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Get Out’s Oscar nominations illustrate the Academy’s changing relationship to the horror genre

The Oscars rarely acknowledge horror films outside of the technical categories. That’s changing fast.

Daniel Kaluuya stars in Get Out Universal Pictures
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out has netted an impressive four Oscar nominations — a testament to how culturally influential his game-changing horror movie has been since its release last February. But Get Out’s Oscar nods are significant for another reason: It’s incredibly rare for horror films to achieve this level of recognition at the Oscars — especially in the major categories (generally considered to be Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and the lead acting categories).

Legendary horror maestro Alfred Hitchcock found this out the hard way, over a lifetime of Oscar snubs, starting with Rebecca, his US film debut in 1940. Rebecca isn’t really a horror film — it’s more Gothic romance — but it set the stage for what was to come. It snagged a bevy of nominations and ultimately won Best Picture, but Hitchcock didn’t win Best Director — and he never would.

Hitchcock wasn’t alone. Steven Spielberg was so convinced that he would receive a Best Director nomination for Jaws that he hired a film crew to capture his reaction to the Oscar nominations in real time. Instead, what they captured was Spielberg watching his film be nominated for Best Picture, while he was passed over. Jaws would experience the fate of many a horror masterpiece, snagging one or two wins in technical categories but getting shut out from the main awards-night trophies.

In fact, in the annals of filmmaking, just a handful of horror films have managed to snag a Best Picture nomination: The Exorcist (1973), Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs (1990), The Sixth Sense (1999), and Black Swan (2010). (Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) was also nominated for Best Foreign Film.) For a horror film to walk away with multiple major nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture, as Peele’s debut film just did, is even rarer. Pulling an actual Best Picture win on top of that would put Peele’s film in the company of just one other horror winner.

Does the Academy hate horror? Not really — but it has a narrow view of the genre.

Why does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences take such a dim view of the horror genre? Partly it’s that the Oscars have a known genre bias in favor of “weighty” dramatic films and sweeping epics over more popular genres like horror, Westerns, or suspense. The horror genre in particular has often had to fight for critical respect, by virtue of subject matter that’s often considered prurient or cheaply exploitative rather than “serious.”

Among the wealth of seminal horror films that were completely shut out by the Academy, receiving no nominations whatsoever, we find genre classics and hugely influential films like Frankenstein (1931), King Kong (1933), Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942), The Haunting (1963), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), The Shining (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and George Romero’s entire zombie trilogy. More recently, head-turning contributions to the genre like The Babadook (2015), It Follows (2015), and The Witch (2016) have all failed to drum up a single Oscar nomination between them, despite headlining a much-talked-about horror genre revival.

It’s not true, however, that the Academy never notices horror films. Over the years, it’s given quite a few nods to beloved and influential horror films. But these nominations and awards have overwhelmingly been in the technical categories, particularly those awarding visuals and sound.

That makes some sense, since horror movies are where cutting-edge technical and practical effects can have the greatest impact. But perhaps because the genre is so geared towards visual and sound effects, the Academy often fails to look beyond these aspects to consider the artistry of the films, or their cultural impact. In this respect, Get Out, which exploded cultural norms right and left from the moment of its release, has been a welcome exception.

In general, however, the Academy relegates recognition of horror films to these minor categories. The result is that we tend to find a shocking number of seminal films lurking in the technical categories, including horror film royalty like James Whale’s masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Birds (1963), Poltergeist (1982), and Interview with the Vampire (1994). Among horror films that managed to win a few technical or supporting actor awards, but remained shut out from the major categories, we have a parade of hugely influential films like The Omen (1976), Alien (1979), An American Werewolf in London (1981), and The Fly (1986).

By now you’re probably thinking: If the Academy turned up its nose at a Bride of Frankenstein or an Alien, what does it take to get its attention? If George Romero couldn’t do it, who can?

The answer lies in a combination of things the Academy loves most: well-established directors, impossible-to-ignore acting, and large box offices.

So which horror films did the Academy love?

Mostly, the strides the genre has made toward Oscar recognition have come via stellar individual performances. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) garnered a Supporting Actress win for persnickety Satanist Ruth Gordon, but no other wins, which seems nearly impossible to believe in retrospect. (The film did garner a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, but lost to The Lion in Winter.)

