This year, scary clowns, scary dolls and scary suburbanites have drawn audiences to the movies in droves. Even with two months remaining, 2017 has already become the biggest box office year ever for horror. Scary movies have collected $733 million in ticket sales, according to the website Box Office Mojo. The runaway success of “It” (more than $300 million and counting) and “Get Out” ($175 million) led the way, but October is a golden month for horror and will surely add more to that tally. “Happy Death Day” was No. 1 when it opened this month (on Friday the 13th), and a new entry in the hit “Saw” franchise, “Jigsaw” (due Oct. 27), should also raise the total.
How has horror fared at the box office in previous decades? Going back to the 1970s, I used data from Box Office Mojo to track the genre’s rise as a moneymaking force, focusing on one key year from each decade. Box Office Mojo breaks horror down into 10 subcategories on its site and its editor, Brad Brevet, has struggled with the question of what constitutes a horror movie. He tried to bring some clarity with a new list. “When ‘It’ came out I created an R-rated horror list on Mojo,” he wrote in an email. “That, at least, felt representative of the horror genre.”
We used the R-rated list as a reference point, but the highest-grossing year for each decade is based on figures collected from all the films the site considers horror. Also, these numbers have not been adjusted for inflation (which would turn “The Exorcist” into a $983 million earner).
Biggest Year: 1973, $232.9 million
In the early 1970s, horror broke into the mainstream in a big way, primarily with the astronomical success of “The Exorcist” in 1973, which alone topped the collective total of any box office year in the decade. That movie aside, horror didn’t make much of an impression that year. And it was really films released later in the decade that would prove pivotal. The popularity of “Halloween” in 1978 ($47 million) showed that slasher films could be a force. And 1979 brought the blockbuster haunted house scares of “The Amityville Horror” ($86.4 million) and the influential space scares of “Alien” ($80.9 million). That film captured a mass audience with a return of sorts to the creature features of classic horror.
Biggest Year: 1987, $293.6 million
CreditNew Line Cinema
The slasher genre came into its own in the ’80s, with the introduction of Jason in “Friday the 13th” (1980) and Freddy in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984). Those franchises produced buckets of blood and cash ($380.6 million total for “Friday” and $370.5 million for “Elm Street”). 1987 was one of the decade’s most profitable. “Elm Street” was in its third installment ($44 million), “The Lost Boys” added young vampire thrills to the mix ($32 million) and the action horror of “Predator” (a movie that probably wouldn’t have existed without the success of “Alien”) brought in strong numbers ($59 million).
Biggest Year: 1999, $574.6 million
The early part of the ’90s saw few major horror blockbusters. Daniel Loria, the editorial director of Boxoffice Media, cites the rise of home video in the late ’80s as the reason for the dip. In a phone interview, he said that many horror films bypassed theaters for home video. “A B-side horror film like ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ might not have played in theaters had it been made in the late ’80s or early ’90s,” he said. “It might have just gone straight to video for a quick buck.” Things looked up in the latter half of the decade, with the revival of the slasher genre through the “Scream” franchise ($331.7 million). And then, 1999 brought a new revolution via “The Blair Witch Project,” a lowest-of-budgets found-footage movie shot on video that scared up a phenomenal $140.5 million, along with many copycats.
Biggest Year: 2000, $617.7 million
The 2000s began by coasting on a wave of “Scream” popularity. While that franchise added sequels, the 2000 parody “Scary Movie” pulled in $157 million. (It ranked No. 9 for the year, followed by the high-end horror drama “What Lies Beneath” at No. 10.) Later during this decade, found footage was replaced by slick yet gruesome torture horror like the “Saw” films, which have taken in $415.9 million so far. And reboots of earlier horror movies became a trend. 2009 featured a number of these films, including a reboot of “Friday the 13th,” a sequel to a reboot of “Halloween” and the sixth entry in the “Saw” series. But the jaw-dropper that year was“Paranormal Activity.” A return to low-budget found footage, the film had a $15,000 production budget, according to Box Office Mojo, and made $107.9 million.
Biggest Year: 2017, $733.5 million
2017 has seen several strong performers from one of the most successful contemporary horror producers around, Jason Blum (“Get Out,” “Split,” “Happy Death Day”). But the biggest story is the tremendous run of “It.” That Stephen King adaptation perked up the domestic box office after a dismal August, and not even box office experts predicted just how well the movie would perform. Mr. Loria of Boxoffice Media said his team forecast an $81 million opening weekend. The real number was $123 million. He said they look at social media mentions to see how vocal audiences are being about a title. “When it came to ‘It,’” Mr. Loria said, “it was just really difficult to track the word ‘It’ across social media to get the snapshot we needed.”