The Media and the Manson Family

Vincent Bugliosi (with Curt Gentry)'s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders is the godfather of all true crime books. I know some people say it's In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, but I respectfully disagree. When people the world over think of true crime Americana, the first name that comes to mind is undoubtedly Charlie Manson, not Dick Hickock or Perry Edward Smith.

That's due in large part to the sensational and savage details of the crimes. This wasn't just homicide; this was a drug-drenched thrill-kill-cult that cut right to the heart of the Los Angeles upper class and celebrity and poisoned the idea of the counterculture in the public consciousness. When people think of LSD communes, do they think of the Merry Pranksters or the Manson Family? The Pranksters - as singular as they were - were a lot closer to the "traditional" commune concept, but I wager the Manson Family is closer to what most people imagine when they think of such things.

And partly it's due to the Manson Girls themselves. The names of these girls always struck me as so society-registry or out of an Updike novel:

Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten.
And Linda Kasabian, whose testimony put them all away.
These were girls from well-off or middle-class families * ; how did they (along with Charles "Tex" Watson) end up front and center in the grisliest (or at least most bizarre) murder trial in Los Angeles history? Helter Skelter delivers all the disturbing and fascinating answers and will undoubtedly be read for many generations.

* Not the case for every Manson girl, of course. Ruth Ann Moorehouse and Dianne Lake grew up in harrowing circumstances, as just two examples.

I first read the book in high school. Shortly afterwards I read Go Ask Alice by Anonymous - later made into a film with William Shatner, by the by - so it was a good one-two punch for LSD freakout lit. I was terrified and fascinated in equal measure.

I reread it last week and was just as spellbound. This time around, the minutiae of criminal procedure intrigued me most of all. I couldn't help think of people like Joe Kenda on Homicide Hunter or (naturally) Law and Order throughout. Some other things that struck me this time around that I didn't recall from previous reads:

- Bugliosi is a bit on the dramatic side at times. Who can blame him in the midst of the trial and under such public and professional scrutiny, of course, but passages like this:

"If they could have, I'm sure that Watkins et al. would gladly have swum in that river of blood, and with orgasmic ecstasy on their faces. Susan Atkins, the vampira, actually tasted Sharon Tate's blood."

made me shake my head. To quote the judge from Jim Garrison's case against Clay Shaw, "Will you please bottle the acid?"

-  Towards the end of the trial, one of Southern California's infamous fires swept across 100,000 acres and obliterated Spahn Ranch, the Family's hideaway. Before evacuating, they danced barefoot in the glare of a 60-foot wall of flame, whipped up by tornado-like winds, screaming Helter Skelter is coming down! Helter Skelter is coming down!

- There is a lot of testimony from criminal psychologists who maintain that Manson used fear and constant repetition. Manson himself says, at one point, that anyone can be made to believe anything if you repeat it often enough. "Especially if you remove all other frames of reference. It works on them from every level even ones they can't be made aware of." This goes on for pages and pages, and the entire time I kept thinking I'd never read a better description of the from-all-sides blitz of cable news and its all pervasive online and social media apparatus. My new euphemism for the Bill Mahers, David Ickes, Glenn Becks and angry twitter aparatchiks of the world is Manson Girls.

- The book goes some small way in explaining the right's lingering suspicion at the left's choices for hero worship. It was news to me that radical-left darlings of the era like Bernadine Dohrn actually championed Manson (telling a Students for a Democratic Sociey convention "Offing those rich pigs with their own forks and knives and then eating a meal in the same room, far out! The Weathermen dig Charles Manson.") and were quick to embrace him as one of their own, as Jerry Rubin, co-leader of the Yippies, did: "I fell in love with Charlie Manson the first time I saw his cherub face and sparkling eyes on tv." 

Add these things together with Hanoi Jane and you can better understand where your proverbial grandfather was coming from.
You can't reasonably use Manson as an example of "the left," of course, any more than one could reasonably use Manson as an example of "the right." But reason is seldom the precursor for generalizations.

