From 'Psycho' to 'Get Out': A History of Horror at the Oscars

Why scary movies got a raw deal at the Oscars for decades – until a Satanic child and a cannibal serial killer changed everything

The history of horror movies at the Oscars, from 'Psycho' to 'Get Out' – and how a Satanic child and a cannibal serial killer changed everything. Credit: Rex (3)

On January 23rd, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced this year's Oscar nominees – including Get Out, which earned nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. The love for the Jordan Peele's across-the-board hit was a rarity for a slew of reasons, including the fact that the filmmaker became only the fifth black man to ever be nominated for Best Director. But perhaps most remarkable was the fact that it nabbed a Best Picture slot: Depending on how flexible you are in defining "horror," Get Out is just the fifth (or sixth) fright film in the ceremony's history to ever receive that honor. Yes, lots of genre films get disrespected by the Academy, notably comedies and sci-fi movies. But horror has arguably had the hardest time landing nominations. And when they do, the trick has usually been to fool Oscar voters into not necessarily thinking of them as horror films.

Scary movies were persona non grata for the first several decades of the Academy Awards, even as they were beginning to assert themselves with the public in the 1930s. Never mind that distinctive directors like Tod Browning and actors such as Boris Karloff and Claude Rains were bringing to life adaptations of works by H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker – these movies couldn't get Oscar's attention. Take Bride of Frankenstein, which remains one of the greatest examples of Universal's monster-movie golden age ... and received only a single nod for Best Sound Recording. (Ironically, Gods and Monsters, a movie about Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale, received two Oscar nominations for acting and a win for Condon's screenplay. Clearly, Academy members enjoy biopics about horror filmmakers more than horror films themselves.)

A pattern was set the genre: boffo at the box office, throw them a tiny bone come Oscar time. Having a pedigree helped, somewhat: The 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera, based on the Gaston Leroux novel, won for art direction and cinematography; the killer-kid drama The Bad Seed (1956), which received four Oscar nods (including three for acting), was adapted from the Tony-winning Maxwell Anderson play and featured the stage version's principal actors reprising their roles. Four years later, Alfred Hitchcock – already a four-time nominee who was responsible for Best Picture-winner Rebecca – released Psycho, which earned him his fifth and final Best Director nomination, as well as three other nods, including one for Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh.

But it was 1968 that proved to be a genuinely pivotal year in horror. For one, it saw the release of Night of the Living Dead, George Romero's low-budget, immensely influential zombie thriller, which essentially birthed an entire subgenre of horror films. But it was also the year that Roman Polanski's adaptation of the Ira Levin novel Rosemary's Baby hit theaters, becoming a smash hit. Acclaimed book, direction by a respected European filmmaker – the Academy took notice. Polanski was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and revered theater actress Ruth Gordon won the Best Supporting Actress statue – the first time an out-and-out horror movie had won a high-profile Academy Award. Gordon's victory, which happened at age 72 – "I can't tell you how encouraging a thing like this is," she famously remarked from the podium – would set the stage for what would become a curious Oscar phenomenon: actresses earning statuettes for horror films.

Five years after Rosemary's Baby, the genre would establish an even bigger beachhead at the Oscars, courtesy of a gamechanging blockbuster and a vulgar, vomit-spewing little girl: The Exorcist. Based on William Peter Blatty's popular novel and featuring gross-out scares, William Friedkin's 1973 classic brought demonic possession, endangered-child drama and supernatural terror to the masses. Again, however, it was the pedigree of the material – along with the presence of the Oscar-winning French Connection auteur behind the camera and celebrated Ingmar Bergman cohort Max von Sydow in front of it – that helped give The Exorcist a patina of quality. The Academy gifted the film with 10 nominations, including the first Best Picture nod to a horror movie. The film only won two Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay for Blatty, But it proved to be such a critical and commercial sensation that the movie overcame the industry's marginalization of stories about things that go bump in the night (and cause heads to do complete 360-degree rotations).

Not that horror films were suddenly treated with the same respect afforded costume dramas, biopics, musicals and other prestige projects. As Vox points out, even when a young turk named Steven Spielberg revolutionized the summer event movie in 1975 with Jaws, the Academy acknowledged his achievement with a Best Picture nomination – but snubbed the brash filmmaker. (Memorably, Spielberg hired a camera crew to record his live reaction when he received his presumed Best Director nomination ... which didn't happen, much to his chagrin.)

Still, the momentum intensified. The Omen won an Oscar for Best Score. Alien won for Visual Effects. An American Werewolf in London snagged Rick Baker his first of seven Oscars for Best Makeup. (His most recent was for 2011's remake of The Wolfman.) Poltergeist was nominated for three Oscars. The 1986 remake of The Fly landed a Best Makeup nomination, and that same year, Aliens received seven nominations, winning in technical categories.

