Monstrous Femme

Acting Scared: Oscar-Nominated Horror Performances

Acting Scared: Oscar-Nominated Horror Performances

The Academy Awards doesn’t like horror. Across 96 years of the ceremony, only twenty horror films have ever won Oscars in any category, and some of the winners (like the musical Sweeney Todd or the literary adaptation The Picture of Dorian Grey) are only slightly horror-related. Considering all the classics of the genre, it’s amazing how many deserving films have gotten completely snubbed at the Oscars.

Out of the 23 categories this year, only two horror-adjacent films made the cut: the vampire satire El Condescored a Cinematography nom while Godzilla: Minus One was up for Special Effects. Both are scary in their own ways, but they’re a classier kind of scary, movies that the Academy deems more palatable (and less embarrassing to vote for) than the out-and-out horror of last year’s Talk to Me or Birth/Rebirth.

It seems that Oscar voters are only brave enough to recognize a horror film if it’s some sort of genre hybrid (Black Swan, Get Out) or if the film becomes a cultural juggernaut that they can’t ignore (The Exorcist, Jaws). Otherwise, they’re happy to stick with their preferred genres, i.e. biopics and heavy dramas.

And yet, a few great wins have crept through. The Omen, for example, won for its haunting, Satanic music, and Get Out won for its hilarious and harrowing script. Sleepy Hollow got Best Cinematography. Bram Stoker’s Dracula got Best Costumes. All deserving wins, made even more notable by how they pushed past the awards’ genre bias.

To see how unfair this bias is, just look at two of cinema’s greatest horror directors: John Carpenter and Wes Craven. Both have cranked out classic after classic in their respective careers, and yet neither of them received any nominations. The only Carpenter movie to get any sort of recognition was a single acting nom for 1984’s Starman, one of his few non-horror films. And the only Craven film to be nominated was his sole non-horror film, the Meryl Streep drama Music of the Heart.

Let that sink in for a moment. There were no make-up or special effects recognition for The Thing, no music noms for Halloween or Christine. Nothing for Scream or Nightmare on Elm Street. Carpenter and Craven were only on Oscar’s radar when they decided to break out of the genre. (And, adding insult to injury, neither of their nominated films won anything.)

When it comes to the acting races in particular, nominations and wins for horror movies are rare. Join me as I go through every decade of the last century to see who was nominated and who was passed over. 


The first Oscars honored the films of 1927 and 1928, the last years that silent films were still the standard. Only two ceremonies were held this decade, but back then, actors could be nominated for multiple roles within the same year.

Unsurprisingly, none of the nominated performances were in horror movies. Nearly all were for dramas, with over half of them involving cheating spouses. There were a few crime dramas in the mix, but not with any horror elements.

A notable snub was Conrad Veidt for 1928’s The Man Who Laughs, a chilling performance that would directly inspire the Joker (more on that later). For a silent film, it’s still extremely watchable and holds up well—a great example of the kind of unhinged villain roles that the Academy often ignores.


The 1930s had a deeper bench of horror films to choose from. This was the heyday of the original Universal monsters, but despite their huge influence on the culture, classics like Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein never got any Oscar love.

This is the decade when the Academy established its genre preferences. The Best Actress category was dominated by suffering, from the tragic Chinese farmer of The Good Earth (Luise Rainer in uncomfortable yellowface), to the reluctant prostitute of The Sin of Madelon Claudet (Helen Hayes, thankfully not in yellowface). Even when the role bordered on being villainous (Bette Davis in Jezebel), the focus was more on how her manipulative actions boomerang back onto her.

If the nominated women didn’t suffer horribly, then they were plucky and fast-talking. Take Katherine Hepburn in Morning Glory, or Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. These are the 1930s equivalent of the Erin Brockovich win, establishing a precedent that would carry through into the 21st century.

In contrast, the nominations for Best Actor focused more on criminals and flawed antiheroes. (This is still an Oscars tradition, where women are nominated for suffering and men are nominated for being assholes.) Among the nominated roles are fugitives, criminals, thugs, and (of course) historical figures.

However, this category also offered the decade’s only nomination (and win) for a horror role: Fredric March in 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. March put in a memorable double performance that emphasized his acting choices over his make-up transformation. It’s a deserving win, but it doesn’t even come close to Bela Lugosi’s iconic (unnominated) performance in that same year’s Dracula.

This decade also marked the beginning of the Supporting Actor and Actress categories, but none of those waded into the horror genre. No Renfields or Igors, in other words.