Interesting headline combo: Manson and Calley.
Later, the death sentences were commuted to life in prison. Outside of Susan Atkins (who died a few years back) they are all still imprisoned today. This has always struck me as weird. I can understand being against the death penalty for philosophical or spiritual or even legal reasons; I just don't get how that translates to picking up the tab for them to live out the rest of their lives, acquire college degrees, get married and procreate. (Tex has fathered two children since being imprisoned) It's an odd mix of compassion (we won't execute you) cruel and unusual punishment (but we'll keep you alive at ludicrous taxpayer expense as a freakshow caged exhibit) and actual reward.

But there's a lot I don't understand about the criminal justice system. 

Speaking of: two of Manson's most devoted followers were Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sandra Good.

Oddly enough, though she attempted to assassinate the President of the United States and escaped federal prison, she was paroled in 2009.
Jailed for mail fraud and other charges, paroled in the 80s. Probably - along with Nancy Pittman and a few others - guilty of more than that. I say "probably" to be diplomatic. No physical evidence tied to them to anything, of course. (Unlike Mary Brunner, who received immunity for testifying against Bobby Beausoleil.)
Good and Fromme as portrayed by Lorraine Newman and Jane Curtin on SNL.
I'm more interested in that intersection between reality and representation of reality, how the real-life Manson Family, both its members and its maniacal ethos, have materialized onscreen, specifically in the two best-known Manson films (1976's Helter Skelter, and the 2004 film of the same name) and Jim Van Bebber's The Manson Family (2003.) It's not my intention here to go over extensive details of the case or provide a comprehensive list or account of every Manson "alum" (plenty of well-maintained and researched sites out there for such things) or their every representation in the media. Nor am I interested in things like Nikolas Schreck's Charles Manson Superstar. (I did make an attempt with it, but ultimately, I agree with this review of the film: "Schreck's stilted, tone-deaf narration coupled with the low-grade stock footage and My-First-Computer video effects help make the piece nearly unwatchable, but it's the endless blabbering of the main subject that ultimately spells its fate. If there has ever been a pseudo-celebrity who doesn't need to tell his own story it's the insane, rambling Manson." Truth.)

Let's start with the 1976 movie.

I can't recall when I saw this for the first time, but it was spread over 2 nights on some UHF channel of yesteryear. Freaked me the hell out at the time. The first part ends with Bugliosi (George DiCenzo) realizing his watch has stopped and remarking how that never happens, then a ridiculous fast-zoom on Charlie Manson (Steve Railsback)'s eyes.

This is from later in the movie, but it'll suffice.
George DiCenzo. Perhaps better known as Marty McFly's grandfather in Back to the Future:

DiCenzo and Railsback drew rave reviews for their performances from critics at the time, but they didn't really impress me too much on this re-watch. DiCenzo's all right, but Railsback overplays the just-plain-crazy and underplays the charismatic-cult-leader. 

There is an unfortunate emphasis on Manson's (and the Manson Girls) bisexuality, leaving the film open to the charge of homophobia to contemporary audiences. It's fairly mild, but the implication is there if you want it. This is faithful to the book, though, and not an invention of the movie. 

The movies does, however, feature one interesting addition and one I didn't screencap. (It wasn't the most visually exciting thing to bother with.) The LAPD was notoriously bungling in its investigation and is called out extensively in the Bugliosi/ Gentry book. Among their more SMH exploits is the failure to look for (and thus discover) the bloodied clothes discarded after the Tate murders. These were instead found by a news crew, who drove from the Tate murder scene and timed how long it would take to switch out of clothes and then pulled over to the side of the road and discovered the clothes tossed over the embankment. 

The movie shows this, but in order not to give the wrong idea about the three men disrobing together, adds a car that passes them, with two attractive ladies who blow kisses and are wolf-whistled by the guys. Lest there be any damn doubt: Carful of straight dudes here, ladies!

