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Thursday 8 August 2019

Charles Manson

Pop psycho

Fifty years ago, the Manson Family killed the actress Sharon Tate. Popular culture has been fascinated ever since

By Peter Hoskin

The truth should forever be unvarnished. As the night of 8 August became the morning of 9 August in 1969, three members of the Manson Family stole into 10050 Cielo Drive, a house in Benedict Canyon where the actress Sharon Tate lived with the director Roman Polanski. They had already murdered Steven Parent, who was there by unhappy chance, outside. Once inside, they wreaked bloody devastation. Polanksi was away filming in England, but Tate was there with three friends, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring and Wojciech Frykowski. All were knifed again and again. When the bodies were discovered, Tate was on her side, dressed only in underwear, with 16 stab wounds and her baby bump visible. She had been eight-months pregnant.

The following night, with Charles Manson himself this time, the Family entered the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. On this occasion, they mostly used kitchen utensils. A carving fork served to slice the word “War” into Mr LaBianca’s belly, and was just left there. Other words, such as “Death to Pigs” and “Healter Skelter”, were daubed on the walls with blood.

Three participants in the Tate-LaBianca killings – Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten – laugh after receiving the death sentence

Fifty years on from these murders, we turn to the screen. Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, was released into American cinemas a fortnight ago, and is coming to Britain next week. It is, as the title suggests, a fiction, but its time is 1969 and its Hollywood is that of Tate and Manson, who both appear. Meanwhile, on Netflix, the forthcoming second season of David Fincher’s Mindhunter will show an older Manson, a decade on from the killings, during interviews with the criminal profiler John Douglas. Curiously, the same actor, Damon Herriman, plays the cult leader in both productions.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood

As it happens, Manson and cinema have been inseparable for decades, and not just because of the dozens of biopics, documentaries and schlocky horrors that came before Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Mindhunter, nor just because of Tate’s murder. In the late 1960s, he brought his so-called family – dozens of people who were stranded on the edges of California’s counterculture – to the Spahn Ranch, which had been developed 20 years before as a set for cowboy films. King Vidor’s muscular Duel in the Sun (1946) was shot there, as was Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw (1943). But now it was a dilapidated place where Manson’s followers could get on with their dilapidated lives; taking drugs, having sex and submitting to his control.

It was also the place from where Manson dispatched four family members into that August night – with a directive to do violence.

The Spahn Ranch where Charles Manson and his followers lived

It was, however, another form of popular culture – music – that really moulded Manson, and which was moulded by him in strange, small ways. As John Douglas and Mark Olshanker put it in the book that inspired Mindhunter, “His goal was fame and fortune. He wanted to be a drummer and play for a famous rock band like the Beach Boys.” And he came brushingly close to achieving that goal.

For a period in the 1960s, before the ranch, the Manson Family shacked up with the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, who had just left his first wife and was in the market for some deranged philosophy and free love – to the point of paying for the whole gang to be treated for a bad case of gonorrhoea. A song that Manson had written even appeared as the B-side on a Beach Boys single, albeit reworked and under Wilson’s name. He didn’t like that. He threatened murder.

The Beatles were more to Manson’s tastes – or, to be specific, their music was. The “Healter Skelter” smeared on the wall at the LaBianca residence was a misspelling of “Helter Skelter”, which was a reference to one of the band’s songs. Manson preached to his followers from The White Album, believing that it presented a vision of an apocalyptic future in which black people fought against white people, leaving the Manson Family as the ruling class. Helter Skelter was this apocalypse, and it was to be welcomed.

The Beatles in 1968: “Before Helter Skelter came along,” said one of Manson’s followers, “all Charlie cared about was orgies”

These were the songs and ideas that wafted through the Spahn Ranch and inspired the Manson Family to its August killing spree. There were more prosaic causes, too. It’s thought that the cult targeted Tate and Polanski’s home because it had once belonged to Terry Melcher, a producer who had angered Manson by refusing to help with his music career. He resented how the pop-culture industry had rejected him.

