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Sharks, spinning heads and aliens: Ten top grossing horror movies

Great White shark opens its mouth in a still from the film, 'Jaws,' 1975.
Universal Pictures | Getty Images

Traditionally, horror movies have been good investments for movie studios. Many are made with modest budgets, meaning that while expectations are low, the returns can often be high indeed.

For example, the original 1980 "Friday the 13th was made on a budget of $550,000, according to the horror movie fan publication Bloody Disgusting. According to the box office revenue tracking site Box Office Mojo, its domestic box office take was $40 million.

Recently, CNBC took a look at the numbers to find out which horror movies — some surprising, others not so much — have had the highest domestic box office takes, after adjusting for inflation based on Bureau of Labor Statistics calculations. All underlying box office data comes from Box Office Mojo.


Hannibal (2001)

Anthony Hopkins and Giancarlo Giannini in "Hannibal."
Source: Hannibal

Original domestic gross: $165 million

Inflation-adjusted gross: $225 million

In the sequel to 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs," Anthony Hopkins returned for his second stint as serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Even though original director Jonathan Demme and co-star Jodie Foster were replaced by Ridley Scott and Julianne Moore, respectively, the movie enjoyed the third-highest opening of all time at the time of its release.

Signs (2002)

Mel Gibson in the movie "Signs."
Source: Touchstone Pictures

Original domestic gross: $228 million

Inflation-adjusted gross: $306 million

Mel Gibson was once one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, and M. Night Shyamalan was considered one of Hollywood's best directors. So when the two of them teamed up for the eerie thriller "Signs," its strong box office performance wasn't much of a surprise. While perhaps not a pure horror film, the movie's atmosphere of dread and suspense made it one of 2002's smash hits.


The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs"
Source: MGM

Original domestic gross: $131 million

Inflation-adjusted gross: $232 million

If you shudder at the mere mention of Chianti, lotion or fava beans, this movie is probably the reason why. Based on the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, it depicts an FBI trainee played by Jodie Foster, who enlists the help of cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter to capture another serial killer. Despite the movie's gruesome subject matter, it struck a nerve with audiences, who made it the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year and had a nearly clean sweep of the major Academy Awards.

I Am Legend (2007)

Will Smith on location during the filming of "I Am Legend" in New York City, March 2007.
Bobby Bank | WireImage | Getty Images

Original domestic gross: $256 million

Inflation-adjusted gross: $298 million

In the post-apocalyptic horror, Will Smith plays a doctor who's the last person living in New York City after a virus has destroyed most of the human race and turned the survivors into CGI zombie-vampire hybrids. The movie received mostly positive reviews, and audiences rewarded it with a $77 million opening weekend, which at the time was the biggest December opening in U.S. movie history.


Alien (1979)

Actors Sigourney Weaver, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Sherritt, John Hurt and Ian Holm on the set of Alien, directed by Ridley Scott.
Sunset Boulevard | Corbis | Getty Images

Original domestic gross: $81 million

Inflation-adjusted gross: $269 million

A deep space crew aboard a vessel becomes home to a murderous extraterrestrial, which enshrined itself in popular culture with one classic, unforgettable scene. "Alien" featured stylish direction and cinematography, and audience flocked to its release. Its success spawned numerous sequels.


Psycho (1960)

American actress Vera Miles stars as Lila Crane in the horror classic 'Psycho', directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960.
Archive Photos | Getty Images

Original domestic gross: $32 million

Inflation-adjusted gross: $261 million

Based on the 1959 Robert Bloch novel, Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece made Norman Bates (and his eponymous hotel) a household name. At the time of its release, critics called the movie a major step down for the master filmmaker, but audiences gobbled it up and history has more than vindicated its boosters.


House of Wax (1953)

Phyllis Kirk is terrorized by a monstrous human being in a scene from the film 'House Of Wax,' 1953.
Warner Brothers | Getty Images

Original domestic gross: $24 million

Inflation-adjusted gross: $217 million

A remake of the 1933 film "Mystery of the Wax Museum," "House of Wax" starred Vincent Price and ushered in the 3D fad that swept movie theaters in the 1950s. It was hugely successful, and catapulted star Vincent Price and fellow cast member Carolyn Jones — who would go on to play Morticia Addams on "The Addams Family" — to fame. A 2005 remake, starring Paris Hilton, was a pale imitation of the original.


The Sixth Sense (1999)

Spyglass Entertainment | Getty Images

Original domestic gross: $294 million


Inflation-adjusted gross: $426 million


The movie that put director "Signs'" Shyamalan on the map, "The Sixth Sense" tells the story of a child psychologist, played by Bruce Willis, who counsels a boy who sees ghosts. The line, "I see dead people," instantly entered the popular culture's lexicon and has been the stuff of Internet memes ever since.

The Exorcist (1973)

Silver Screen Collection | Getty Images

Original domestic gross: $233 million

Inflation-adjusted gross: $1.27 billion

The 1973 classic, featuring a girl who becomes possessed by the devil, terrified audiences, made pea soup and spinning heads a cultural mainstay, and put Linda Blair on the map. Despite numerous sequels, prequels and a television show, the original has lost none of its staying power in the years since its release.


Jaws (1975)

Great White shark opens its mouth in a still from the film, 'Jaws,' 1975.
Universal Pictures | Getty Images

Original domestic gross: $260 million

Inflation-adjusted gross: $1.67 billion

The movie that made Steven Spielberg a household name, "Jaws" did for swimming what "Psycho" did for showers and "The Exorcist" did for pea soup. The fairly simple story of a shark terrorizing a beach community, the movie became the highest-grossing movie of its time—until "Star Wars" came along two years later. "Jaws" inspired several sequels of questionable quality, but was the first true "blockbuster" film.