Marilyn Burns of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame plays Linda Kasabian. She's probably the weakest of the actresses chosen for the main Manson Girls.
Well, except for Christina Hart, who plays Patricia Krenwinkel, but that's because she's barely in the movie. (Not sure why - maybe it was a legal rather than an artistic decision.)
Nancy Wolfe effectively plays spooky and spacey Susan Atkins aka Sexy Sadie
Cathey Paine (Leslie Van Houten) probably delivers the best performance.
Her career seemed to end in 1988 according to her imdb, but apparently she provided the voice for this computer in the original Battlestar Galactica.
"The Long Patrol," season 1, episode 5
"You have just judged yourselves, you blind, stupid people."
"Better lock your doors and watch out for your own kids."
I'm not sure who this is supposed to be, but she gets at least one line: "Death!"
Before moving on to the 2004 movie, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the two Trek connections.

Judge Older is played by none other than Skip Homeier.
I thought this was particularly fun casting, as his two Trek parts are Manson-esque:
Space Hippie Cult Leader Dr. Sevrin in "The Way to Eden"
and Deputy Fuhrer Melakon in "Patterns of Force." (Manson was a devoted fan of Hitler's frequently describing him as a "tuned-in guy who leveled the karma of the Jews.")
And a smaller part (Sgt. Manuel Gris) went to Phillip R. Allen, better known to me personally as Captain Esteban in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

I thought this guy was Peter Coyote for years. #TrekConfessions
I'd say this remains the enduring image of both the trial and its cast of characters in the public imagination. The first part is much better than the second. As a whole, the film hasn't aged all that well but owing primarily to its fidelity to the facts of the case and trial transcripts, despite changing some names (such as the Public Defender's and locations of the crime scenes) remains very watchable. The performances are more impressions / broad strokes than comprehensive cinematic explorations of character, but it was a quickie TV movie of the mid-70s after all.

Helter Skelter was remade in 2004, directed by John Gray and starring Jeremy Davies as Manson.

I actually haven't seen this since it came out, so my impressions are hazy. I remember not liking it too much, and the clips I watched on YouTube to refresh my memory re-enforced that impression.

Bruno Kirby as Vincent Bugliosi
Clea Duvall as Linda Kasabian
Yep, that's Chloe from 24 (Mary-Lynn Rajskub) as Squeaky Fromme.
Allison Smith plays Patricia Krenwinkel. I was a big Kate and Allie fan back in the day. Don't judge; it was one of the handful of American shows that Armed Forces Network aired when we were in Germany.

She played Jennie Lowell (front and center.)
Marguerite Moreau (seen here in Mad Men) plays Susan Atkins.
Catherine Wadkins plays Leslie Van Houten.
This review pretty much sums it up. Uneven and ineffective and somewhat expolitative. (Particularly some of the camera placements in the Tate murder scene.)

Whitney Dylan as Sharon Tate
Davies has gotten much acclaim for his performance. He's a bit better than Railsback in the role, but it still seemed more of an impression than a performance. I like Davies as an actor, so I'll put this one on the director.

It's interesting that the author of that review linked to up there mentions Oliver Stone as the ideal choice to bring the story to the big screen, as the last film we'll look at today reminded me very much of Stone in his prime.

Easily the best of the three Manson films discussed here. Horror films have morphed into the same endlessly-repeated motifs and twists over the years; the few that don't veer just as predictably into pointless torture-porn. The Manson Family, while very much a low-budget independent feature with some amateurish spots, is a breath of fresh air when compared to all that crap. Disturbing and violent air, to be sure, but there's a real sense of artfully-constructed menace to this picture.

who also stars as Bobby Beausoleil:
Is it Van Bebber or Vanbebber? No two sites seem to agree. He's at imdb as "Van Bebber," so that's how I'll refer to him here.
Stylistically, it meshes the sensibilities of something like Punishment Park with something like Natural Born Killers, which works brilliantly for the material.

Focusing almost entirely on the years leading up to the murders and not dealing with the trial (except in the "flashback interviews" given from prison) the film deals with Manson almost only peripherally. The focus is squarely on the Family themselves, principally the ones who did the stabbing.

