From the spine-tingling scores of this year’s Us and Ma to the gritty and horror-filled themes of Pet Sematary and Hellraiser, horror films wouldn’t be nearly as terrifying without their musical scores.

Last month at Comic-Con, before they took to the stage for a panel to discuss the scores from some of the biggest horror movies of the past two decades, I sat down with some of the hardest-working film composers in the genre — Michael Abels (Get Out, Us), Chris Young (Pet Sematary, The Grudge), Carl Thiel (Machete Kills, From Dusk Til Dawn: The Series), and Nick Soole (The Head Hunter) — to pull back the curtain and reveal how they created some of the world’s most frightening film music…and how they balance it all with sounds of silence.

The Sydney-born Soole, who moved to Los Angeles in 2011 with a background in rock, pop, jazz, and experimental music, has worked alongside prominent film, television and video game composers after graduating from USC’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and TV program in 2013. When it comes silence, he usually searches for the right moment to play with the tension in a scene he’s scoring. 

“The way I play scenes sometimes,” he says, “is…about how you pace it and that silence. And when you build it up, build it up, build it up, it’s that stop before the thing – then the thing happens, and that’s so much scarier. [Insidious composer] Joseph Bishara is the master of that, and I have definitely employed that technique. I think it should just be where it needs to be, and that little pregnant pause in horror is a gem. Once you get that, it’s very effective.”

Pet Sematary‘s Chris Young likes to say he has two distinct sides: one that is attracted to the abstract ideas of 20th Century classical music, and the other that is constantly striving to write “the great American tune.” That dichotomy has served him well as the composer of over a hundred films. According to him, the amount of silence used in a horror film usually depends on the confidence of the director.

“When I was starting out,” Young says, “I was hovering around the low-budget horror films where it was ‘We want music everywhere, Chris,’ because without any music, people would be laughing. So it wasn’t until the pictures got better where all of sudden the concept of silence can be thought of as being equally if not more effective at times than putting something there…A director that’s allowing room for silence must be a very secure director, because most directors, in horror films, are terribly insecure and feel that the only way to ensure the film is going to frighten people is to put music there. I love silences. As a matter of fact, ninety percent of what all horror films are about is the interplay between tension and release…and sometimes suspense is much more effective when there’s a moment of silence.”

Phoenix-born Michael Abels, who studied West African music with Alfred Ladzekpo at the California Institute for the Arts, has gained recognition for his orchestral music and for combining classical music with African-American jazz, blues, bluegrass and ethnic genres. This had prompted writer-director Jordan Peele to enlist Abels in composing the music for 2017’s Oscar-nominated Get Out. “I wanted Michael Abels…to create something that felt like it lived in this absence of hope but still had [black roots],” Peele said in a recent interview for GQ. Abels also scored Peele’s latest film, Us, in which a chilling, orchestral version of Luniz’s 90s hip-hop classic, “I Got 5 On It,” is used during the movie’s climactic confrontation. “It’s used to get to know the characters at first,” Abels explains, “but just like so many things Jordan does, he loves to take things you know in one context and twist them and turn them into something frightening and surprising.”

“In our first lunch together,” he recalls, “Jordan said to me, when he was talking about Get Out. ‘I want silence to be part of the score,’ so he is very conscious of [the use of silence] from the very beginning. And you find that [balance] by listening. I definitely incorporated big pauses into the score in both those films. But sometimes you just write the music, and then you turn it off to see how needed it really is, and not just in horror films but in any genre of a film. Sometimes there’s a cue that’s written, and then the director decides, ‘You know, this scene doesn’t really need music.’ The ultimate choice about music really comes down to the final mix of the film. You’re not really sure that a piece of music will be used in the film until the director makes that final call.”

Meanwhile, the Grammy-nominated Carl Thiel, who hails from Mexico City, has been a frequent collaborator with director Robert Rodriguez ever since helping him produce the theme song for the sequel to Spy Kids back in 2002. From there, he provided scores for grindhouse-friendly fare such as Machete Kills, Planet Terror, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. (His latest can be found in Netflix’s upcoming crime drama, Seis Manos.) Also working on regional and national commercials early in his career proved to be great training. “That really taught me how to be creative in a pinch, on demand,” he explains, “and also how to be versatile in very different styles.”

Although we talk about his diverse list of accomplishments over the years, we never get to talk about the topic at hand. But we do take a moment to mutually geek out when he reveals the one movie that introduced him to the horror genre, 1980’s The Shining.
“It left such an impression on me,” he says, reminiscing about the first time he took a girl to the movies. “Every time I think about that elevator scene, I get chills.”