The afterlife of Charles Manson

More than fifty years after the murders committed by his followers horrified America, Charles Manson continues to inspire films, fiction and music around the world. Jeffrey Melnick and Elinor Evans explore how the Manson story still shapes our perceptions of 1960s counterculture and beyond

Charles Manson stares out from fabric on sale in San Francisco

“Many people I know in Los Angeles 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 brush fire through the community…”. So wrote American writer Joan Didion about the bloody slaughter of seven people over two summer nights in California – events that became known as the Tate-LaBianca murders. These words, written in The White Album, her influential book of essays first published in 1979, have since become enshrined in Manson lore, and have often been repeated as fact.

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There’s no doubting the horror and shock that the crimes inspired. But the idea that the slaughters marked the death of the 1960s and its counterculture should be regarded as a very personal and motivated take on the violent events.

The sixties were not ‘ended’ by the crimes of figures from the margins of the counterculture in California. The atrocities of the Vietnam War, the election of Richard Nixon as US president in 1968, numerous race riots – these all had much more impact. But the Manson crimes are made to carry much of the cultural weight, emblematic of the dashed hopes of members of the counterculture and New Left, and of course numerous agents of the reactionary backlash were happy to seize on the crimes, painting them as auguring a necessary cultural reboot. But for all the “end of the Sixties” talk, it is not hard to find signs of ongoing social, cultural, and political ferment: the Stonewall Riots earlier in 1969 signalled a new wave of gay activism; the growing Chicano movement championed Mexican-American rights; and Black Power continued to evolve.

The Tate-LaBianca murders are now infamous. On consecutive nights in August 1969, intruders broke into two homes in Los Angeles, where they brutally killed seven people – five on the first night, two more on the second. The perpetrators wrote words and symbols on the walls using the blood of the victims. Among the dead was actor Sharon Tate, wife of acclaimed film director Roman Polanski.

Sharon Tate and her then-boyfriend (later husband), film director Roman Polanski
Sharon Tate and her then-boyfriend (later husband), film director Roman Polanski. At least one report emphasised Polanski’s “film associations with the occult”. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Americans were stunned by the slaughters, particularly that of the beautiful and nine-months-pregnant Tate. Fear and speculation rippled out from the west coast, spreading across the US and beyond its shores. In the UK, tabloid newspaper the Sunday Mirror reported on the “ritualistic” nature of the killings, emphasising Tate and Polanski’s “film associations with the occult”, particularly Polanski’s controversial 1968 Rosemary’s Baby, in which a young woman is raped by the devil. According to prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, news of the murders abroad “eclipsed even the incident at Chappaquiddick” (the car accident involving Senator Ted Kennedy resulting in the death of a young woman, after which Kennedy left the scene without reporting the accident).

Meanwhile, the authorities struggled to determine the killers’ identities or motives; indeed, for several months the two sets of murders were not even linked. Then, in October 1969, the crimes were traced to a group of people living in the California desert, led by ex-con Charles Manson.

The Tate-LaBianca murders are infamous. On two nights in August 1969, intruders broke into homes in Los Angeles and brutally killed seven people

Manson, born in Ohio in 1934, had spent a considerable amount of time detained in juvenile reformatories and prisons following convictions for petty crime and theft. After being released from prison in 1967, he cultivated a group of followers – mainly young women – in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, epicentre of the counterculture in California. In 1968 the so-called Manson Family moved to Spahn Ranch, which had been used as a film set for Hollywood westerns in the 1950s and 1960s but which by then had fallen on hard times. Manson harboured dreams of music stardom, declaring that he would be “bigger than The Beatles”, and at Spahn he groomed his cohort using charisma, physical violence, emotional manipulation and hallucinogenic drugs, while at the same time attempting to break into the music industry.

Manson and several of his Family were arrested in October 1969, and were subsequently charged with crimes relating to the Tate-LaBianca murders. During the seven-month trial that followed, Manson was portrayed as a crazed ringleader who brainwashed his followers. He had ordered the killings, the prosecution claimed, in a bid to begin a ‘race war’ between white and black Americans. Horrifyingly, as this story had it, his followers had complied with his orders.

Though apparently not himself guilty of the physical acts, in January 1971 Manson was convicted of first-degree murder for two separate killings, and also of conspiracy to commit murder. He and four of his followers were sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment after a change to California’s death-penalty laws. Manson died in prison in 2017.

Charles Manson is escorted from court
Charles Manson is escorted from court after being found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death on 29 March 1971 – a sentence that was later commuted to life imprisonment. (Image by Alamy)

This is the end?

