Television

A New Charles Manson Documentary Series Pulls All the Disturbing Threads Together

Helter Skelter: An American Myth doesn’t shed new light, but it’s excellent journalism.

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Helter Skelter: An American Myth. Epix. Sunday, July 26, 10 p.m.

I'm happy to report that the publicity campaign for Epix's documentary on the Charles Manson murders, Helter Skelter: An American Myth, is a mendacious hoax. "You think you know the story. … You don't," scream the ads. "It will upend what people think they know about this layered and complex story and cast an entirely new light on this Crime of the Century." Coupled with the provocative word "myth" in the title, it sounds like a batty revisionist history of seven murders that are not only among the grisliest in American history, but the most well-documented.

Why the show's publicists took this strange direction, I have no idea. But they couldn't have been more misleading. The six-part Helter Skelter: An American Myth is the most comprehensive documentary on Charles Manson and his pathological family, the most thorough, and the most fascinating. It's excellent journalism and great television.

But unless you're a drooling Manson apologist—and, God help us, they existAmerican Myth won't change anything you think about the murders or the people who committed them, except possibly to make you love the flamethrower scene in last year's anti-Manson fantasy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood even more. (The precise moment that will happen:  Near the end of the fourth American Myth episode, when the soundtrack goes deadly silent, and the screen flashes unexpurgated scenes of the crime scene at actress Sharon Tate's home.)

If you're wondering why the Manson story, already the subject of countless books, films and TV shows, needs another retelling, that's a reasonable question. Little new has emerged since Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and his co-author Curt Gentry released their account of the case, Helter Skelter, in 1974.

But the Manson Family story continues to resonate. As several of the figures in the case interviewed in American Myth note, most of us probably can't name the perpetrators of the crazed massacres at Virginia Tech or the Pulse nightclub, even though they were committed much more recently and at much greater loss of life. Yet the name Charles Manson remains macabrely familiar a half-century after his crimes.

Part of the reason, undoubtedly, is that Manson's conversion of a group of sappy flower children into a band of truly crazed killers who could wreak "incomprehensible slaughter of innocent people," as one reporter who covered the case describes it, abruptly ended the peace-and-love mythos of the 1960s.

And part of it is that Manson was neither a lone nut nor a troubled man who suddenly cracked one day. He nurtured his evil designs over a period of years, and infected a group of otherwise innocent people with them. He is probably as close to the personification of evil as has ever walked the streets of America.

American Myth does a good job of covering the broad outlines of Manson's story: His early life in reform school and prison, his release into the toxic stew of drugs and runaway kids in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, and—like the physical incarnation of parental fears—his use of hallucinogens, group sex, and all-is-groovy freethink to gather a following. And, of course, the savage murders of Sharon Tate and at least eight others.

But it's in the forgotten and often trivial details that the show gains an irresistible momentum. Long interviews with Manson biographer Jeff Guinn and three former Family members—genuine hippie Catherine (Gypsy) Share, hot-to-trot teeny-bopper Dianne (Snake) Lake, and itinerant musician Bobby Beausoleil—make up the core of the narration. And producer-director Lesley Chilcott (Waiting for 'Superman') has also amassed an absolute mountain of archival material, from tapes of Manson's musical tryouts at Hollywood studios to home movies from Family members.

The result is something like dinner around the fireplace with the world's foremost Manson authorities: How the Family ran up a $1,200 bill with the milkman at Beach Boy Dennis Wilson's house. Manson cutting up Wilson's silk sheets to make himself a pair of baggy harem pants.

Hilarious footage from a 1967 tour bus carrying middle-class passengers on a safari through Haight-Ashbury as they study a dictionary of hippie-speak that identifies the local flora and fauna. ("Spade cat: Negro hippie.")

The grave voice of a TV newsman describing "a group of compatible hippies, sharing their rice and beans and hepatitis and venereal disease." A tape of one of Manson's demo recording sessions, where a producer can be heard exclaiming, "Hi, Charlie Baby! Do whatever you feel like!", words that might have curdled in his mouth if he'd known who he was talking to.

