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'Halloween,' 'Scream,' and More: The 10 greatest horror franchises of all time
From horror classics to modern trailblazers, these are the biggest scary movie franchises.
Horror has been a consistent moneymaker almost since the dawn of Hollywood, and one of the reasons it's helped up so well for so long as a genre is the potential for seemingly endless sequels built on brand recognition for both characters and actors. If you churn out a quick, relatively inexpensive horror film about a monster or a maniac, and that film makes money, you can dig that costume back out of storage and come up with another plot to keep them going, and make more money.
But it's not pure commercial potential that's kept certain horror franchises rising from the dead for decade after decade. In many cases, horror sequels are where some really potent creativity emerges, when filmmakers know they've got a built-in audience and can really start playing with some new ideas somewhere along the way. Sure, sometimes the sequels all seem to bleed together, but the right franchise keeps fans coming back because it simply refuses to stop experimenting and evolving, no matter how many roadblocks go up along the way.
There are many, many franchises scattered throughout horror history, but if you're looking for the ones that made the biggest impact on the genre, and left the grandest legacy, look no further. From foundational horror classics to modern trailblazers, these are the greatest horror franchises ever.
Universal Monsters (1931-Present)
Let's be clear: There was probably no one at Universal Pictures in 1931 walking around talking about crossovers and continuity as the studio prepared to roll out the one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein. They were just hoping to make some interesting monster movies based on classic works of literature that would make some money. When both films did make money, they made some more monster movies, and then some more after that, until finally Universal Monsters became a brand that's still recognizable among moviegoers nearly 100 years later. Even if you've never seen the films, you know what Frankenstein's Monster looks like, and Dracula, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. They're just that iconic, and Universal used that iconography to eventually build a franchise that included team-ups, crossovers, and even horror-comedies to switch up the tone. It's such a major brand, packed with so many unforgettable films, that even a scrapped shared universe concept couldn't stop it. It's 2022, and we've still got more Universal Monsters films to look forward to. That's a franchise that just won't quit.
The Living Dead (1968-2009)
If you want evidence of the ongoing power of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, just turn on the television. Whether we're talking about reruns of other zombie films or the ongoing success of The Walking Dead, it more-or-less all ties back to a little independent film from 1968 that quickly became a ubiquitous horror classic, and spawned not one but two strings of sequels thanks to co-writer John Russo's Return of the Living Dead series. To make things even more impactful, Romero went on to make two sequels that are arguably just as important to horror history with Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, ensuring that Romero and his ghouls will be shambling through our nightmares forever.
John Carpenter and Debra Hill took $300,000 from a producer and set out to make a straightforward movie about a killer stalking babysitters in a Midwestern town. What emerged was an iconic hit that soon became one of the most profitable films of all time, and spawned a media empire. Right now, we're living in the afterglow of the 13th feature film in the mega-influential Halloween franchise, and that's to say nothing of the toys, books, comics, and other tie-ins we've gotten along the way. The story may be over for now, but Michael Myers and Laurie Strode will continue to cast a long shadow over horror history, and we know that because a spinoff film, a remake, and not one but three different continuity restarts haven't slowed this franchise down.
Alien is a perfect, self-contained journey of cosmic terror, and we know that because it took seven years for someone to get a convincing sequel off the ground. When it finally happened, with Aliens, James Cameron proved that Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror masterwork could be morphed and adapted in all sorts of ways, and the result is one of the most recognizable names in two different genres. All you have to say is a single, relatively vague word, and people know you're talking about Ripley, the Xenomorph, and a parade of sequels that's set to continue soon with a new TV series and, perhaps, more films.
Friday the 13th (1980-2009)
The story goes that producer Sean Cunningham saw how successful Halloween was and set out to make some money of his own with another slasher film based on another infamous day of the year. Well, it may have started out that way, but in the years since, Friday the 13th has grown into an entirely different beast, a monster of a franchise that's taken its main villain to hell and back (literally) and even to space. Things have been in limbo for more than a decade at this point, as various key parties figure out the rights to the original concept, but hope springs eternal that Jason will put on is mask again. In the meantime, we haven't stopped rewatching the original films while wearing hockey masks.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-2010)
Though its big-screen incarnations have been dormant for more than a decade at this point, Wes Craven's classic supernatural slasher tale and its sequels still haunt our nightmares. Built on a killer concept and offering a witty alternative to silent stalkers in slasher cinema at the time, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street quickly became a horror staple, and the mythology Craven developed in the first film soon proved ripe for further exploration. Over the course of a decade, the original series just kept reinventing itself, and Freddy remained so popular that we eventually got a crossover with Jason Voorhees and a somewhat divisive remake. Now, we just have to wait and see if all our dreams of more Nightmare films will one day come true.
Child's Play/Chucky (1988-Present)
If Wes Craven popularized the Slasher Who Talks Back with Freddy Krueger, then Don Mancini picked up the torch and ran screaming down the street with it when he created Chucky. With Child's Play in 1988, Mancini, director Tom Holland, and star Brad Dourif created an instantly recognizable new horror villain, and then somewhere along the way Mancini just decided he was never going to let his creation go and just keep getting weird with it for years on end. Almost 35 years and one hit TV series later, and Chucky still slays.
The original Scream film is a horror classic because of its ability to deconstruct and expand slasher movie tropes simultaneously, picking horror films apart while also giving us something genuinely scary. It could have stopped there, and we could have gone on to a few rote sequels which existed only because the first film was so successful. But Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson, and the great ensemble cast didn't stop there, and 25 years later, we're still getting fresh, exciting takes on the Scream formula in a franchise that just keeps evolving alongside the rest of the horror scene.
Saw is a great standalone horror film with an amazing hook and a concept that just keeps delivering twist after twist. Eight sequels (and counting) later, and we're still following the exploits of Jigsaw and his followers through elaborate death trap after elaborate death trap. Though not all of the sequels are created equal, the franchise is now-legendary for its influence on the horror scene of the 2000s and 2010s, and helped launched the careers of genre iconics like Leigh Whannel and James Wan along the way. We're still feeling the impact of this series, and it's not over yet.
The Conjuring (2013-Present)
Anchored by James Wan's filmmaking chops and the star power of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring began as a single, based-on-a-true-story haunted house movie, and evolved into a pop culture juggernaut. It's a franchise so successful that a single spinoff has produced a three-film series of its own, and there's no end in sight to the potential for more stories from the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren. The staying power of the original film at the box office, and its ability to generate so many more potential scary movies, is proof that you can still build whole universes in horror, and the impact of its success is still echoing across the genre.
You can stream many of these movies, including Universal Monster movies and the new Halloween film, Halloween Ends, on Peacock.