Historically, in the eyes of AMPAS, the idea of even nominating a horror movie for Best Picture is scarier than watching one. When The Silence of the Lambs took home Best Picture, it became a win for the horror genre and to this date, is the only one to do so. Then again, because its genre remains under debate, it might not be seen as such a win.
At least in this writer’s opinion, The Silence of the Lambs classifies as horror. It has one of cinema’s most iconic boogeymen in the form of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Also, when I first saw it in my high school film class, it filled me with such paralyzing fear. It even earned the #7 spot on the list from Bravo’s The 100 Scariest Movie Moments miniseries. In my view, it’s horror.
Because of its genre fluidity, with people debating over whether it’s a horror movie or a psychological thriller, The Silence of the Lambs was able to overcome AMPAS’ horror bias. Meanwhile, more straightforward horror films, like The Shining and Hereditary, haven’t had the same luxury of doing so. Even Rosemary’s Baby, which earned an acting Oscar for Ruth Gordon, barely got love anywhere else. Despite there being a recent surge of horror performances earning critical plaudits, including Toni Collette in Hereditary, Essie Davis in The Babadook and Lupita Nyong’o in Us, no love for those performances was found on Nomination Morning. Granted, the Lupita Nyong’o snub runs a bit deeper than genre bias, but genre bias remained slightly at play.
Typically, for horror films to get proper Best Picture recognition, they must hybridize their genre label and/or be a zeitgeist-y box office hit like Get Out which is an indictment of insidious racism that came out in the beginning of the Trump era. It grossed over $200 million worldwide on about a $4 million budget and became an instant subject of memes, trailer parodies, and pop culture references.
In addition, The Exorcist, which made over $400 million worldwide caused debate over its depiction of Roman Catholicism. For instance, an old New York Times article that came a year after the film’s release claims that it caused problems for Catholic clergymen due to how it left teenage viewers traumatized. Even if The Exorcist inspired some negative conversations, the fact that it ignited conversations and became a talking point is what likely contributed to its Best Picture nomination. The Silence of the Lambs became a similar lightning rod for controversy due to heavy criticism from members of the LGBTQ+ community over its problematic depiction of Buffalo Bill, a serial killer seeking gender reassignment surgery.
Going back to the topic of hybridization, Black Swan is another victim of such. Once it had a successful awards run and became an eventual $330 million worldwide grosser, its run has partially contributed to convincing voters that it isn’t a horror film even if it ended up on the cover of Fangoria Magazine of all places. Similarly, what category The Sixth Sense falls under is clearly called into question since it’s labeled as a Drama and a Thriller on its IMDb page even if its storyline involves spooky ghosts.
Admittedly, horror movies can also be thrillers. However, horror movies having to masquerade as psychological thrillers or “as a thriller with horror elements” in order to receive awards acclaim makes it seem like being an upfront horror film has negative connotations. It’s as if horror movies are primarily just about scary monsters and masked killers picking off clueless teenagers which couldn’t be further from the truth. Contrary to the unofficial subgenre called “elevated horror,” which is used to describe horror films that don’t rely on gore and jump scares as an elitist way of giving the genre some prestige, even those that do rely on violence and jump scares can be intellectual.
For instance, the slasher classic A Nightmare on Elm Street is an illustration of ancestral sin; the original Black Christmas provided commentary on women being antagonized for their autonomy a year after Roe v. Wade; and in the original 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead, the mindless zombies were meant to represent American citizens “cannibalizing” each other at a time of political unrest between the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War taking place. All three films offer politicized and thematic storylines in a tenuous manner. However, because they involve grotesque monsters and slashing, and didn’t do the same kind of financial business as movies like The Silence of the Lambs, they never received proper awards acclaim.
If the term “elevated horror” was created in the 1990s, there’s little doubt that The Silence of the Lambs would’ve been counted as such due to its rather insidious frights. However, there is no such thing as elevated horror. Horror has always provided intellectual commentary about perils that exist within the real world regardless of whether the monsters being shown are human or allegorical. But because The Silence of the Lambs depicts human monsters, and acts as a horror-thriller hybrid, it was an easier sell for AMPAS voters. Hopefully, its Best Picture win will lead to less “silence” over the constant stigmatization towards horror films so that when more do compete for the biggest prize in the film industry, it isn’t a lightning in a bottle moment.
The Silence of the Lambs celebrates its 30th anniversary on Valentine’s Day – February 14, 2021.