Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws is widely credited with giving rise to the summer blockbuster—not to mention scaring generations of people out of the water. But it was far from the first big blockbuster horror film and, truth be told, not even the first one to hit theaters during the hot summer months. Nor is it the biggest, a title that gets handed around year after year, depending on exactly how you do the math. (In fact, if you go by raw ticket sales, rather than box office revenue, Jaws may still be in the lead, after all.)
So, what were some of the biggest horror movies to dominate the summer box office both before and after Spielberg’s great white changed the way the public thought of horror movies—and trips to the beach? We’ve rounded up a few of the biggest horror blockbusters of the summer, going all the way back to 1953, and all the way up to the present day—when Marvel’s Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness threatens to upset some of the previously held records… assuming you consider it a horror movie.
House of Wax (April 1953)
Two decades before Jaws, Andre DeToth’s House of Wax could reasonably be considered one of the earliest summer blockbusters in horror. With a budget of around $1 million, House of Wax raked in more than twenty times that in ticket sales, not to mention helping to kick off one of the first crazes for 3D films and cementing Vincent Price as one of the era’s greatest horror stars. Not a bad feat for what was essentially a gimmicky remake of the 1933 classic, Mystery of the Wax Museum.
Rosemary’s Baby (June 1968)
Though it would soon be eclipsed by both Jaws and The Exorcist, when it was released in the summer of 1968, Rosemary’s Baby became a cultural phenomenon and grossed more than $30 million at the box office. It also nabbed an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Ruth Gordon, who played the sinister elderly neighbor, Minnie Castevet, with such memorable gusto. In short order, though, the bar for the summer blockbuster was about to get raised sky high…
Jaws (June 1975)
Set on the Fourth of July—and released in the weeks leading up to the holiday—Steven Spielberg’s legendary classic set the stage for not only the horror blockbuster, but the blockbuster in general—full stop. It raked in nearly $500 million on a $9 million budget, and may still hold the record for most ticket sales to a horror movie, worldwide, at an estimated 242 million-plus. While Jaws may have been the first summer horror movie to do those kinds of numbers, however, it wasn’t the first horror blockbuster to pull it off. The Exorcist had pulled in some $441 million during a late December release just a few years before.
Alien (May 1979)
It took a while for a horror movie to exceed the massive box office success of Jaws, but the first one to even come close was Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979. Like Jaws, Alien spawned a whole subgenre of imitators throughout the ‘80s, thanks in no small part to the fact that the ambitious sci-fi horror flick managed to bring in more than ten times its $11 million budget, with box office estimates ranging from the low $100 millions to as much as $203 million or even more.
Poltergeist (June 1982)
The combo of Spielberg and horror had been a big winner for Jaws, and it proved to be so again when he returned to the genre in 1982, with the suburban haunted house tale Poltergeist. This time around, Spielberg was simply there as producer, and another horror legend, Tobe Hooper, was in the director’s seat. The result was a phantasmagoria of unforgettable imagery that left plenty of children traumatized and netted the film $121 million from a roughly $10 million budget, not to mention following in the fine Jaws tradition of spawning several lackluster sequels.
Terminator 2 (July 1991)
Is Terminator 2 really a horror movie? We can have the debate, certainly, and James Cameron was, by the time of its release, no stranger to mixing action and horror, as he had done to great box office success with Aliens just a few years before. But if it does count as a horror movie, Terminator 2 would actually beat The Sixth Sense to the punch of unseating Jaws as the top-grossing one of all time, raking in some $500 million or more at the box office, while adding a bunch of Arnold-isms to everyone’s vocabulary for the next decade or so.
The Sixth Sense (August 1999)
If Terminator 2 doesn’t count, then the first horror movie to take the “top grossing” crown away from Jaws came more than two decades after that classic. It was also the horror debut of director M. Night Shyamalan, who had an absolute moment in the early 2000s, though his career never exactly lived up to that early promise. Starring Bruce Willis and newcomer Haley Joel Osment as a little boy who can “see dead people,” The Sixth Sense became a cultural phenomenon when it was released, bringing in a massive $672 million at the box office, making it one of the most successful films—horror or otherwise—of all time.
War of the Worlds (June 2005)
Making his third appearance on this list and definitely establishing a pattern, Steven Spielberg shows up once more behind the camera for a horror blockbuster with his 2005 remake of War of the Worlds. Starring Tom Cruise, himself no stranger to blockbuster films, War of the Worlds was a big budget sci-fi horror extravaganza that cost more than $130 million to make, and brought in more than $590 million at the box office, settling it firmly below The Sixth Sense in the pantheon of top-grossing horror movies—a position that would be tested but not usurped for many years.
The Conjuring (July 2013)
There’s more than one way to define a blockbuster, and Saw, James Wan’s 2004 directorial debut, certainly fits the bill, managing to bring in more than one hundred times its $1 million budget. Saw was released in October, though, and Wan didn’t direct a big summer blockbuster until July of 2013, when The Conjuring haunted its way into theaters—scaring up more than $300 million and kicking off one of the most financially successful horror franchises of all time.
It (September 2017)
The Sixth Sense managed to (sometimes narrowly) hang onto its “top-grossing horror film of all time” crown until 2017, when the first half of Andy Muschietti’s eagerly-awaited two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s doorstop of a coming-of-age horror novel It hit screens. Though the first week of September is barely what we’d normally call summer, we’ll let it slide for this list, given that It managed to net a whopping $700 million in box office revenue, making it the highest-grossing horror film to date…
… unless Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness counts, as that Sam Raimi-directed entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe has already pulled in an estimated $950 million and counting. Of course, the budget for It is reported at around $30-40 million, while Dr. Strange cost a massive $200 million or more to produce, so as far as profitability is concerned, Muschietti’s spooky clown movie may still be the winner.