Frequently, the Oscars love horror film actresses, but not the films they star in. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie received Best Actress and Supporting Actress nominations for Carrie (1976), but the film ultimately won neither and received no other nominations. The Oscars loved Kathy Bates in Misery (1990) — but the rest of Misery, not so much: Bates walked home with an Oscar for Best Actress, but the film was nominated in no other categories. (And speaking of snubs, Bates’ win makes Misery the only Oscar-winning Stephen King adaptation ever — adding to a career-long history of general under-appreciation for the horror master.) In 2011, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan received a flurry of nominations, including for Best Picture, but ultimately only Natalie Portman took home a Best Actress statue.

Among the horror films that snagged nominations in the major film categories but then failed to win most or any, we find also-not-really-a-horror-film The Bad Seed (1956), Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and all but one of the aforementioned Best Picture nominees. The Exorcist (1973), for example, ultimately walked away with a sole win for Adapted Screenplay, while Jaws had to settle for technical category wins.

Then there’s The Sixth Sense (1999), which was nominated for six awards but didn’t win any. (An honorable mention in the not-quite-horror category goes to 1987’s Fatal Attraction, which also snagged six nominations but lost all of them. It may not have technically been a horror movie, but it scared the bejeezus out of all of us anyway.)

So what, if anything, do the films that wind up scoring major category nominations and wins have in common? The first thing that jumps out is stellar performances. Notably, The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense, and Pan’s Labyrinth all feature children delivering star turns in lead roles.

Women on some sort of rampage seems to be another major recurring theme (Carrie, Fatal Attraction, Misery, Black Swan). Another major corollary is that directors whose films get nominated tend to be at either end of an extreme spectrum: They’ve been either well-established, critically respected filmmakers at the time they were nominated for Best Picture, or else incendiary newcomers with buzz and a box office take too big to ignore — like The Sixth Sense’s M. Night Shyamalan, and now, Jordan Peele.

All of this brings us to what is statistically the greatest horror film ever made — at least if the number of Oscar wins is our metric for such things. Jonathan Demme’s 1991 masterpiece, The Silence of the Lambs, is one of just three films ever to take home the “big five” sweep of Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture. It fulfills most of these criteria: Established director, a huge box office, and superb performances by its entire cast — in particular its two leads, Anthony Hopkins as the manipulative Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter and Jodie Foster as the tough but terrified rookie FBI agent assigned to work with him to catch a serial killer.

Get Out is one of several recent genre films that signal change in the Academy

This year’s Best Picture category is fierce, with no clear frontrunner. Still, based solely on the criteria for past Best Picture horror winners, Get Out has a good shot at winning in 2018. Like this year’s nomination leader, Guillermo del Toro’s monster fantasy The Shape of Water, 2017 sci-fi Best Picture nominee Arrival, and even last year’s surprise Best Picture winner, Moonlight, Get Out represents an interesting shift in the history of Oscar contenders. Taken together, these films indicate that the Academy is steadily moving away from its established norms about what kinds of films have the most artistic merit.

This is undoubtedly due in part to generational shifts and broader cultural conversations about the kinds of movies that matter to us, and why. Filmmakers like del Toro and Peele are steeped in genre traditions and a reverence for the narrative power that genre can wield. But the Academy’s ongoing push in recent years to significantly diversify its membership has also likely played a huge role in shifting this conversation. As we continue to reassess whose stories are worth telling and who should get to tell them, we wind up valuing more wide-ranging kinds of movies.

Get Out is the perfect example of a horror film that fits the spirit of Oscar-winning horror films of the past: It has great, attention-getting performances and a stellar box office, and while it doesn’t feature a woman on a rampage or a creepy kid, it’s centered on the fear, rage, pain, and power of people of color, just as films like Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, Misery, and Black Swan have centered around the fear, rage, pain, and power of women.

In previous years it could easily have been overlooked due to its relative outsider status; before the #OscarsSoWhite backlash and the ensuing push for diversity in Academy membership, it very likely would have been relegated to the technical categories, like the genre greats before it.

Instead, in the hands of a younger, fresher, more diverse Academy, Get Out may be the rare horror film that gets into the Oscar history books.

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