In 1969, during the summer of Woodstock, the eyes of the world were glued to a lurid news story out of LA. The wife of Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, and her companions, were found slaughtered in the director’s posh suburban home. Cryptic remarks were left on the walls, written in their victims’ blood. The perpetrator, Charles Manson, became the world’s most infamous murderer, a watchword for a society running amok.
The History Channel docudrama “Manson” (out on DVD) is buttressed by interviews with prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (author of the crime’s most famous account, Helter Skelter) and with Tate’s sister and a pair of Manson’s followers. The visual period details of the historical reenactment scenes are accurate, yet the screenplay sometimes has the ring of 2009, not 1969. The depiction of Manson as a motor-mouthed, evil hippy genius is part of the truth, yet the portrayal falls short of comprehending the power he held over his followers.
But the endlessly fascinating story the docudrama tells, following the familiar lines established long ago by Bugliosi, gives a good sense for the cult within a subculture founded by Manson. The commune he established near LA on Spahn Ranch seemed a haven for the young and the lost, hippies searching for love, freedom and God. The Manson Family, as it was called, became a substitute for fraying biological families, with the added bonus of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. In a delicious irony, Spahn Ranch was actually a fake Old West town, an abandoned stage set for dozens of Hollywood westerns. It was a fantasy backdrop for the counterculture dream of escaping the city and returning to nature.
A career criminal with a talent for music, Manson drifted into the West Coast scene and gathered a following through an idiosyncratic mixture of Buddhist-sounding koans (“Don’t ask why—be”) and apocalyptic fundamentalism. Manson was not alone in the darker days of the ‘60s for prophesying a war between the races. But he wanted to lead the war and hoped to touch off Armageddon through a murder spree. With the aid of his Family and allies in the motorcycle gang subculture (a different breed than the weekend Harley warriors of nowadays), he would seize the rubble of the world. “Manson” captures a sense for the cult leader’s manipulative mind games and his use of LSD to erase the egos of his followers, making them malleable in his hands. He believed the Beatles were channeling his ideas through their music, particularly the White Album, and interpreted the song “Helter Skelter” as code for Armageddon. “Helter Skelter” was one of the cryptic remarks left in blood at Polanski's home.
How could he have known that helter skelter is simply the British term for roller coaster? Through his killing spree the Beatles’ song, a vivid description of a roller coaster ride, became a metaphor for the tumult of the 1960s.