So why does Didion’s claim that the murders sounded the death knell for the decade continue to resonate with so many people? For one thing, it appeals to a need to reassert order where the counterculture had (some believed) descended into chaos. The crimes embodied the worst fears of those worried about what could happen when boundaries between social classes were blurred, and when young people (especially young women) strayed from the confines of the American nuclear family. The dazzlingly high-profile case highlighted instances of ‘hippies’ mingling with the celebrity elite: Manson’s own relationships with Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys and with Terry Melcher, son of Hollywood darling Doris Day; interviews with Family members involved with the killings by ‘celebrity writers’ including Joan Didion; and then of course, there was the beautiful, blonde victim at the centre of the case. The cherished hierarchies had been breached, and Didion’s words aimed not only to describe the scene, but also to correct this ‘class anarchy’.

Even if one accepts Didion’s regularly invoked claim that “the Sixties ended”, there is no doubt that the summer of 1969 was far from the end for Manson. Fascination with the victims, the Family and the man remains undiminished.

Lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi aimed to show that Manson and his Family were anomalies operating on society’s fringes, not significant counterculture figures

Two words have come to dominate Manson’s cultural legacy: ‘Helter Skelter’. It was one of the phrases smeared in blood on the walls at the site of the LaBianca murders (albeit misspelled ‘Healter Skealter’). It also provided the title of the most famous book about Manson and the crimes. Helter Skelter, co-written by lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry and published in 1974, lays out a now widely accepted theory about the motives behind the crimes: that Manson believed – and taught his followers to believe – in a necessary race war that would begin only if black people were “taught to rise up”. Over more than 500 pages, the book details how the 1969 murders of the white victims represented an attempt by Manson to spark the war he dubbed “Helter Skelter” (he had developed an obsession with what he believed were hidden messages in lyrics from The Beatles’ 1968 ‘White Album’, which features the song ‘Helter Skelter’).

It’s clear that Manson was a racist, though not in any organised way. He had only a tenuous understanding of the aims of the Black Panthers, for example, and did not seem to know who Huey Newton – who co-founded the group in 1966 – was.

Yet Bugliosi was convinced of Manson’s beliefs. “That Manson foresaw a war between the blacks and the whites was not fantastic,” he wrote, observing that, though this primary motive was “far out”, for crimes as “bizarre as these the motive itself would have to be almost equally strange”.

Correcting the social order

Bugliosi’s book was an attempt to reassert the ‘correct social order’ – to show that Manson and his Family were anomalies, operating on the fringes of society, easily contained and even eliminated, rather than significant figures in the counterculture. By proving Manson’s complicated ‘social chaos’ motive in court, Bugliosi demonstrated – through his own upstanding appearance and his clear and convincing narrative – that the forces of order were taking care of this freaky business.

Bobby Beausoleil, an associate of the Family who was convicted of another murder committed shortly before the Tate-LaBianca killings, has since argued that Bugliosi’s motive was a blatant attempt to undercut the political and cultural achievements of the counterculture.

Ultimately, the ‘Helter Skelter’ theory sidesteps one of the most unsettling aspects of Manson’s crimes: the fact that he successfully attracted so many young women to his cause, enlisting them as foot soldiers and convincing them to steal – and even murder – under his direction. This confirmed another threat to the established social order: that the authorities – politicians, police, parents – could no longer control this generation of young women. Bugliosi’s theories of brainwashing and ‘race war’ were preferable to confronting the alternative choices Manson’s ‘Family’ offered these young women, and choices that might have been offered by other unconventional lifestyles of the time. The prosecution of Manson and his Family was part of a larger backlash: police harassment of communes, a crackdown on hitchhiking, and a general suspicion of hippies and hippie-adjacent people.

A group of Charles Manson's followers
A group of Manson’s followers, pictured in the 1973 documentary film, ‘Manson’. (Image by Alamy)

Whatever the problems inherent in the ‘Helter Skelter’ motive, it still dominates understanding of the events of 1969. It provides a template that continues to inform each wave of true-crime books, films and TV programmes, which favour figures of conventional authority (police, prosecutors) quashing ‘evil’ and restoring the established order. Bugliosi’s book has sold more than seven million copies, making it the biggest-selling true-crime title published to date.

Manson’s crimes have ‘creepy crawled’ through western culture across the decades, becoming shortcuts for other stories we want to tell

Aside from those notorious killings, Manson and his Family are also infamous for another illicit activity: the ‘creepy crawl’. What they meant by creepy crawling was at once simple yet profoundly upsetting: leaving their communal home, they would journey to a private house, break in and rearrange the furniture – all while the occupants slept. The intruders would rarely steal anything; rather, the whole point was to let this particular group of people know that their home had been invaded. It was an ostensibly harmless crime that yet caused an intense and enduring sense of unease that still resonates today.

