your scariest favorites, turn the lights down low and be ready for a couple of hours of frightening fun.