Why Do the Oscars Hate Horror?
Since the Academy Awards debuted in 1929, only six horror movies have been nominated for Best Picture. These movies, The Exorcist, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Black Swan, and Get Out are all very popular, influential, and acclaimed films, but only one of them has actually won this prestigious award. In 1992, The Silence of the Lambs became the first horror movie to win Best Picture, and in the thirty years since, it has remained the only one. I consider myself to be an avid movie enjoyer, and in the last couple of years, I’ve become more and more of a horror fan as well. Considering the amount of provoking, quality horror movies out there, it feels absurd that the genre has been so underrepresented thus far. I think that this genre provides its audience with a certain kind of suspense that’s uncommon for other genres. For instance, unlike drama films, which may cause suspense in a way that makes you cringe, wince, or squirm in the theater, I find that only horror films are able to create the kind of apprehension that stays with you past the film’s runtime.
By definition, horror films are meant to incorporate “incidents of physical violence and psychological terror; they may be studies of deformed disturbed, psychotic, or evil characters; stories of terrifying monsters or malevolent animals; or mystery thrillers that use atmosphere to build suspense.” In this way, many horror movies end up feeling like rollercoaster rides. The content is secondary to the atmosphere. Who cares if you remember the protagonist’s name if you leave the movie afraid that the antagonist may be hiding in the shadows? If you can still hear the foreboding music when you go to sleep at night or find yourself looking behind you every time you hear a small noise? While we might expect a drama, romance, or biopic to deliver a certain level of writing, storytelling, and character development, horror doesn’t have the same standards. A successful horror movie just has to make you feel scared. I don’t say this to dismiss the effort that goes into creating a horror film. Horror is deceptive. Because its goal is usually straightforward, the genre is generalized as being simple, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Anyone is capable of compiling ninety minutes of gore and jumpscares, but the kind of horror that truly impacts people takes an abundance of skill that often goes overlooked.
So what exactly makes a film “Oscar-worthy?” As much as we’d hope that a good movie would win on the basis of its quality, there is a formula for Best Picture winners. According to the Atlantic, Best Picture winners are typically “long dramas about weighty issues, biopics of celebrities, or narratives about moviemaking, with a dearth of genre movies, domestic narratives, and stories told by women and people of color.” This article was written three years ago, but the conclusion they came to still rings true. In 2023, the Best Picture nominees included Everything Everywhere All At Once, a long drama about weighty issues; Elvis, a biopic of a celebrity; and The Fabelmans, a narrative about moviemaking. The Oscars are hilariously predictable.
Since The Silence of the Lambs won the Oscar in 1993, we’ve gotten a plethora of new horror films that have absolutely captivated audiences. From bigger movies like Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar and Jordan Peele’s Us and Nope to smaller films like Skinamarink and Talk to Me, our understanding of what horror movies can be has expanded immensely. So while Hollywood continues to produce its fair share of trash, many horror writers and directors are moving away from “just” supplying scares. Instead, many of these films have started to delve into something so-called “deeper,” enmeshing their stories of terror with storylines that consider grief, racism, trauma, and otherwise. For better or worse, horror is moving towards the kinds of movies that Oscars enjoy, the kinds that do end up getting those special awards each year. For many critics, a movie’s worth lies solely in its ability to convey meaning oftentimes in very obtuse ways. But, as obvious as it may seem, complexity does not equate to quality. While a film can be a great medium for artistic expression, advocacy, rehabilitation, or otherwise, ultimately film is made to be enjoyed, and a good movie is just a good movie. I can’t say for certain whether the direction horror movies are moving in will result in more of them being nominated and winning Oscars in the future, but I am hopeful. That said, the predictability of what
impresses critics can make it very easy to create films that specifically appeal to their desires.
More than anything, I hope that this shift is indicative of an evolution of the genre, rather than its detriment.
Cover photo from https://www.oscars.org/collection-highlights/silence-lambs