There's even a tape of an interrogation of Sharon Tate's husband, director Roman Polanski, by Los Angeles police officers. "I'm looking for something which doesn't fit your habitual standard," Polanski tells the baffled cops. Translation: He thought someone from the couple's Hollywood circle of friends was the killer. He first suspected martial arts star Bruce Lee (who else could kill so many people single-handedly) and then Mamas and Papas singer John Phillips (whose wife Michelle had a one-night fling with Polanski). For months, Polanski snuck into garages of his friends and tested possible blood spots in their cars.

It is in the motives for the murders of Tate and her friends—and, a couple of days later, of grocery-chain owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary—that American Myth gets contentious.

The generally accepted theory, the one prosecutor Bugliosi unveiled in the trial where he convicted Manson and three of his female followers of murder, is that Manson believed he was following instructions that the Beatles sent him embedded in the songs of what's known as the White Album.

Manson said the songs, particularly the violent "Helter Skelter,"  predicted a race war in America in which blacks would emerge triumphant. But the Family could survive in a cave in the desert, Manson said, and emerge to help steer the resulting black-administered society.

That Manson preached the "Helter Skelter" doctrine incessantly is beyond question. The question is, did he believe it? Or was it just one more manipulation of his followers

Bugliosi, who acknowledged Manson's frequent trickery but also thought he was fairly crazy, thought he believed it and ordered the murders to trigger the race war he was certain was coming. Guinn, Manson's biographer, thinks the whole thing was a shtick to hold onto Charlie's increasingly restive followers: "So do you wanna die? Or do you wanna come with me and rule the world?"

The outcome of this debate matters little except among the fiercest Manson aficionados, and now that Manson's dead, it's impossible to resolve. Most of the Family members interview in American Myth think he believed it.

I've got no idea, but having interviewed the late Bugliosi several times as a reporter—about Manson as well as other criminal cases—I'm inclined to believe anything he said about the Family, on which he was unquestionably the world's greatest expert. The first time we talked, I told him: "Your book scared the hell out of me." He replied: "It should have." Helter Skelter: An American Myth will remind you why.

Postscript: I also met Charles Manson, sort of. We were mutually unimpressed.

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  2. “Why the show’s publicists took this strange direction, I have no idea.”

    Really? How about that “publicists” are professional attention whores, with the emotional displays and ethics of middle school girl drama queens? (And that, unlike intelligent parents of said girls, most people eagerly respond to such histrionics.)

    1. Some middle school girl drama queens are very fine people.

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  3. Chaos by Tom O’Neill is a fantastic read for a different angle on the Manson Family killings. It brings new things to light and it does not sound like any of them are addressed here. Garvin may not be pleased with the portrayal of Bugliosi in O’Neill’s work.

    1. Just came here to say that as well. TONS of tie ins with CIA and all of his stuff is documented.

  4. http://libgen.is/search.php?req=Chaos+Charles+Manson&lg_topic=libgen&open=0&view=simple&res=25&phrase=1&column=def

    This Chaos book, published recently after some 20 years of research is pretty good. O’Neill, the author, makes a pretty good case that Manson was a police informant and/or CIA operative and/or experimental drug guinea pig. It also exposes Bugliosi’s unethical or illegal court room tactics and maneuverings. And of course what a scumbag Polanski was/is.

  5. I remember reading that there was a court artist who apparently became freaked out over the course of the trial. When they were going over Manson’s ideas about who the Beatles were in Revelation, what it all meant in Charlie’s interpretations, etc., she stood up in the middle of the trial and started screaming, “I am the Whore of Babylon”!

    It’s hard to recreate what it must have been like for a society of people, most of whom may still have believed that the Bible was literally true–and seeing other people and their kids, especially, go crazy for freaky people like Charlie Manson if not Manson himself. And then there was the Jesus Freak hippie movement. Songs like “Spirit in the Sky”, “Come Together”, and the Manson story may be the last cultural artifacts of that freak out.

    Try to imagine believing that professional wrestling isn’t scripted or staged. Can you do that? Imagine what it would be like to watch a wrestling match and really believe that it’s all as it seems–like when you watch a UFC match.