This decade was taken over by WWII films, with the bulk of the nominations and wins in all acting categories going to wounded soldiers, grieving widows, and regular people living through the war.

There was space for more villainous characters, too. (Bette Davis’s nomination for the murderous wife in The Little Foxes is, essentially, a horror performance in a non-horror film.) The actresses still suffered a lot, while the actors were now more heroic than in the crime-heavy 1930s lineup.

A few performers were nominated for Hitchcock thrillers, though they erred on the side of intrigue over scares. And Ingrid Bergman won Best Actress for Gaslight, which is a drama wrapped around Bergman’s very Final Girl-esque performance (this film created the term “gaslighting,” so you can guess all the craziness that Bergman has to endure). We also have our first Devil role nomination (Walter Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster), but no one would call that a horror movie.

For actual horror, the decade had two notable examples: The first was supporting nominee Ethyl Barrymore, as a bedridden target for a serial killer in The Spiral Staircase. It’s kind of a drama, but at least it involves a psycho murdering people. The second was Angela Lansbury in The Picture of Dorian Grey. She’s great (and so, so young), but Dorian Grey, like Staircase, isn’t quite in the same league as the actual horror classics of the decade, films like The Wolf Man or Cat People. Basically, the Academy was dipping its toes in the horror genre without really giving it a chance.


The 1950s weren’t a great decade for horror. The genre was taken over by atom-age giant monsters (Them!, Godzilla, The Blob), and many of these skewed toward teen audiences. It’s hard to imagine that the modern concept of “teenagers” as its own distinct market didn’t exist until the 1950s, and because of horror’s pulpier tendencies, most horror films back then were aimed at teens. A lot of these movies have turned into classics, but at the time, the genre seemed radioactive (pun intended) to Oscar voters.

Still, there were plenty of more high-brow horror films, too. The paranoid sci-fi horror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Universal’s final addition to its monster pantheon with Creature from the Black Lagoon, and of course all the classy, bloody stuff that Hammer Studios was putting out. All of them got goose-egged.

Yet, like the prior decade, the 1950s had two notable exceptions: Sudden Fear and The Bad Seed. Jack Palance and Joan Crawford were both nominated for the noir thriller Sudden Fear, which has its scary moments even if it isn’t quite horror.

More importantly, 1956’s The Bad Seed scored two supporting nominations, for Eileen Heckart (the angry old lady in a bunch of 90s movies) and Patty McCormack (the first of several nominations for horror movie children). Despite its studio-mandated cop-out ending (one of the lamest in movie history), The Bad Seed is definitely a horror film, centered around a cute blond girl (McCormack) who is inexplicably psychopathic. Great film, despite the ending.

Overall, the 1950s were much like the 1940s, though the war-movie craze had died down a bit. The nominees were mostly dramas with just a few comedies and thriller-adjacent movies for counterbalance. 


This decade marked a turning point for the Oscars, allowing it to embrace more challenging films once the ultra-restrictive Hays Code began to loosen. Movies like counter-cultural Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider were game-changers, and the decade ended with the only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy.

The acting nominations had some pretty daring roles amidst a lot of more Oscar-friendly fare, such as Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove and Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (neither won, sadly). Like before, horror-adjacent films had some representation, such as Angela Lansbury’s bonkers role in The Manchurian Candidate (as a lifelong Murder, She Wrote fan, I loved seeing Lansbury go full Lady MacBeth).

The 1960s also saw an explosion in hagsploitation films following the release of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Out of the all the horror subgenres, this one seems the most appropriate for Oscar consideration, with each film casting former A-listers as deglammed, psychotic characters.

Baby Jane scored two acting noms, for Victor Buono and Bette Davis, though Joan Crawford was famously snubbed. Neither won, but it was great to see something so gloriously campy at least be considered by the Academy. In the wake of that, Agnes Moorehead scored a supporting nom for Baby Jane’s sister film Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a less successful but equally insane hagsploitation classic.

For actually winning performances, we have Ruth Gordon as the busybody Satanist from Rosemary’s Baby, a stellar win rendered bittersweet by the fact that lead actress Mia Farrow went unrecognized.

Most importantly, though, Janet Leigh got a nomination for Psycho (but Anthony Perkins didn’t). Hitchcock’s film arguably created the slasher genre, and Leigh was a clear standout with one of the most memorable death scenes in cinematic history.  It’s a miracle that she was nominated, though she lost to Shirley Jones (the mom from The Partridge Family) in Elmer Gantry, a movie virtually no one remembers.


