How to Write Music That Terrifies People

By  · Published on July 10th, 2014

Universal Pictures

Watching gruesome scenes over and over seems like a symptom for someone battling serious demons, but when you’re the composer on a horror film, this practice is just part of the job. Nathan Whitehead returns to The Purge series with a brand new score full of the tension cues you’d expect, yet he’s also included enough unexpected musical elements to keep your ears guessing throughout The Purge: Anarchy.

Unlike the first movie, Anarchy takes audiences out of the confines of a single home to go out into the streets and explore what it really means when laws are lifted and chaos is allowed to reign supreme. I spoke with Whitehead last year about his score for The Purge, and he explained that the hybrid nature of the film as both horror and thriller “really steered the music into these grittier textures and more processed sounds,” whereas with his score for Anarchy he looked to “explore the action moments more.”

“But there are also opportunities to explore more emotion,” he said when I talked to him again about scoring the sequel.

Now that the series is moving further into the fray, the violence is sure to get amplified as the story goes from cat-and-mouse to all-out nihilism. I wondered about the psyche of someone tasked with having to watch these scenes repeatedly to get all the elements right. How does that weigh on a person? The short answer: perspective helps.

“I think the violence does get to me,” Whitehead admitted, “but I think I need to feel that response in order to do my job well. Ideally, I try to watch scenes, react to them and somehow translate that reaction into a piece of music. So in that sense, having the violence get to me and having that visceral response helps the process.”

Horror films are all about reactions, about getting the audience to jump in their seats but also getting them to think and respond to their own anticipation of what is going to happen next.

The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy may depict intense violence, but it is important to remember that it is not real. “I’m always aware that we are telling a story, which is different from actually watching violence,” Whitehead explained.

The goal is draw the right emotions out of the audience, and that is what Whitehead focuses on when working on a film like this. “If we are supposed to feel terror or shock or repulsion at some violent point in the story,” he said, “then I need to somehow connect with those feelings to score the scene well.”

The job of a composer is to help solve what Whitehead calls the “emotional puzzle” of a film and figure out how to get the tone and pacing of the music to feel like it belongs, no matter what emotion may be driving the scene.

With horror, a composer also has to get inside the mind of a killer, but with the Purge films there is not just a single psychopath on the loose; there are many. And to make things even more complicated, as Whitehead wisely pointed out, “the ‘killers’ are also us.” The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy are interesting because they take seemingly ordinary people and put them in this extraordinary position of getting to become the villains that are usually feared in horror films.

As Whitehead explained it, “Lots of ‘normal’ people are going out once a year to kill. The good guys and the bad guys aren’t as clearly defined, and that’s really interesting. I try to understand the ‘killers’ as much as possible, but in this case it’s more complicated than just some singularly evil person mindlessly killing. I think getting into their minds makes us look at ourselves a little bit. We’re all human after all, even the people performing these gruesome acts.”

Both movies turn the tables and also make the audience ask tough questions about themselves instead of just passively watching the action on screen. The lines of good and evil are definitely blurred here. “There’s plenty of debate out there about how plausible The Purge is and if it could ever happen,” Whitehead said. “I think that, while we are telling a story, it still encourages us to look at ourselves and ask some tough questions. What are we willing to do to preserve our way of life? What does it mean for the government to give rights to citizens? Does that make something ‘right’? It is gruesome, but it’s legal. What does that mean?”

It is an interesting take on the genre that worked well the first time but promises to be even more compelling when more players in this game are introduced and the landscape is expanded.

With intense scenes on repeat, multiple characters looking to kill for different reasons, and difficult questions being prompted by the conceit of the film, how does a composer clear his head? For Whitehead, it’s a mix of taking walks, riding his bike, playing video games (usually puzzle games or Minecraft), playing guitar or even going to look at the ocean for a few minutes.

But the truth is, it doesn’t matter what genre of film they’re scoring; composers will always find themselves needing to clear their minds. “I guess the violent nature itself isn’t as much the issue as the concentration,” Whitehead admitted. “I’m not sure what that says about me, but I feel like I’m focusing on the story, and that feels very different and less affecting to me than real violence or even watching the news. Actually, watching the news is way more fatiguing than working on a movie!”

Decide which side you fall on when The Purge: Anarchy hits theaters Friday, July 18th.