The Academy Awards have a shaky relationship with horror. Often ignored by the annual ceremony, the genre has essentially become the “beautiful gowns” of the awards, with its few recognitions coming mostly for technical categories like sound and soundtrack, art direction, costume, makeup, and especially effects.
Still, horror films rarely get placed into acting, directing, or the Best Picture categories. From the academy’s perspective, these awards hold the substance over the style, becoming the most prestigious, memorable, and celebrated wins. Industry darlings like Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn have navigated past the genre with acting nominations for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Wait Until Dark, respectively, though even those without wins. Few and far between describe the number of honors given to genre movies in these highest categories. For the exceptions, check out these Oscar-nominated scary movies.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Though considered classics by today’s standards, the old black-and-white monster movies that paved the way for the horror genre didn’t gain the same praise during their initial releases as they do now. The Bride of Frankenstein, arguably the best of the Universal Monster movies and director James Whales’ masterpiece, scored only one Oscar nomination for sound, leaving the rest of the franchise largely unnoticed. A few years earlier, Paramount Pictures’ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde earned three total nominations, including those for writing and cinematography. The category in which the film won, Best Actor, still came with a caveat. Even with an outstanding performance from Fredric March in the dual title role, the win didn’t stand alone, resulting in a rare tie with Wallace Beery’s lead performance in The Champ.
Well into the ‘60s, nearly thirty years later, the academy still hadn’t recognized much within the genre. Similarly to the previous monster films, beloved director Alfred Hitchcock did not attain adoration for the ingenious and pioneering efforts that many see in his work today. His magnum opus, Psycho, did rack up four nominations for art direction and cinematography, one for supporting actress Janet Leigh, and another for Hitchcock himself as director. Leigh’s nomination in a supporting role came with particular interest since the film spends much of the time following her character, but Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates received no attention, and the film did not win in any of its categories. Three years later, The Birds would receive only a Visual Effects nomination for animator Ub Iwerks. Hitchcock would also never win the Best Director award.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
In 1965, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte broke the Oscar records with seven nominations, the most for a horror movie to date, including one for supporting actress Agnes Moorehead, but, yet again, it would not win any awards. Not until Rosemary’s Baby, a few years later, would a horror movie win again in one of these prestigious categories. While Mia Farrow made headlines for the film with her new haircut, and the film itself received a nomination for its screenplay, Farrow remained utterly ignored at the ceremony for her transformative and captivating lead role. Her costar, Ruth Gordon, whose performance as Rosemary’s nosey neighbor Minnie Castevet straddles the film’s darkness with an authentic yet unsettling lightness to ground it, instead won in the Best Supporting Actress category.
The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist shocked audience members of the ‘70s, eventually possessing the academy into recognizing it with ten nominations, unheard of for a horror movie. This game changer included both Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair receiving nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. The two give intensely different performances that raised the bar for horror actors at the time and have become industry highlights. The film also scored nominations for Jason Miller’s supporting role, editing, art direction, cinematography, William Friedkin’s superb direction, and Best Picture. Despite all of the attention, The Exorcist only won two of its ten categories for screenplay and sound. Today, it still qualifies as one of the definitive Oscar-nominated scary movies.
One of Steven Spielberg’s few forays into horror, Jaws swam into the Oscars to take home three horror wins. John Williams’s iconic score and the film’s editing and sound led the way, with no nominations given to the actors or director despite the film’s reliance on situational character-building to work. The film did enter the Best Picture race but lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In Academy Awards ceremonies of later years, the live orchestra would adapt the winning Jaws theme as a scare tactic for award winners who take too long with their acceptance speeches, ushering them off the stage and further cementing the horror film into the ceremony’s own history.
The performances of Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek fully carry the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, causing no surprise when they both received nominations for their roles as Margaret White and her daughter Carrie. Their chemistry together creates most of the film’s memorable scenes outside of the infamous prom sequence, displaying the heavy complexity of their relationship. Though not enough to win, Carrie’s recognition based solely on their acting marks somewhat of a notable shift for horror at the awards ceremony. They lost to the supporting and lead actress performances of Beatrice Straight and Faye Dunaway in Network.
The academy recognized 1978’s Alien with art and effects nominations, but not until its sequel nearly ten years later would Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley receive attention, along with nominations for effects, sound, art direction, editing, and music categories. Aliens only took home awards for effects and sound editing. Still, the recognition of Weaver’s Ripley, one of the most impressive female characters in the history of sci-fi and horror, comes as a significant acknowledgment. Even in a less dramatic, big monster movie, the academy showed it can appreciate and take such a character seriously. Though, no recognition went to Jeff Goldblum’s uncanny performance in The Fly of the same year.
