Horror Movies and The Oscars: A New Chapter?

Hannah Lazar - December 12, 2018

When you think of an “Oscar” movie, a horror film is usually the last thing on your mind. Out of the 90 years the awards show has existed, and the hundreds of films that have been nominated for Best Picture, only six horror movies have ever been nominated for that category. Only Silence of the Lambs was ever able to pull off a win, all the way back in 1992. Horror movies are underrepresented in general, since they’re usually only nominated for their visual effects or musical score. This hasn’t been a huge travesty in the past, since, as is the case with every genre, most horror movies simply aren’t all that good. In fact, and I’m speaking as a massive fan of the genre, most horror movies are meaningless, cheap, forgettable garbage that repeat the same plot points over and over again.

As much as I love the genre, I really hate watching random young people pick up a haunted object, think it’s not haunted, and then proceed to be haunted. I also hate watching random young people go into a haunted area, don’t think it’s haunted, and then proceed to be haunted. Oh, and I also hate watching random young people make every wrong decision imaginable, get killed off in succession, and the one survivor finding some out-of-nowhere way to defeat the monster, ghost, or killer. Most of all, I hate how most horror films explore real themes of fear at their most basic levels, chalking everything up to “fear of the unknown” instead of any actual societal problems or thematic weight. Basically, I’m not crying myself to sleep at night because Truth or Dare, Hellfest, or Slender-Man won’t be nominated for an Oscar, and I doubt I’m alone in that sentiment.

However, this year, we got three horror movies that were both critically-acclaimed and broke box office records: A Quiet Place, Hereditary (it’s currently the highest-grossing film that A24 has distributed), and Halloween (2018). As someone who saw all three films, I have to say that they each deserve recognition in the major categories. John Krasinski's directorial work on A Quiet Place was very strong, and the lead actresses of Hereditary and Halloween (Toni Colette and Jamie Lee Curtis, respectively) both did a fantastic job making their characters complex, vulnerable, and relatable. Unlike usual horror movie fare, these movies focus more on how the character struggles are informed by what scares them, and comment on the actual societal problems that created those fears to begin with. They don’t necessarily have to win, but a nomination is just as good as anything, and receiving awards could help the horror genre evolve as an art form. There might be a higher level of quality control for other films within the genre if the well-made, artistically rich films have a chance to get recognized by the Academy.

Even so, it is unlikely that these films will be acknowledged as much as they should, because the horror genre is not seen as very prestigious or mature. The six horror movies that have been nominated - The Exorcist, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Black Swan, and Get Out - are actually exceptional within the genre. They aren’t traditional ghost stories that are simply designed to scare you, or gore fests that are meant to disgust you, and are generally rooted in reality. In The Exorcist, for example, a good portion of the film was spent trying to find a medical or psychological reason for Reagan’s possession instead of a supernatural one, and much more time was dedicated to character and thematic development than scaring the audience. Jaws is definitely terrifying, but a large great white shark is not as far-fetched as a ghost or demon. The Silence of the Lambs is about a serial killer, The Sixth Sense is creepy but also focuses more on character development and drama, Black Swan is a psychological thriller and Get Out scares you because of all the social and racial tension it draws upon, not because it features something that’s not of this world.

What all these films have in common is that the source of fear, the horror aspect, is a small part of a larger picture, and is as close to reality as possible. Nothing within them is so far-fetched that we can’t picture it actually happening, or possibly happening, and if something is unexplainable, the film will go to great lengths to show that the supernatural is the only answer. The fears are more concrete and less metaphorical, which actually reflects a lot about the types of films the Oscars seem to like. Most of the films that are nominated are rooted in historical events or tell biographical stories, which leaves little room for any type of fantastical storytelling. It’s the same reason why fantasy films, science-fiction films, and animated films are barely represented - the farther from reality a film gets, the less prestige it seems to carry.

Horror films are no different, and I think that’s a shame. At their best, horror films can comment on societal fears and anxieties better than any other genre, because the genre is literally built upon scaring the audience. Furthermore, supernatural or unexplainable phenomena, like ghosts, vampires, or other monsters, can be and have been used as metaphors to represent a variety of societal fears. This is something the original Halloween does amazingly well, for instance. While Michael Myers himself is practically a supernatural entity, his character is so metaphorically flexible that he could represent a ton of different fears. Simply based on the film’s text, he stands for the general fear of a monstrous entity that somehow sprung out of a sanitized place, an evil entity that cannot be controlled and kills for the sake of killing. This seems fairly simple, right? Even so, you can take that basic concept, and apply it to so many social issues. Maybe he represents a fear of unchecked misogyny, because he seems to target women who are sexually open, like his sister, or women that are too smart for their own good, like Laurie. Maybe he represents a fear of how carefree and open young people are, since he only targets them. Or, maybe he represents a fear that our suburban, peaceful lives can be shattered by a single evil man. Watch the movie and come up with your own interpretation.

The point is, just because something is incredibly separated from reality in a film, it doesn’t mean that unrealistic thing can’t comment on our reality. It just requires a little extra interpretation and awareness of how culture impacts art, and vice versa. However, I do acknowledge that most people don’t go into a horror movie wanting a sort of revelation about society. They just want to be scared, which is understandable, but this is the very perception that I think the Oscars can have a hand in changing. If films like Hereditary or A Quiet Place actually get nominated for major awards, and perhaps win a few, maybe horror can finally gain credibility as a means of mature storytelling.