Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Helter Skelter (1976) >>

Manson: The Man vs. the Myth

By Erika Berg

[1] "I walk your streets and am right out there with you," boasted serial killer Charles Manson almost twenty years after being sentenced to life in prison (Emmons 227). Most people would probably dismiss this statement as the delusional ranting of a madman, yet were they to examine the attention of and, possibly, the influence on society that Manson has had and continues to have, they would be forced to admit that there is some truth to Manson's proclamation.

[2] When Manson and his so-called Family members went on trial in 1969 for the gruesome Tate-LaBianca slayings, the media took instant notice of Manson's "hypnotic" and "charismatic" personality. Rolling Stone magazine plastered Manson's face on the cover of its June 25, 1970 issue, while the underground newspaper Tuesday's Child spread his picture across its front page, a banner naming him "Man of the Year" (Bugliosi 296 and see the image gallery). And it was not only the more radical press that thrust Manson into the limelight. Outside the court building, an exuberant Family member was heard bragging, "Charlie made the cover of Life!" (Bugliosi 279).

[3] Yet rather than evoking disgust and contempt for Manson, the media kindled admiration and respect for the killer. At the time of the trial, 60s radical Bernardine Dohrn told a Students for a Democratic Society 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" (Bugliosi 296). Yippie Jerry Rubin exclaimed, "I fell in love with Charlie Manson the first time I saw his cherub face and sparkling eyes on TV" (Bugliosi 296). Rubin later wrote in his book We Are Everywhere, "His words and courage inspired us" (Bugliosi 297).

[4] Society's fascination with Manson did not fade after the trial, however. In fact, Manson continues to be viewed as a revolutionary martyr today and has reached cult-hero status. One example of cultish "Mansonmania" is a T-shirt bearing a picture of his face behind bars, the slogan "Charlie Don't Surf" (a famous line in the film Apocalypse Now) scrawled across the back (Rosen F-01). In San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, where Manson first began compiling his Family, several stores sell baby clothing adorned with Manson's image (Rosen F-01).

[5] The killer is not only remembered through kitschy paraphernalia but also through music and art. Over the past couple of decades, several popular rock bands have recorded cover versions of Manson's songs. In 1989, alternative rock group The Lemonheads performed the Manson song "Your Home Is Where You're Happy" (Rosen F-01). In 1993, heavy metal band Guns N' Roses recorded a cover of Manson's "Look At Your Game, Girl" on their album The Spaghetti Incident (Rosen F-01). Known for their shocking music and bizarre behavior, Nine Inch Nails recorded songs for their album The Downward Spiral in the Los Angeles mansion in which Sharon Tate was brutally killed (Rosen F-01). One of those songs was entitled "Piggy," a word that was scribbled in blood on the victims' walls.

[6] The fixation with Manson has also been expressed through "finer" forms of art. In 1992, composer John Moran presented "The Manson Family: An Opera" starring singer Iggy Pop (Rosen F-01) and, more recently, a New York artist, inspired by the Tate-LaBianca murders, displayed an exhibit of bloody images entitled "Helter Skelter."

[7] Manson is the first serial killer to attain celebrity status. But why? Many claim that it is Manson's affiliation with rock-n-roll that makes him riveting. An aspiring musician in the 60s, Manson was known to rub shoulders with the likes of Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and several members of The Mamas and the Papas. "He's more of a rock star than any of the other serial killers," explains magazine editor Mark Kemp (Rosen F-01). Singer Marilyn Manson, who reportedly models his look after Manson and idolizes the murderer so much that he took his surname, says, "I remember growing up getting Jim Morrison confused with Charles Manson" (Rosen F-01).

[8] Yet Manson, who admits that, at the time of the trial, "the more the media sensationalized the crimes, the wider the grin got on my face" (Emmons 212), says now that the media attention has gotten out of hand, making him out to be someone he is not. "The myth of Charles Manson has twisted more minds than I was ever accused of touching," Manson states (Emmons 225). The person most guilty of creating and perpetuating this myth, Manson claims, is Vincent Bugliosi, the District Attorney who prosecuted the Manson Family and co-author of the book Helter Skelter, upon which the 1976 made-for-television movie is based. According to Manson, Bugliosi portrays him as a mind-controlling guru with occult powers, while, in reality, Manson is just a regular guy who "encouraged," not "ordered," his friends to slaughter several people.