By the late ‘80s, the trend of heroic women like Weaver's Ripley in Aliens gave way to dangerous women like Glenn Close’s Alex in Fatal Attraction. While that movie received six nominations, including one for Close’s outrageous and antagonistic lead performance, it made no wins. Instead, another Stephen King novel adaptation would take the cake for dangerous women a few years later. Kathy Bates became a household name with her powerhouse performance as Annie Wilkes in Misery, carrying the entire movie to its one nomination and much-deserved win. One of the most directly character-driven films nominated from the horror genre, it’s no wonder that Bates won the award and likely loosened up the academy’s voting members for the following year’s major horror win.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Both Cape Fear and The Silence of the Lambs received acting nominations in 1992. While neither of Cape Fear’s nominated actors, Robert De Niro or Juliette Lewis, won, The Silence of the Lambs celebrated a total of five wins in its seven nominated categories. Not only did both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins win for their outstanding lead performances, but the film also won for Ted Tally’s screenplay, Jonathan Demm’s direction, and Best Picture overall. The Silence of the Lambs made history as only the third film of any genre to win all of the ceremony’s top 5 prestige categories and the first horror film ever to win Best Picture. In 64 years of the Academy Awards, Oscar-nominated scary movies finally reached the top.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Many often cite Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary, a tour de force of horror and emotional family drama, as one of the biggest Oscars snubs of the genre, not even receiving a nomination. Interestingly, Collette’s only Academy Awards nomination came through another horror film, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, in which she portrays the mother of Haley Joel Osment’s character, Cole, who sees dead people. Both actors received nominations for their supporting roles, with Bruce Willis’ lead overlooked. The film also earned nominations for editing, original screenplay, Best Director for Shyamalan, and Best Picture, but did not win anything.
Black Swan (2010)
After The Silence of the Lambs, the ‘90s and 2000s brought a lull for even the small representation horror would sometimes have in the higher categories at the Oscars. Willem Dafoe’s performance in Shadow of the Vampire and the questionable musical lead of Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street carried the genre in acting categories. Thankfully, Darren Aronofsky’s surreal psychological thriller Black Swan ushered the genre back in with style with nominations for cinematography, editing, Aronofsky’s direction, and even Best Picture. The film’s one win went to Natalie Portman in her lead as ballerine Nina, seeking a perfect performance. The film did not reach perfection with its wins, but horror returned favorably to the minds of the academy voters once again.
Get Out (2017)
Just a year after Moonlight became the first Black film to take home the Best Picture award, Jordan Peele’s Get Out tried to keep the tradition going with a nomination in the category. The film examines the Black experience in America through a horror lens. Other nominations for Get Out included Best Actor for Daniel Kaluuya and directing and screenplay nods for Peele. Peele’s clever script, which manages to speak directly to its Black audience without isolating non-Black audience members from enjoying and understanding the film, especially stood out as the only winner for the film. Still, the recognition in all prestige categories surprised many for a film with so many traditional hurdles to pass, and only another horror movie directed by another person of color would overtake it that year.
The Shape of Water (2017)
As a genre-bending film that pays tribute to classic cinema, it’s no wonder that The Shape of Water ultimately won over the academy, but there’s no hiding its horror roots. Guillermo del Toro’s updated cross between The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Beauty and the Beast scored 13 nominations in total, a lot for a monster movie. Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, and Octavia Spencer all received acting nominations. The film also earned nominations for editing, sound categories, costume design, cinematography, and screenplay. Although not winning any of those nominations, wins did come for production design, score, and del Toro’s direction. The film also beat Get Out for Best Picture, making it the first horror-centric film since The Silence of the Lambs to win the category.
Though some may argue Parasite plays more as a thriller than a horror, director Bong Joon-Ho’s intricate film threatens differently, exposing the underbelly of classism in horrifying ways that linger long after viewing. Critics fell head over heels for the South Korean genre-bending movie, positioning it early in the award season to take the Oscar for Best International Film and leaving no surprise when it did. Parasite also garnered nominations for production design and editing, but the film’s sweep of wins for its screenplay, direction, and recognition as the first foreign language film to ever win the Best Picture award cemented it as something special, all on the heels of dramatic horror.