The horrible irony is that, after the killings, pop culture stopped rejecting Manson. This performative man carved an X into his own forehead before a court hearing in 1970, saying that “I have X’d myself from your world,” but the opposite was true. He now had a bigger stage, audience – and fanbase. He actually released his first album that same year and, while it only sold dozens rather than hundreds of copies, many more albums followed from his jail cell. His songs have since been covered by bands including Guns N’ Roses; while the British band Kasabian named themselves for Linda Kasabian, who was there on the evening of the Tate murder and eventually testified against Manson. It is an especially bathetic feedback loop.

Two years on from his death in custody, is there any way for pop culture to deal with Manson that doesn’t perpetuate his myth? Tarantino has certainly given it a shot. Sharon Tate, played by the crystalline Margot Robbie, is a more permanent and bracing presence in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood than Charles Manson, who only has one scene. Besides, as anyone who has seen Inglourious Basterds (2009) will know, Tarantino is not averse to rewriting the script of history.

Based on the brilliance of its first season, one of the few masterpieces of the Netflix Age, there is a good chance that the second season of Mindhunter will approach Manson with due care, too.

But instances of quality are almost beside the point when there is so much quantity. There have also been two other Hollywood movies about him and his misdeeds this year, Charlie Says and the dreadful The Haunting of Sharon Tate. Presumably, this glut is because, as the suits might put it, there will be “renewed interest” in the Tate-LaBianca murders in their 50th anniversary year… murders that were, if we go back to the unvarnished account again, outright atrocities.

The author and journalist Joan Didion in Malibu, in 1972


f course, artists have a right to be fascinated by whatever fascinates them. An obligation, even. Without that fascination, Joan Didion wouldn’t have written one of her finest essays – also called ‘The White Album’ – about the tail-end of the 1960s, when she suffered a mental and physical breakdown while the Manson Family was constantly in either her peripheral or central vision.

But the most-quoted passage of Didion’s essay also encapsulates the problem. “Many people I know in Los Angeles,” she wrote, “believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”

Why didn’t they believe that the era ended the following day, with the murders of the LaBianca family? Why didn’t it end with any of the 14,760 other murders that year? Or why didn’t it end on plain old 31 December?

The questions are rhetorical because we know the answers. None of them are edifying; all of them are to do with glamour and fame and Hollywood. The Manson Family drove to Benedict Canyon looking for attention. We keep on giving it to them.

Manson in popular culture: books, films, music

Damon Herriman as Charles Manson in the second season of Mindhunter

It had been several years since the Tate-LaBianca murder trial when Vincent Bugliosi, who had been the prosecuting attorney, and Curt Gentry stoked the flames once again, with their book Helter Skelter (1974). It was a sensation, and a deserved one, not least because it became an ur-text for modern true crime stories. The television dramatisation that followed two years later, also called Helter Skelter, confirmed just how eager Hollywood was to return to the scene of one its bloodiest crimes.

Joan Didion’s essay ‘The White Album’ (1979) is much shorter and more oblique than Bugliosi and Gentry’s book, although it is also more affecting. It’s an account of both her disintegrating health and the final months of the 1960s in California. There are incidents that stand out – Didion got to know Linda Kasabian, and bought her a dress for a court appearance – but it’s the general mood that lingers. This is sparse, strung-out territory.

There are plenty of documentaries or news interviews in which members of the Manson Family, including Manson himself, speak to camera. Few are as packed as Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick’s Manson (1973), nor as immediate-feeling. Charles Manson Superstar (1989) is constructed around an interview with him in his San Quentin prison cell.

There were also numerous cheap, grimy B-movies inspired by Manson and his murderous family. I Drink Your Blood (1970), Simon, King of the Witches (1971) and The Deathmaster (1972), for example, all feature some combination of cults, sex, satanism, hippies, murder and vampires.

When it comes to this year’s releases, the second season of Mindhunter is, as our essay suggests, the most likely to contain an unembellished version of Charles Manson (although the trailer does treat him like the bogeyman). Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood certainly displays a sympathy for the victims that is rare elsewhere. Whereas Charlie Says and The Haunting of Sharon Tate are both redundant.

‘Never Learn Not to Love’, the Beach Boys song that was adapted from Manson’s ‘Cease to Exist’, can be heard here. His first album, Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, is available on Spotify.