[9] Keeping Manson's attitude toward Bugliosi in mind, how might Bugliosi's perception of Manson shape modern television viewers' idea of the killer? The film, directed by Tom Gries, follows Bugliosi's book faithfully, with the actors reciting Bugliosi's words verbatim in numerous scenes. As Joyce Carol Oates points out in Blonde, her novel about ill-fated film star Marilyn Monroe, "Film is the repository of that which, failing to be remembered, is immortal" (69). Today, it is highly unlikely that searches of online archives of Life, Rolling Stone, and major newspapers will yield articles circa 1969 on Manson and the Tate-LaBianca killings. The murders and the subsequent trial simply took place too long ago for publications to hold on to the articles dealing with them. And, given the sensationalism in the 60s, even if they were accessible, could one truly get a sense of the real Charles Manson by reading them? Without these articles, all we are left with is a small stack of books, a few TV documentaries, and Gries' film to teach us about the subject. And considering the popularity of film over any other type of entertainment medium today, Gries' Helter Skelter is probably most people's main, if not sole, source of information on Manson.

[10] While the film focuses heavily on fact--the dates of the murders, the prosecution's collecting of evidence, the whereabouts of each family member on the nights of the murders--it also dramatizes Manson's behavior and The Family's lifestyle. Star Steve Railsback acts well the part of Manson the shaman or Manson the charismatic religious nut by staring with fiery-eyed intensity into the camera, babbling nonsensically, and cackling maniacally. It is as though Railsback took his acting direction not from Gries, but from Bugliosi, who, describing Manson in court, writes:

Manson the nobody. Manson the martyr. Manson the teacher. Manson the prophet. He became all these, and more, the metamorphosis often occurring in midsentence, his face a light show of shifting emotions until it was not one face but a kaleidoscope of different faces, each real, but only for the moment. He rambled, he digressed, he repeated himself, but there was something hypnotic about the whole performance. In his own strange way he was trying to weave a spell, not unlike the ones he had cast over his impressionable followers. (Bugliosi 525)
The actors playing the Family members also play up the real people's offbeat personalities by running around Spahn Ranch half naked, shouting bizarre phrases at inappropriate times, and speaking candidly about their LSD trips and orgies.

[11] While these performances do an excellent job of depicting just how insane Manson and his followers were, they also perpetuate the Manson myth that has culminated in the sale of serial killer baby clothes and the status of Manson as rock star, hero. Steve Railsback's eyes reflect the hypnotic gaze seen on T-shirts and emulated by Marilyn Manson. Despite their crazed ramblings, the scantily clothed Manson girls appear glamorous, and the group sex and drug trips are made to appear exciting and titillatingly dangerous in the films. Because the film features sensational scenes such as the one in which Manson enters the courtroom with a freshly carved swastika on his forehead or the one in which Linda Kasabian describes the family's sex orgies, it is no wonder that people are still fascinated by Manson and that Manson receives hundreds of letters every day from confused, impressionable teenagers who ask to join The Family and offer to kill for Manson. The Manson in the film, like the Manson in the media, seems sexy, rebellious, intellectual, and hip. In reality, he is a short, paranoid, uneducated ex-convict who believed he could singlehandedly start a race war.

[12] However, sociologist Jack Levin suggests that it is not Manson himself that holds people's interest but the brutal nature of the murders. "The crimes are so grotesque and extraordinary that they might as well be fiction," Levin says. "And that takes our minds off the real, ordinary, everyday crimes like muggings and armed robbery that really scare people" (Rosen F-01). But then why do we focus on Manson? Why is it his face and not the victims' that is plastered on T-shirts, baby clothes, and magazine covers? After all, Manson did not commit the murders, he only urged others to kill. And why, as we're watching Gries's film, do we nod off during the collection of evidence scenes and anxiously await the next shot of Manson's gaze in haunting close-up?

Bugliosi, Vincent, and Curt Gentry. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1974.

Emmons, Nuel. Manson in His Own Words: The Shocking Confessions of "The Most Dangerous Man Alive." New York: Grove Press, 1986.

Oates, Joyce Carol. Blonde. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.

Rosen, Steve. "Rock's Dark Side: Manson Resurrected as an Anti-'60s Icon." The Denver Post 17 April 1994: F-01.