The 1970s was arguably the best decade for the Oscars. The Hays Code was dead and many of our greatest directors (Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola) were breaking out in a big way. The nominated films were mostly great, with some winners vying for GOAT status (both Godfathers, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

Like before, there are a few horror-adjacent noms, including Laurence Olivier in the Hitler-cloning thriller The Boys from Brazil. Peter O’Toole got a nomination for the British comedy The Ruling Class, which isn’t horror but does include an extended sequence where O’Toole turns into Jack the Ripper (don’t ask, it’s wild). And, of course, Louise Fletcher in Cuckoo’s Nest needs a shout-out as one of the most terrifying villain roles in a non-horror film.

For full-on horror, there are three obvious standouts: The Exorcist, Jaws, and Carrie, all wildly popular literary adaptations that are still watched today. The first two were nominated for Best Picture, though Jaws sadly didn’t get any acting recognition. The Exorcist, many people’s choice for scariest movie of all time, ended up with three acting noms: Ellen Burstyn (who would win the next year for a Scorsese film), Linda Blair (another Bad Seed-style child performance), and Jason Miller. None of them won. Then there’s Carrie, which scored mother/daughter nominations for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Both were hugely deserving, but they couldn’t compete with the Oscars juggernaut Network.

So far, the 1970s has had the most horror recognition of any decade, and yet this representation pales in comparison to all the unnominated classics of the time. Halloween, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Omen . . . these films didn’t stand a chance against all the Oscar-bait dramas.


The decade of the slasher film marked a low point for horror recognition. Despite the genre’s cultural importance, the Academy went in the opposite direction, consistently going for roles that were much stuffier (and honestly, boring). This is the decade of Gandhi, Out of Africa, and Chariots of Fire, overly long period pieces that feel more like homework than entertainment.

It’s probably not surprising that cheap-but-successful franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloweenweren’t on the Academy’s radar, but when it comes to movie moments that have stood the test of time, it’s ridiculous that Doug Bradley in Hellraiser or Robert freaking Englund in Nightmare weren’t in the conversation.

Thankfully, there are two great Lead Actress exceptions to this: Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Weaver is one of the most iconic Final Girls, though it’s important to note that the Academy ignored her performance in the more horror-focused original but gave her a nomination for the full-on action movie sequel. Still, it’s great to see that kind of representation.

Fatal Attraction is more thriller than horror, but Close’s performance is terrifying. Her bloody, climactic showdown with Michael Douglas is straight-up horrific. Out of her eight nominations (so far), this is what she should’ve won for.

Aside from those two actresses, horror was completely absent in the 1980s Oscars. For a decade that many fans consider horror’s best, that’s a real shame. 


The 1990s started with a bang. Kathy Bates won Best Actress for her cockadoody performance in Misery, the first horror lead role to win since 1931. Her competition was fierce (Julia Roberts and Angelica Huston in particular), but the Academy was finally willing to reward a villain performance in an actual horror film. And as a nice counterbalance, the Supporting Actress win went to Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost (not horror but close enough).

The following year was even bigger. Juliette Lewis got a supporting nomination for Cape Fear (though DeNiro was blanked). More importantly, The Silence of the Lambs completely swept the night, becoming one of only three films to win all five major categories. Say what you want about the film’s problematic moments, but Silence deserves its place in the record books as the only horror film to win Best Picture.

Part of its sweep was for both lead performances, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Both are hugely deserving, with Hopkins’ mere 24 minutes of screen time so effective that he was able to beat four other performers who were actually the leads of their films.

After 1991, it seemed like the Academy was finally open to acknowledging the importance of horror cinema. The 1990s seemed like a decade where the genre had gone legit. And yet, that’s not what happened at all. No other horror actors got nominated for the next eight years.

The genre was still on Oscar voters’ radar, with acting nominations for both Ed Wood and Gods and Monsters. These films are dramas about horror filmmakers, but that obviously doesn’t count. Martin Landau even won for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi, a particularly bittersweet moment considering that Lugosi himself never got that kind of recognition.

Despite the post-Scream slasher boom, no other movies made an impact. After the one/two punch of Miseryand Silence of the Lambs, the Oscars just weren’t interested anymore. Not until The Sixth Sense came out in 1999.

