[Editorial] A History of Horror at the Academy Awards

By Luiz H. C.

Being a fan of horror movies can be a remarkably thankless experience. Many people misunderstand or even actively dislike our appreciation of the darker side of film, with some simply considering the genre to be intrinsically inferior based on a few bad experiences. However, one of the least pleasant aspects of being a horror enthusiast is dealing with the inevitable snubbing of our favorite scary movies year after year when awards season comes around.

That’s not to say that we (or filmmakers) need validation from mainstream festivals and golden statuettes in order to respect the horror genre, but the yearly snubbing of amazing horror films is doing a disservice to the careers of the artists that make the genre worth watching in the first place. Some less-informed critics might argue that the reason horror movies remain absent from the spotlight is that ‘modern horror’ isn’t as good as it used to be, but anyone who’s kept up with the genre in the last few decades knows that these critics just haven’t been watching the right movies.

From the amazing performances in Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects to the flawless cinematography of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, you’ll have a hard time finding a single year without at least one Oscar-worthy horror film that didn’t get the recognition it deserved. There was, in fact, a time when the genre was more present at the most prestigious of awards ceremonies, even if most of the nominations were relegated to minor technical awards.

That’s why I’ve compiled this history of Horror at the Academy Awards, in an attempt to recall a time when Hollywood took our favorite genre a little more seriously. While there are a great many films from several genres that regularly get snubbed at the Oscars, there’s a certain stigma attached to the more gruesome productions out there, one that both audiences and critics might benefit from getting rid of.

At this point, it’s common knowledge that only two “pure” horror films have ever been nominated for a Best Picture award: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Only the latter managed to actually nab the illusive statuette (not to mention the Best Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay awards on that same evening), but the nominations alone were enough to attest to the seriousness of these films. While these run-ins with the Academy can be considered some of the genre’s crowning achievements, they’re far from the first time horror has left its mark on the event.

A face that only the Academy could love.

As far back as 1932, when the awards were still a private ceremony, Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde was already an Academy favorite, accumulating nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor in a Leading Role. While Mamoulian’s film only managed to win in that last category (and even then, tied with Kidor’s The Champ), it’s still largely considered to be the first horror film to garner mainstream attention during the awards season.

Sadly, the Motion Picture Production Code would soon deliver a serious blow to the horror genre, as the censors would routinely butcher scary movies in order to make them more palpable for Christian audiences, often with disastrous results. James Whale’s Frankenstein is a notable example of a film bogged down by censorship, with the state of Kansas memorably demanding that nearly half the film be cut in order to be distributed. All this moral hullaballoo contributed to the demonization of horror movies, which no doubt influenced Hollywood’s decision to keep them out of the awards ceremonies.

With a few exceptions in minor technical categories, it would be decades until the Academy would once again honor a horror movie. Thankfully, with the sudden rise of Hitchcock, scares became fashionable again, and his groundbreaking 1960 film, Psycho, was nominated in four categories: Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Ultimately, the film didn’t win any of these nominations, but it was a return to form for the genre, proving in the public eye that horror could be so much more than just schlock and supposed anti-religious propaganda.

Hitchcock’s next film, The Birds, would receive a single nomination in the special effects category, and we would only see the Academy recognize another serious horror movie at the end of the Motion Picture Production Code, with Roman Polanski’s 1968 thriller, Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski’s film would go on to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay, winning the former. It can be said that this ushered in a new era for horror movies, as they would receive much more positive mainstream attention in the years to come than they ever had before.

“What an excellent day for an Oscar.”

With movies like the aforementioned Exorcist, Spielberg’s Jaws, Brian De Palma’s Carrie, and Ridley Scott’s Alien, the 1970s cemented horror filmmakers as serious masters of the craft in the Academy’s eyes. So far, this is arguably the best decade of horror on nearly all fronts, and possibly the last time that the genre was rightly perceived as an equal. Nevertheless, these nominations helped further the career of many talented artists who are now considered Hollywood legends, and helped shape the landscape of everyone’s favorite decade of entertainment.

The 1980s started off well, with Rick Baker’s phenomenal work on John Landis’ American Werewolf in London being recognized with a nomination in the brand new Best Makeup category. In fact, the horror genre would soon become quite familiar with this category, as most of this decade’s nominated horror movies would end up winning that award. James Cameron’s Aliens would break the mold with its seven nominations and two technical wins, but Hollywood’s love affair with horror movies was dissipating.

Fortunately, the 1990s had quite a few notable wins and nominations, with Rob Reiner’s Misery starting the decade off on a good note, providing Kathy Bates with the coveted Best Actress award. This was soon followed by Silence of the Lambs’ historic win, but the line between thriller and horror was starting to blur, and the Academy had an obvious preference for the former rather than the latter. Strangely enough, it was a great period for vampire films, with Francis Ford Coppola’s peculiar adaptation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, garnering four nominations (and one win), and Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire garnering two.

This was also the decade that introduced us to M. Night Shyamalan and his breakout feature, The Sixth Sense, which just so happened to be nominated in six categories. These included Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and even Best Picture. While this is a feat in and of itself, it also marks the last time that a conventional horror film would ever take home so many nominations. The worst part is that this was almost two decades ago!

I’m glad the we can go back to appreciating Shyamalan now!

Although some debate that Aronofsky’s Black Swan is the Academy’s last true horror sweetheart, that ultimately depends on your definition of a horror movie. Either way, that’s one hell of a gap between award-winning scary movies, so what happened? The 2000s may have initially been saturated with remakes and a few duds, but for every generic ghost story there was an artistically inspired production like Mary Harron’s American Psycho or even Ti West’s House of the Devil. That’s not even mentioning the amazing horror movies produced outside of the United States that could have easily populated the Best Foreign Picture category.

In these last couple of years alone, we’ve already been gifted with extraordinary cinematic gems like Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Fede Álvarez’s Hitchcockian Don’t Breathe, and there’s simply no excuse for these films not to be appreciated by the Academy. That being said, I’m well aware that the Oscars aren’t as important an event as the media makes them out to be, but it’s still disrespectful to exclude the countless men and women working in the horror genre from these events due to outdated notions that they only produce ‘B’ movies.

Of course, there’s a lot of politics going on behind the scenes at these awards ceremonies, so artistic merit isn’t the only thing to be considered. Nevertheless, we now live in a world where Suicide Squad has won more Oscars than most of our favorite horror movies, and you can’t fault someone for getting pissed off about that. In time, as more and more amazing horror films hit the big screen, perhaps we’ll get lucky and the Academy will realize the error in its ways. Until then, all we can do is support and enjoy our favorite genre until Hollywood respects it as much as we do.


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