Of the nearly 200 R-rated films to open with over $20 million at the domestic box office, almost a quarter are horror films. A quick rundown of the list reveals that nearly all the entries from the Resident Evil, Underworld, Saw, Paranormal Activity, and Scream franchises are accounted for. Reboots and remakes abound too, with found-footage and home-invasion films like The Purge, The Devil Inside, and The Strangers all screaming their way to the bank. The titans, however, have books as their sources or build on the preceding mythology of a popular franchise. There’s Prometheus, which promised—and lied!—a reboot to match the tension of Alien. Hannibal cashed in on years of audiences waiting to see Anthony Hopkins once again torment Clarice Starling. And The Passion of the Christ, the ultimate torture-porn film, let bloodthirsty masses watch their savior be ripped to shreds.
The message should be loud and clear: jump scares, sexy vampires, popular villains, and bloodshed, especially if related to a centuries-old text, are good for business. Because of these categorical and generic tendencies, audiences sometimes hate the product they so craved. Cinemascores make this clear. Look at The Devil Inside, whose $33.7 million opening makes it the 14th-highest opening weekend for an R-rated horror film of all time. That’s higher than The Blair Witch Project, Scream 2, or even the reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street, a terrible movie by any account, but one with undeniable franchise appeal and a guaranteed audience. But The Devil Inside got an F Cinemascore—one of only eight films to ever do so. The highest opener of the other seven was The Box with only $7.5 million.
This shows how people pay with their guts instead of their minds. As a social ritual, to either engage with friends or merely sit in the dark among strangers, the horror film—even if it’s a tossed-off, low-budget hack job—generally appeals to Americans who are perpetually under the sway of religion-fueled terrors, reckoning with death and bodily possession in all of its iterations.
All of these preceding markers should spell doom at the box office for Crimson Peak, the return fright fest from director Guillermo del Toro, and his first since Pan’s Labyrinth nearly nine years ago. Judging by the trailer, the film is a gory, visually vibrant, gothic fairy tale of the Grimm variety—one that has no precedence for financial success at the North American box office.
In horror, there’s no room at the box office for ingenuity or conceptual visions. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows made almost $15 million, more than seven times its budget. Pretty good, but when compared with the $100 million haul of Paranormal Activity 3, it’s in the minor leagues. Picturehouse had planned a wide release for Adam Wingard’s The Guest, one of the most visionary American horror films in recent years, but pulled the film from theaters following poor returns in limited release. In a just world, these films would at least receive nationwide exposure and interest.
Instead, Americans consistently opt for hype machines or brand-name recognition. When audiences choose to take a risk, it’s usually due to high-concept ad campaigns. Paranormal Activity had a huge bow because the trailers showed other audiences recoiling in terror. The team at Paramount Pictures figured out how to build the concept of Yelp reviews right into the advertising. Who cares what film critics say when evidence of like-minded peers isn’t just suggested, but plainly visible?
Thus, if audiences want their jollies during this witching month, they’re going to opt for brand-name recognition in Goosebumps, if only to relive those moments from their youth when words on a page were the scariest presence in their lives. Freud was generally a crackpot on many claims, but he was right about this: We’re always trying to get back to the womb, revisiting moments from the past as simply an end in and of itself. Del Toro is a nostalgic filmmaker too, but it’s aesthetic nostalgia that drives him; he finds ways to transport his own childhood interests into original properties that can only tangentially be traced to their origins. Expect Goosebumps to double up del Toro this weekend, banking $26 million to Crimson Peak’s $13 million.