    To really appreciate how much this stuff freaked people out, you have to imagine yourself believing that interpretations of Revelations can be absolutely real–like you believe in a UFC fight. That God is talking directly to you through the Bible, and that understanding what he’s saying depends on who you listen to, that demons and angels are as real as the chair you’re sitting on. It may be impossible for cynical generations to really appreciate how freaked out people were by messianic hippies using the Bible.

    “I believe in God and I believe that God believes in Claude, that’s me!” meeting hippie Jesus Freaks sent people on some long strange trips–and some of them never recovered.

    1. You think UFC is real—LOL

      1. I understand what you’re saying.

        On the other hand, Ronda Rousey didn’t lose to Holly Holm because the UFC wanted their cash cow to evaporate overnight, and what Rowdy Ronda Rousey was doing in WWE was a hell of a lot more scripted than anything that happened in UFC.

        P.S. Kimbo Slice.

        If they’re scripting matches to defeat the stars that draw casual viewers to pay to the see the fight, then they’re doing it wrong.

  6. “and the Manson story may be the last cultural artifacts of that freak out.”

    I disagree. People weren’t freaked out over Manson’s religiosity, if that’s how you want to characterize it, they were freaked out over his violence, hatred and manipulation.

    A better candidate for the last artifact of the freak out would come some 10 years later with the release of “Slow Train Coming,” Bob Dylan’s Christian album, something he arguably never recovered from. Though from a technical viewpoint, it’s one of his better efforts. (But that’s not saying much.) Dylan took his Christianity seriously, giving up dope, booze and tom catting for a while, and testifying during the concerts where he’d refused to sing his old sinful songs. Hecklers would shout ‘Judas!’ for betraying his earlier work, just as they did when he plugged in his first electric guitar.

    https://www.pirate-bay.net/search?q=slow+train+coming

  7. If only the “civil rights activists” idolized MLK instead of Charles Manson

    But their idol is certainly proud of them now

    1. Manson was the ultimate example of a progressive.

  8. The press release says it premieres on Epix July 26 at 10:00pm ET/PT.

    The schedule at epix.com lists it for 8:00pm on July 26.

    Their web site makes it frustratingly difficult to tell when eps will actually air, but my guess is Sunday nights.

    1. It was set for a June 14th release, but was postponed. Apparently the great high muckymucks at the network thought it was insensitive to release it during the current protests on account of Manson’s obsession with a race war. I was pretty cranky when I tried to watch it today but couldn’t. Even crankier when I discovered why.

  9. …most of us probably can’t name the perpetrators of the crazed massacres at Virginia Tech or the Pulse nightclub, even though they were committed much more recently and at much greater loss of life. Yet the name Charles Manson remains macabrely familiar a half-century after his crimes.

    Part of the reason, undoubtedly, is…

    Bah. The one and only reason is that the crime was perpetrated against Hollywood insiders and they are incapable of shutting up about themselves.

    1. This is probably too late to be adding fuel to the fire, but let me just add this:

      Remember the mass shooting in San Bernadino by two jihadists at a Christmas party? I can’t remember their names even slightly.

      BUT, I remember the name of the Sandy Hook shooter. I remember the name of the shooter in Parkland, Florida. I remember the name of the guy who shot up a church in Charleston, SC. Now, I couldn’t remember the name of the Las Vegas shooter, but I thought that I should, so I looked him. I bet a lot of people remember his name as well.

      All four of those stories lingered for quite some time, in comparison to the Virginia Tech shooter or the Pulse Nightclub shooter. There’s various reasons-the Pulse Nightclub and Virginia Tech shootings didn’t have broad calls for policy changes or new laws. But Sandy Hook got people talking about Red Flag laws. Parkland got people talking about School Resource Officers and there was a big gun control push. Vegas got us talking about bump stocks. And Charleston got us talking about social media censorship.

      So perhaps some names linger because the story lasts longer when it’s tied to a policy discussion.

  10. the violent “Helter Skelter,”

    Helter Skelter is in no way violent. If it weren’t for the Manson murders nobody would associate the song with violence.