But more importantly, that sequel to the Rosetta stone of the modern sci-fi/horror/action film (combining not one, not two, but three maligned genres) also earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress – a confirmation that the Academy could look past a long-held horror bias to celebrate superb genre performances. For all the deserved talk about the dearth of meaningful roles for women in Hollywood, horror has actually done its part to correct that imbalance, earning accolades for actresses starting with The Bad Seed and Psycho and continuing with 1976's adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie, whose sole nominations were for Best Actress (Sissy Spacek) and Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie).

Weaver's nomination was followed just a few years later by a Best Actress win for Kathy Bates in another King adaptation, Misery. Before that film, the future Annie Wilkes was known as a beloved, Tony-nominated theater actress. But her portrayal of the crazed super-fan of injured romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), made the character one of the movie's greatest horror villains – and turned Bates into a star. 

In retrospect, the increase in Oscar nominations for horror films could be seen as an appreciation for the more sophisticated entrees in a genre that was still largely catering to teenagers who weren't terribly interested in character nuance or tight plotting. And this rewarding of horror's higher-toned offerings was never more apparent than a year after Misery's triumph. 

Hardcore genre fans can debate whether The Silence of the Lambs is a legitimate horror movie – it's really a mixture of the crime thriller and the serial-killer character drama, if we're going to nitpick. But the film was so disturbing that most viewers didn't bother quibbling over such fine distinctions. Like many of Oscar-honored horror films, The Silence of the Lambs was based on a decorated novel, crafted by a respected filmmaker (Jonathan Demme) and featured "serious" actors (Oscar-winner Jodie Foster and veteran Brit thespian Anthony Hopkins). It went on to win Academy Awards for all three artists and took home Best Picture – to this day, it's the only time a horror film has earned Hollywood's top prize. And along the way, it also introduced the world to the sinister, brilliant Hannibal Lecter, a richer horror creation than your typical knife-wielding, hockey-mask-wearing psycho. (No offense, Jason.)

But even The Silence of the Lambs' architects didn't necessarily see it as "just" a horror movie. As screenwriter Ted Tally, who won Best Adapted Screenplay, told Rolling Stone in 2016, "[I]t's been embraced over the years by the horror community, which is fine with me. … But I always thought of it as a detective movie or a thriller. I have nothing against horror movies. But to me, horror movies involve the supernatural. Lecter may border on supernatural, but he's not."

Presumably, Tally would have no problem slotting The Sixth Sense as a horror movie. After all, the breakthrough 1999 work from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is a ghost story about a troubled boy (Haley Joel Osment) who can communicate with the dead. Unlike so many of its Academy-approved horror predecessors,  it came from an original screenplay; Shyamalan's delicate, muted treatment of the relationship between the child and Bruce Willis's mournful psychologist also made it seem more like a drama than a traditionally terrifying supernatural tale. Which may be why The Sixth Sense was the most recent horror movie before Get Out to get nominated for Best Picture, with Shyamalan also earning nods for writing and directing.

And some may argue that Black Swan deserves inclusion in this select Best Picture group – although this 2010 dance-dance-scarevolution is probably more accurately described as a psychological horror film. It's a key distinction in the world of Hollywood; the term somehow made it "classier" than your run-of-the-mill Saw or Hostel torture-porn flicks that were the era's dominant horror movies. Nonetheless, Natalie Portman's Best Actress win as a driven, possibly deranged ballerina once again argued that the genre has provided talented actresses with their most celebrated roles. That, or, the fact that Academy has gravitated to honoring women who either play monsters or are brave enough to stand up to them.

Now comes Get Out, which itself is not a pure horror movie – a fact underlined by the Golden Globes considering it a "comedy" (?) rather than a drama for awards purposes. Peele's distributor, Universal, dictated that slotting for the Globes, but it's not how he envisions his film. "What the movie is about is not funny," Peele insisted back in November about his biting commentary on racism, white privilege and horror movies' tendency to kill off their black supporting characters first. "I've had many black people come up to me and say, 'Man, this is the movie we've been talking about for a while and you did it.' That's a very powerful thing. For that to be put in a smaller box than it deserves is where the controversy comes from."

In that same interview, Peele explained that he had set out to make a horror movie, even though that's not how those close to him perceived it. "I ended up showing it to people," he recalled, "and hearing, you know, it doesn't even feel like horror. It's in this thriller world. So it was a social thriller." That genre confusion has probably helped sell the movie to Academy members; after almost a century, some Oscar voters still have an aversion to what they consider a straight horror movie. If Get Out wins on Oscar night, the film (like previous horror winners) won't just prove to be a first-rate example of its genre. It'll be deft enough to convince the Academy that they're not honoring something that's "just" a horror movie. Otherwise, as history has proven, they'd simply be too easily scared off.