It has its weak spots. Some of the acting is on the amateurish side (particularly some of the lesser Family members,) but most of it is surprisingly (perhaps even unreasonably) strong. I wasn't too interested in the framing story of modern-day Family wannabes who target and execute a Geraldo-esque journalist who is doing a story on the Manson Family. (Similarly, the tacked-on scene at the end, where a guy wearing a "Charlie Don't Surf" shirt is beaten to death for no reason, seemed out of place.) But the structure and tone of the rest of it is pitch-perfect. Bold and outrageous and very unsettling. The absence of the trial portion of the story (i.e. law and order) makes it all even scarier. And that's where the film succeeds where the others ultimately fail - it is actually scary.

Full cast and crew at the imdb. (All virtual-unknowns whose credits extend mainly to other Van Bebber productions.)

Special shout-out to Marc Pitman, who brings Tex to life in a way not seen anywhere else.
As well as Maureen Allisse as Susan Atkins - tough to find a SFW screencap of her from this film. She gives a truly fearless and believable performance. Several scenes reminded me of what someone connected to the trial said of the real-life Atkins, "One day she might start screaming and just never stop."

One of the orgy scenes features the (simulated, obviously) ritualistic killing of a dog. Van Bebber seems pretty literate on the topic of Manson, so this surprised me. Charlie was pro-killing humans (duh) but violently anti-hurting animals. I doubt he would have allowed this to be done in his presence. In the film, this takes place during one of the drugged-out role-playing orgies; fair warning for those among you who like a heads-up for such things. (I watched this with a friend who quite-understandably chastised me for not warning her there was a pretend animal-murder in it.) It's a small detail, but it took me out of that scene a tad.

When I was studying film at Wright State University, Van Bebber (who also studied there) was something of a legendary figure around the department, both for his success with his indie feature Deadbeat at Dawn and for his notorious antics. A very polarizing figure, to which numerous sites can attest (the good can be found here and here, some of the bad here and here.)

I first saw this movie (Manson Family) when an unfinished VHS screener of it was circulating around the department. It was called Charlie's Family at the time, and a friend brought it over and we watched it. I was riveted. It was missing sound and color correction for spots, but it made a huge impression on me. When the finished version finally came out years later, I attended a screening of it at the Music Box in Chicago. Van Bebber was in attendance to introduce the film and take questions afterward. While it was fantastic to see the finished film - and on the big screen - Van Bebber was in particularly bad shape. My friend and I had aisle seats, and he must have passed us nine or ten times, coming back with a new beer each time. I mean, whatever - more power to you and all - but his post-screening remarks were not very coherent nor interesting.

Regardless, it's one hell of a horror flick. I admire his tenacity in getting these things made and so wholly to the beat of his own drummer, to boot. He seems to pay a price for his independence, given the scant number of films on his resume and their long time getting to the finish line. But looked at another way, that just makes a new Jim Van Bebber film a rare event and something to look forward to.

Of the representations discussed, The Manson Family feels closer to how it probably was. The evolution from an environment centered around drugs, orgies and playacting to a hermetically sealed one centered around brainwashing, murder drills and armed patrols is conveyed chillingly.

The Family at Spahn Ranch (image from Ed Sanders' The Family - also a worthwhile read)


  1. I've actually seen that Van Bebber film, and I was very impressed by it. I knew almost nothing about it when I saw it, and there were points in the movie when I found myself wondering -- even though I knew the odds were infinitesimal -- if someone had dug up actual documentary footage. Doing even the briefest research made it obvious that that was not the case, but the mere fact that I even entertained the notion -- however briefly -- said something to me about how well the movie was working.

    I've been meaning to read "Helter Skelter" forever. It's going to happen someday.

    I've been reading a book of short stories with a connected theme lately: the theme is the modernization of myth. The stories don't all actually follow the theme too closely, which arguably makes the book a bit of a failure. But it strikes me that given the number of movies that have been made based on Manson and his Family, his story has already passed from the realm of fact into the realm of legend, which means that it is only going to need longevity to pass into the realm of myth. Why do I mention that? I have no earthly idea. It occurred to me, is all.

