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And the Oscar for best picture doesn't go to ... horror!

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in <em>Silence of the Lambs</em>.
AJ Picks
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Alamy Stock Photo
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

At the 1992 Oscars, host Billy Crystal arrived on stage dressed as Hannibal Lecter.

Trading the straitjacket for a tuxedo, Crystal donned Lecter's iconic mask and walked into the audience to where Anthony Hopkins sat.

It was a sign of the cultural impact that Silence of the Lambs had that year, and it went on to sweep five Oscars that night, including best picture.

It's the only horror movie to win that award (more on that later). In fact, only a handful of horror movies have ever been nominated for an Oscar — in any category — and an even smaller number have actually won. And that's raised questions about why that is.

Is the Oscars scared of horror?

Looking beyond the jump scares

Horror tends to be an outlier during awards season.

"Horror in particular has had this reputation as sort of second rate: second rate skill levels, cheap scares, lots of gratuitous blood," says Tananarive Due, an author who teaches Black horror and afrofuturism at UCLA.

"It's only in more recent years, especially on the literary front and somewhat in cinema, we're seeing a change in attitude toward horror that people are realizing, oh, maybe there's more to this than jump scares."

Film critic and writer Richard Newby agrees that there is more below the surface.

"Horror has consistently reflected where we are as a society. It's perhaps the most common way that we can kind of talk about what we're culturally afraid of," he says, adding that many horror movies have addressed pressing issues of their time.

Movies like 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — in which a group of friends stumble upon a family of cannibals and are chased by a guy wielding a chainsaw — which came out just before the end of the Vietnam War.

"It's very much a reflection on Vietnam and this idea of trespassing where you don't belong," says Newby.

Night Of The Living Dead in 1968 popularized the modern portrayal of zombies, and its Black protagonist, played by the late Duane Jones, broke barriers at a time when racial tensions in the U.S. were fraught post Jim Crow.

"[It's] thematically so important about the invasion of the other, if you're a racist," says Due. "Or having a Black lead, the empowerment that Black people have been fighting for in the 1960s."

Fast forward to Talk To Me, released in 2023, from the Australian twin filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou. It is a tale of ghostly possession that soon turns into a study of trauma and grief.

Talk To Me is not up for any Oscars this year, despite positive critical acclaim and grossing more than $92 million at the box office worldwide.

The 'horror tax'

There have been some horror movies to pick up Oscars, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Exorcist and Get Out. But there have also been attempts to put those kinds of movies into categories outside the horror genre.

"I think there is a horror tax to be paid in almost all forums where art is being discussed," says Adam Lowenstein, a film and media studies professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

"In order for horror to be recognized artistically, there's often an argument that has to be trotted out that goes something along the lines of, 'Well, it's not just a horror film, it's something else.'"

"It's a way of erasing horror as a genre marker and saying this is actually something else. It's something more elevated, it's something worth your attention as a potential award nominee."

Silence of the Lambs has been labeled as a psychological thriller, for example, and Lowenstein recalls the vigorous public discussion and marketing campaign to emphasize this label.

There's also been discourse from critics over the years that push back on the idea that Silence of The Lambs was the only horror film to win a best picture Oscar.

Op-eds about The Shape of Water and Parasite– which won best picture in 2018 and 2020, respectively – argue that these movies fit in the horror genre. Lowenstein agrees that both these films are horror films within their own right, even if they don't appear that way explicitly.

Then there's the acting in horror.

Toni Collette's performance in 2018's Hereditary and Lupita Nyong'o in 2019's Us were both lauded by fans and some critics, but went unrewarded by the major awards.

But Lowenstein argues that other actors can see their value.

"Hereditary is a great example of the kind of horror film that gets the attention of actors as great and recognized as Toni Collette," he says. "There's a recognition at that level, among actors looking for challenges, that horror matters."

Lupita Nyong'o hugs her children, played by Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph, in the 2019 film, <em>Us,</em> written and directed by Jordan Peele.
Lifestyle Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo
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Alamy Stock Photo
Lupita Nyong'o hugs her children, played by Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph, in the 2019 film, Us, written and directed by Jordan Peele.

Due agrees, and says she was unhappy that Nyong'o, who played two characters in Us, didn't get nominated.

"Really, she should have had two nominations — she played both roles and put her foot in both roles," Due says.

In an interview with BuzzFeed, Nyong'o said she wasn't aware of the bias against horror films from The Academy.

"At the end of the day, I think the value of award shows is to show innovation in cinema," Nyong'o said. "So having a discrimination against a genre feels so silly really."

A box office success

For Chad Villella — a producer and one of the co-founders of Radio Silence that made films like Ready or Not and the recent Scream entries — the awards aren't the goal.

"It's about the process and what we're exploring," Villella says. "It's always going to be about, like, what is that lesson that we learned that we can find deep in ourselves and hopefully reflect out to a wider audience."

As someone who used to be terrified of horror movies when he was younger, Villella says horror movies place audiences in the position of the protagonist more than other genres. For him, it's that human connection between the audience and a horror movie that matters more than an award.

And the connection is real, with horror movies proving to be box office gold over the years.

The Exorcist (1973) made over $441 million worldwide; The Blair Witch Project (1999) grossed about $248 million; A Quiet Place (2018) made $340 million; and Five Nights At Freddy's (2023) made more than $291 million – just to name a few.

Others have launched franchises, as fans keep coming back for more. There are now 10 Saw movies; 13 in the Halloween series; Scream has six films and a TV spin-off; and Child's Play has eight movies with an ongoing TV series.

What's interesting, says Lowenstein, is that long ago movies in general were considered an art form not worth taking seriously.

"A big idea behind the Academy Awards ... was as a form of legitimacy for an art form that was usually not considered art or legitimate at the time," he says, adding that people can still see remnants in that legitimation process in the films deemed Oscar worthy.

"These serious dramas that tend to be based on real people and real historical situations really tend to the idea that the films that deserve the most recognition are the most serious films," he says. "And genre does not do well in that framework. Genre of any kind, really."

Ghostface in <em>Scream</em>.
Brownie Harris / Paramount Pictures
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Paramount Pictures
Ghostface in Scream.

As for the question of whether horror as a genre should even care about the Oscars, Phil Nobile Jr. — editor in chief of FANGORIA magazine — argues no.

"Horror should be rattling you. Horror should be upsetting you. Horror should be pissing off the Oscars," Nobile says. "I think for horror to be truly effective, it can't really be part of the institution. It has to be a little bit outside of the institution."

So as the movie world gathers for the 96th Academy Awards on March 10, no, there aren't any horror films on the nominee list. But that isn't affecting the genre, with a number of horror films coming out in 2024 or currently in production.

It's a sign that, awards or not, you won't have to look far for your next scare.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brianna Scott
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
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