That unease feeds our fascination with the Manson story, which goes beyond repulsion at the murders. Competing with Bugliosi’s ‘case-closed’ narrative is a hydra-headed creature of Manson-related art, its sheer volume more compelling than any single creative invocation. The crimes have themselves creepy crawled through western culture over the decades, becoming shortcuts for other stories we want to tell. In truth, the fact that we keep telling the story is the story.

Perhaps the most straightforward consequence to observe was the immediate influence of the Manson story on 1970s horror cinema. The crimes had undeniably cinematic elements: the bloody invocations on the walls, the ethereal cult of ‘brainwashed hippy chicks’ prepared to commit murder for a wild-eyed puppetmaster. This first wave of cultural reaction is evident in films that, while not directly referencing Manson or those crimes, played on contemporary fears of hippies, home invasion and attacks on the nuclear family – movies such as Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

If in the early 1970s Manson became a byword for horror, by the end of that decade and into the early 1980s artists began to appropriate Manson as an anti-establishment figure – a shorthand way of saying: ‘we’re here to scare you; we’re here to upset things.’ In Los Angeles, artists within the punk rock scene began using Manson’s image on album artwork and tour merchandise. Black Flag, a California punk band formed in 1976, referred to their early concert tours as ‘creepy crawls’, while bands including The Lemonheads covered songs originally performed or written by Manson. Later, Marilyn Manson would count on the fact that his stage name would invoke elements of horror, youth chaos and dark arts. More profound were the legion of hip-hop artists of the late eighties and early nineties such as N.W.A and Das EFX who used Manson as a source of material to sample, often in narratives of masculine boasting.

Manson’s cultural reverberations were felt increasingly far afield. Rock band U2 opened their 1988 record Rattle and Hum with ‘Helter Skelter’, lead singer Bono declaring that Manson “stole it from The Beatles”, but that he was here to steal it back. In 2005, British artist Banksy created a work in London depicting Manson as a hitchhiker holding a sign reading: “Anywhere”.

Manson art tells a story of remarkable cultural breadth and investment. His spectre appears in works from opera and reggae to TV animation and pulp film and fiction. US artist Raymond Pettibon has featured Manson many times in his work, explaining that he is “a kind of shorthand. I guess… you could create your own character like Manson, invent your own cult leader, and invent activities and stuff around him. But Manson already comes with all that baggage, so he’s really useful.”

These neat projections – Manson equals horror, Manson equals anti-establishment refusal to conform, Manson equals control of women – may help us to home in on key moments at which Manson held a particular fascination. But whatever ‘use’ he has been put to by film-makers, musicians and artists, the real story is that Manson has never left our minds for long.

The stories we want to tell

It’s clear that we’re still working through what Manson means to modern culture. On the half-century anniversary of the murders, a fresh tranche of work revisited the story – albeit with a new focus, amid attempts to reframe the narrative. Mary Harron’s 2019 film Charlie Says explored Manson’s control of his followers through the lens of the women’s stories, and pays special attention to feminist efforts to rehabilitate the ‘girls’ in prison. Emma Cline’s bestselling 2016 novel The Girls is narrated by a young girl drawn into the sphere of a charismatic, Mansonlike character and features a crime committed by a woman in thrall to that figure. And in the 2019 TV series Mindhunter, Manson voices a claim that Bugliosi’s motive was fiction.

The backlash against the counterculture, which erupted back in 1969 in reaction to the crimes, also endures today. Seen by some as retributive justice, but by others as gratuitous subversion of history, the conclusion of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood seems to contribute to the desire to ‘push the hippies back into their box’, their evils thwarted by victorious heroes of ‘Old Hollywood’.

A publicity poster for Quentin Tarantino's 2019 film 'Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood'
A publicity poster for Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film ‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’. (Image by Alamy)

Half a century after those brutal murders, Manson’s cultural legacy has evolved. Where once his image and crimes animated horror movies, today his story is employed in discussions of feminist interventions in the criminal justice system or in counterhistorical tales of revenge. It seems we simply cannot leave Charles Manson alone.

Jeffrey Melnick is professor of American Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston, and author of Charles Manson’s Creepy Crawl: The Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family (Arcade Publishing, 2019). Elinor Evans is deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra.com.

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This article was taken from issue 19 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in November 2019