    When I get to the bottom
    I go back to the top of the slide
    An’ I stop, an’ I turn, an’ I go for a ride
    Til I get to the bottom
    An’ I see you again
    Yeh
    Do you, don’t you, want me to love you?
    I’m comin’ down fast, but I’m miles above you
    Tell me, tell me, tell me
    Come on, tell me the answer
    Well, you may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer
    LookoutHelter Skelter
    Helter Skelter
    Helter Skelter, Yeh

    Will you, won’t you, want me to make you?
    I’m comin’ down fast
    But don’t let me break you
    Tell me, tell me, tell me the answer
    You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancerHelter Skelter
    Helter Skelter
    Helter Skelter
    LookoutWhen I get to the bottom
    I go back to the top of the slide
    An’ I stop, an’ I turn, an’ I go for a ride
    Til I get to the bottom
    An’ I see you again
    Yeh
    Do you, don’t you, want me to make you?
    I’m coming down fast, but don’t let me break you
    Tell me, tell me, tell me your answer
    Well, you may be a lover but you ain’t no dancerHelter Skelter
    Helter Skelter
    Helter SkelterHelter Skelter, Yeh

  11. Charles Manson: Antifa’s one true god.

    1. Fun fact: Barack Obama launched his political career in the home of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. As Weather Underground radicals in the sixties, Ayers and Dohrn idolized Manson (especially Dohrn). Members of their group even gave each other a three-finger salute in commemoration of the carving fork the Manson’s left in Leno LaBianca’s stomach.

    2. Oh, there definitely are people like Manson in Antifa.

    3. LOL. Uh, no, I don’t think so. His open racism, his admitted contempt for women, his obsession with Revelations, and that fucking swastika carved into his forehead prettymuch preclude all that. That shit’s toxic to the whole ANTIFA ‘brand’, such as it is.

      That doesn’t mean an antifa would never rape a woman or say something racist, of course, but Manson was way too blatant about that shit for some antifag slug to openly admire in front of other people. No, I think they’d find a more suitable mascot, something a little more PC and to their liking.

      1. Wrapping a car doesn’t change what the car is or what it does.

  12. Manson said the songs, particularly the violent “Helter Skelter,” predicted a race war in America in which blacks would emerge triumphant. But the Family could survive in a cave in the desert, Manson said, and emerge to help steer the resulting black-administered society.

    Charles Mason: founder, BLM

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  14. I remarked to my wife the other day that both the Boogaloo Bois and Antifa seem to think that they can start a race war and be the bosses on the other side. Manson was selling the exact same thing to his followers. Funny how history repeats. It would not surprise me to see Antifa go down the same violent path. They’ve already proven they have no inhibitions in that area.

    1. “Manson was selling the exact same thing to his followers. ”

      You should read the Chaos book I linked to. Bugliosi made up the Helter Skelter theory to tie in Manson to the crimes. He didn’t commit the murders and wasn’t present during the crimes. If I recall correctly, Bugliosi had to resort to this theory he presented to nail Manson.

      There are also Manson family members who cast doubt on this fanciful theory.

      1. A progressive who is a Manson apologist and revisionist. Shocking.

        1. Read the Chaos book if you think you can stand the shock. It may shake your faith in Bugliosi’s helter skelter theory.

  15. The Beetles were way overrated. They stole most of their material from the Beach Boys, Jefferson Starship and Louisiana jazz bands. Fuck communists!!!

    1. I agree Sgt. Pepper is overrated. It was groundbreaking in concept and technical innovations but only one really great song. There was a lot more memorable songs on previous and subsequent albums.

      As for their thievery, at least they didn’t sink to the level of the Rolling Stones, stealing from Black people. From Chicago, no less.

  16. Probably should mention Jim Jones, another white race hukster who predicted a race war, or hoped for one, and convinced his mostly black converts to kill themselves. Isn’t this where we get the expression, Don’t drink the kool-aid?

    1. Yes, that’s where the expression comes from.

      Debatable how many of his followers drank it voluntarily. There is conjecture that quite a bit of physical coercion was employed

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  20. ” Little new has emerged since Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and his co-author Curt Gentry released their account of the case, Helter Skelter, in 1974.”

    Bullshit. See Tom O’Neill’s book ^Chaos^ and see/hear him interviewed on Joe Rogan ep #1459

    O’Neill exposes Bugliosi as a fraud and the whole Manson gang as a probable CIA mind control experiment.

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