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The hype around horror movies: Now that's scary

The horror! The horror! "Paranormal scares away B.O. competish," screamed Variety. "The highest-grossing opening weekend ever for a supernatural horror movie," says Box Office Mojo. Oh, what could it mean? That our economically depressed populace are hastening to the dark side? That your teenage daughter has Satan on speed dial?

While no one wants to throw holy water and wolfsbane on anyone's ghoul party, these horror records should be put in perspective.

Yes, Paranormal Activity 2 earned a whopping $41.5-million (U.S.) box office weekend take.

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But didn't Friday the 13th make $42.1-million last year on Valentine's Day weekend and Cloverfield (2008) $46-million on the Martin Luther King weekend at the end of January? Does every horror movie set a record?

Horror movies don't represent a huge percentage of the overall box office. According to Box Office Mojo, over the past 15 years slasher and supernatural movies have typically averaged less than five per cent of the domestic gross. What horror films are great at is producing hype, creating an event for young audiences of both genders (women under 25 now constitute 52 per cent of the market) making an impulse ticket buy. Made with low budgets and often unknown actors, they stay away from buzz-kill advance reviews and, through television and online marketing campaigns, build an aura of grassroots anticipation.

For the Paranormal films, the studio, Paramount, offered free advanced screenings to thousands of moviegoers in various cities who were encouraged to "demand" the film at the site, Opening in 4,500 screens in Canada and the United States, the movie was up against one new unthreatening rival (Clint Eastwood's Hereafter) and easily clobbered the box office.

Horror movies are all about flocking behaviour, aimed at audiences that instantly collect for an event, and are just as quickly gone. Typically, a third or more of their total box office on the opening weekend (also true of blockbusters of the Dark Knight, Spider-Man ilk). After that, most horror movies tumble off a box office cliff. This year's reboot of The Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, dropped 72 per cent in its second weekend. Last year's Friday the 13th dropped 80 per cent in a week. Even Paranormal Activity 2 has already been analyzed as one of the most "Friday-loaded' opening weekends on record, earning almost half its weekend box office ($20-million) on its first day, including $6.3-million in midnight screenings.

In contrast, less hair-raising films for families and older folk tend to hang around. Red and Secretariat, for example, opened unspectacularly but are holding on, showing a decline of less than 30 per cent from their previous weeks.

The upcoming Halloween weekend is like the World Series for horror fans. Working to keep fear alive, we have Saw 3D, which will probably see a bounce-back for the franchise, which dominated from 2004 to 2008. Paranormal Activity 2, unless it bucks the trend, may do half its opening weekend or less.

Once again, a horror film should go No. 1 at the box office this weekend, but when Monday comes, stay vigilant: Those Monday morning box office reports are just as deceptive as hitchhiking serial killers or demons in the basement. Most movies, horror or not, are in the financial red when they're in the theatres. In his book, The Hollywood Economist, Edward Jay Epstein claims only a tenth of Hollywood studios' revenues actually come from the box office, the rest from other sources, including DVDs, television deals and foreign distribution sales.

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So what does a No. 1 record at the box office signify? Just an opportunity for more hype really, which is horror's constant shadowy companion.


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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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