    I like the idea of referring to the Glenn Becks and Bill Mahers of the world as "Manson Girls." I simultaneously dislike it, because it seems uncomfortably close to the truth. And there would be an interesting conversation to be had on the subject of which of those two groups has done the more harm.

    1. What's the book of short stories called? I like that idea and I think it's one of the more interesting facets of the whole Manson legacy.

      Glad you like the Manson Girls epithet - I think it fits. (And yeah, I wonder the same thing.)

      That's cool that you've seen the Van Bebber film. I hope he gets a hell of a lot more prolific in the years to come.

      Unrelated to Helter Skelter, but did you ever read David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets? I thought about it more than a few times while re-reading Helter Skelter. There's not much in common between the two besides being well-written nonfiction about unpleasant things like murder. (And similar cover designs for the paperback copies I have.) I kept trying to find a way to tie the two together, for some reason, but gave up eventually.

    2. Not only have I not read that book, I've never seen a single episode of the television series. On my ever-growing list of Things; but when I'll ever get to it, who can say?

      The name of the anthology I am reading is "xo Orpheus," but to be clear (in case I accidentally misrepresented it), it has zilch to do with Charlie and the gang. It's just that I thought while reading this post that the Manson story had/has become something close to myth, and then connected that thought to the anthology. (There are some good stories in it, including one by Owen King and Kelly Braffet, and another by Peter Straub and Emma Straub. I'll be reviewing it if I can ever buckle down and finish the durn thing, but I keep distracting myself with episodes of Enterprise and James Bond Jr.)

      I'd actually kind of like to watch "The Manson Family" again and see if it lives up to my memory of it. It's probably been close to ten years now since I Netflixed it.

      I'd also kind of like to see "Helter Skelter," if only because it's got actors I like in it. Marguerite Moreau, by the way, played the grown-up Charlie McGee in "Firestarter 2: Rekindled." But let's not hold that against her.

  2. This was an interesting post. I wasn't alive when all this was going on but I find it fascinating. What is really interesting to me is that I shouldn't think it's fascinating because death..murder.. mayhem! But I do. It's like the show Cops... I love to watch it. To think that people just follow other people is creepy.

    1. I think there'd be something wrong with you if you didn't find it fascinating. Which is not to say you should necessarily want to dive into it and obsess over it; and it's also not to say that if it revolted you and made you want to never hear another word about it, that that wouldn't be understandable.

      But the case -- which I am admittedly not terribly knowledgeable about (lest you get the idea I'm painting myself as some sort of expert) -- is SO bizarre, SO screwed-up and deviant and horrifying, that there really is no denying the degree to which it is compelling.

      Apropos of nothing (well...ALMOST nothing): there is a recent-ish movie that supposedly deals with the ramifications of living in a cult. It's called "Martha Marcy May Marlene," it got terrific reviews, and it stars Elizabeth Olson and John Hawkes. Been meaning to seek that one out for about two years now, and still haven't gotten around to doing it.

    2. Glad you found it interesting, Angela. I wasn't alive when the murders or trial were going on, either. I was alive for the Squeaky Fromme assassination attempt, but just barely.

      The first time I remember hearing about the Helter Skelter murders is probably somewhere around 6th grade, listening to older kids on the bus. I never saw the 1976 movie until 1988 or 1989 or so.

      I've heard that Martha Marcy May Marlene movie is quite good.

    3. Incidentally, my wife reminds me that we DID watch Martha Marcy May Marlene but that I fell asleep. Not on account of the film, just something I have an unfortunate tendency to do from time to time.

      "You missed a good one," she tells me. I plead the fifth.

    4. What I think about too was when I was these women's ages. I can't even imagine thinking things they did was OK. Cults just blow my mind. I was in high school during the whole Waco incident. I remember thinking who are these people that would live in this house. It is fascinating and repelling at the same time.