What are Some of the Most Popular Horror Films Ever Made?

wiseGEEK Writer

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.

Egyptian mummies have served as the inspiration for horror films since the 1930s.
Egyptian mummies have served as the inspiration for horror films since the 1930s.

From a purely economic standpoint, the most popular horror films that have made the most money include this top ten list:

Actress Jody Foster won an Oscar for her role in "Silence of the Lambs".
Actress Jody Foster won an Oscar for her role in "Silence of the Lambs".

Few horror films are nominated for Best Picture Oscars, and only "The Silence of the Lambs" has won.
Few horror films are nominated for Best Picture Oscars, and only "The Silence of the Lambs" has won.
    1. Jaws
    2. The Exorcist
    3. The Sixth Sense
    4. The Mummy Returns
    5. Jaws 2
    6. The Amityville Horror
    7. Alien
    8. The Mummy
    9. What Lies Beneath
    10. The Omen
Some horror films rely on the weather to set the mood.
Some horror films rely on the weather to set the mood.

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.

Horror films often feature scenes that startle the viewer.
Horror films often feature scenes that startle the viewer.

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Discussion Comments


BrickBack- I totally agree. I think “Silence of the Lambs” was one of the scariest horror films of all time.

For Jodi Foster, who played Clarice, a F.B.I. agent seeking to a create a profile of a serial killer in order to catch him receives help from Anthony Hopkins, who plays a serial killer that offers her a terrifying set of information that leaves the audience shivering.

Their interaction is probably among the most terrifying exchanges I have ever seen on film. This movie by allowing the viewer to see the inside of a deranged criminal mind, it really plays to your worst fears which are why this film is so effective.


Moldova- I think you are right. I remember famous horror films like “The Shining” with Jack Nicholson because it could happen or the “Amityville Horror” because it was based on true story really left me shaking in my boots.

I have heard of homes that have been haunted and although the Amityville Horror was not critically acclaimed movie, it does represents a scary story that people could relate to.

The family in the movie was like any other American family and this made the movie more realistic which raised its horror rating for me.

Truly scary films toy with our sense of security and really bring out our worst fears on film. I mean what could feel more secure than your own home?


Anon86610- To the writer’s credit there are so many horror films that it is almost impossible to list them all. Also the genre of horror reviews can also be slightly subjective.

For example, I consider all psychological thriller or horror films to be the scariest movies of all time.

Famous horror films like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and the adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery” are terrifying to me because they both offer that element of psychological intensity that often hypnotizes the viewer into to fearing for the life of the main character.

Films that border a realistic sort of fiction regarding something that could actually happen are the most terrifying of all horror movies. A movie like “Jaws” or “Alien” is not scary for me because it does not represent something that is likely to happen.


The Sixth Sense, The Mummy, and The Mummy Returns are not even close to horror films. Aristotle said that there are three genres: comedy, tragedy, and epic. I agree with comedy and tragedy, but not epic. Epic is a form of comedy or tragedy and or both.

Nowadays they've got so many damn genres it's hard to keep up with. So either you say the top ten tragedies from a "purely economical standpoint," or you classify them correctly.

The Mummy movies (all of them) are considered to be Action/Comedy, not even close to horror and The Sixth Sense is definitely a suspense/thriller.

I also think that What Lies Beneath is barely a horror, barely.

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