The Sixth Sense was unabashedly horror, but it also had the air of prestige, with its emotional moments and daring new director. It ended up with two acting nominations: Haley Joel Osment (another horror kid performance) and the incomparable Toni Collette. They didn’t win.


The 2000s was another dry spell for horror at the Oscars. Only one horror performance was nominated, and that was Johnny Depp in the musical Sweeney Todd. Sure, he slices a bunch of throats, but it feels weird to include a Stephen Sondheim adaptation in a list of horror films. I’m only counting it because the pickings are so slim.

The genre itself was going through several distinct phases, from post-Ring Japanese remakes to post-Sawtorture porn to post-Paranormal Activity found footage. None of those three subgenres seems particularly Oscar-friendly, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any worthy films being made. What about Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer himself) in 28 Days Later? Or Jennifer Carpenter bending all over the place in The Exorcism of Emily Rose? Or Isabelle Fuhrman being another evil little kid (more or less) in Orphan?

To rub extra salt in the wound, this is the decade that the Oscars went all-in on villain roles. Charlize Theron won for playing a real-life murderer in Monster. Daniel Day-Lewis was absolutely psychotic in There Will Be Blood, as was Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. All of these roles would’ve fit perfectly into horror films, but because they were surrounded by the trappings of “drama,” they got nominations.

A special shout-out should go to Willem Dafoe’s nomination for Shadow of a Vampire, where he plays the real-life Nosferatu himself, Max Shreck. This film is a must-watch, though it fits into the trend of “movies about horror filmmakers,” à la Ed Wood and Gods and Monsters.

And an extra special shout-out should go to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, one of the scariest performances to ever win an Oscar. It’s a superhero movie, yes, but God was he effective in it.


The 2010s marked another change in the Academy as they tried to grapple with the #OscarsSoWhite criticism. To counter all the (deserved) backlash, they added an influx of new members with a focus on diversity and inclusion. This led to an obvious increase in the variety of nominations. We had our first foreign-language Best Picture winner (Parasite), and while voters sometimes regressed to their stodgier tendencies (e.g. pickingGreen Book over seven much more daring candidates), the nominations were still more representative of cinema as a whole than they ever had been before.

There were a couple crime thriller performances in the mix, such as Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl or Jeremy Renner in The Town. Christoph Waltz won his second Oscar for another bloody Tarantino film. Plus, the monster romance The Shape of Water racked up three acting nominations, losing all three but somehow winning Best Picture over more standard Oscar fare.

Then there’s Joaquin Phoenix, another Joker winner—but, for actual horror roles, the decade only has two nominations: Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out (2017) and Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010). Portman put her body through hell in her quest to play a psychotic ballerina and thankfully, the Academy noticed. It’s been fourteen years since her win, and no other horror actors (give or take Kaluuya) have come close to her performance. 


This all leads us to the current decade. We’ve had four ceremonies so far, and once again, no horror roles have made the cut. The same goes for crime thrillers, a more Oscar-friendly sister genre that the awards used to appreciate.

Most of the nominees and winners this decade have been great, and the Academy is still willing to vote for wilder, more diverse choices. After all, last year saw Everything Everywhere All at Once nearly sweep, and that movie has a butt-plug fight scene. This year, we have the sexualized Frankenstein craziness of Poor Thingsand pink-coated wonderland of Barbie.

Clearly, the Oscars are committed to thinking outside the box, as long as it doesn’t involve horror. With the genre in a golden age yet again, it’s only a matter of time before another Silence of the Lambs or Get Outstrikes a chord—but for now, all us horror fans have to wait in frustration while they throw us breadcrumbs.

The Big Picture

So what does this all mean? For one, it means that the Academy, like most long-running institutions, has its own set of preferences that it returns to again and again. They see a biopic and their ears perk up. They see an equally impressive horror film and they don’t pay attention. That’s just how it is.

The sad part, though, is the effect this has on the world at large. The Oscars, for better or worse, is a tastemaker. Each ceremony announces which films the Academy deems the best, and after a century of ignoring horror, the end result is that people view the genre as lesser. We’ve trained ourselves to overlook the consistently great acting of, say, Neve Campbell in Scream or Mia Goth in Pearl.

If horror films were considered equally as valid as prestige dramas, then we’d appreciate them more. Instead, we’re all stuck loving a genre that still isn’t seen as legitimate. Maybe that’ll change. But for now, we have to keep banging the drum for our favorites. We know the genre is worthwhile: it’s our job to make the rest of the world realize that, too. And with any luck, the Academy might finally stop hating horror.