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Horror Dominates the Box Office, But 2017 Broke No Record: Here’s Why

Why the New York Times' claim that 2017 marks the record for horror grosses is all wrong. Check out the banner horror years for Hollywood -- by the numbers.

"It"

“It”

The New York Times recently claimed that the rising horror genre reached its box-office peak in 2017, a banner year that included such smash hits as “Get Out,” “The Mummy,” “Split,” “It,” “Annabelle: Creation,” “Happy Death Day” and more. Many of these breakout B-movies gained respect from unusually strong reviews. “Get Out” is actually positioned to be a possible awards contender, with a chance of joining only “The Exorcist,” “Jaws,” “Black Swan,” and “The Sixth Sense” among horror films as an Best Picture Oscar nominee; “The Silence of the Lambs” actually won.

So a horror renaissance is upon us. But did 2017’s horror output really outpace all other years? New York Times reporter Mekado Murphy in an entertaining read added up Box Office Mojo’s yearly gross totals for horror films. But he ignored the website’s adjusted grosses to approximate values in 2017 dollars.

“Happy Death Day”

Here’s where 2017 stands. Through this past weekend (which boasted three genre films, “Jigsaw,” ” Happy Death Day” and “It,” in the Top Ten), horror films have grossed around $760 million. That’s about nine per cent of the year’s total.

Blockbuster Stephen King adaptation “It” is the leader. At $323 million, it is currently #5 for the year. By the time year-end juggernauts from Marvel, Disney animation, D.C Comics juggernauts and Star Wars play out, “It” will drop at least a slot or two by year’s end, along with #11  “Get Out” and #17 “Split.”

These strong genre performers delivered a rebound year for horror films. But with no new ones at their level yet to open, figure 2017 ends up with around $800 million for these and the rest, maybe around 7. 5 per cent of the year’s total. That would make it the strongest year with adjusting grosses since 2004, which totaled about $870 million with “Van Helsing,” “The Village,” and “The Grudge” leading the way.

So yes, it’s been a while since horror has been so strong. But at least three years by reasonable mathematical and historical gauges have been bigger for the genre. The leader by far,  is 1999. The adjusted grosses of its many hits comes in around $1.6 billion, double this year’s likely total.

1999 boasted three horror films among the Top 10. “The Sixth Sense” at $514 million was the top grosser for the year, joined by “The Mummy” at #8 and “The Blair Witch Project” at #10. And the $1.6 billion made up about 12 per cent of the year’s grosses — a much bigger share than this year’s total.

The Exorcist

“The Exorcist”

In 1973 a single release grossed more than all of 2017’s horror films combined. “The Exorcist” in its initial run took in $922 million (mostly in 1974 with its December release) and was easily the year’s biggest hit. Nothing else came close (“The Legend of Hell House” and “Sisters” took the total to around $1 billion.)

Going way back, 1931 looks like a bigger year too. That was when the first American films featuring Frankenstein and Dracula were introduced from Universal, a studio verging on bankruptcy in the middle of the Depression. Grosses are not easily tabulated or reported, but histories of the year suggest that “Frankenstein” was the #1 hit of the year, and indeed doubled the gross of the second-biggest (Chaplin’s “City Lights”). And “Dracula” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” also reportedly ranked in the Top Ten.

'Dracula' starring Bela Lugosi, a 1931 vampire-horror film.VARIOUS

“Dracula”

History Archive/REX/Shutterstock

1931 was a game changer for horror: 86 years later, its films still define the genre. 2017 horror releases will be remembered, but they are not game changers the way those classics were.

If you want to argue that adjusted grosses are not the way to go, consider this: by unadjusted metrics “Kong: Skull Island” grossed better than “The Godfather,” “The Boss Baby” outgrossed “The Sound of Music” and “The Fate of the Furious” was a bigger hit than “Gone With the Wind.” Because that’s what the New York Times is saying when they claim 2017 is the best year for horror films at the box office ever.

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