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The Cult of Charles Manson

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I’ll never forget the evening I was browsing the local video store. On the shelf I ran across a copy of the 1976 made-for-TV miniseries Helter Skelter. Since I had never seen the film and had read the Vincent Bugliosi book on which it was based, I decided to rent it. Knowing full well the original series was around 200-plus minutes long, I picked up both copies of the tape assuming they were parts 1 and 2. With a line waiting behind me on that busy evening, the clerk looked at both tapes and screamed across the store, “Is Helter Skelter two tapes or just one!”

Every customer in the store stared at me, and I blushed as if I had just rented Showgirls. To this day, there’s this ghastly boogeyman aura that surrounds Charles Manson and his puppet clique of attractive, promiscuous, murderous teenagers. This video version was only 98 minutes long, and for some strange reason, the store had two identical copies. Stupid me. Oh well, the original version of Helter Skelter is to be released on DVD April 20. So friends, family and dogs can now wallow in the full 200-minute criminal epic.

After viewing the full-length version, I was surprised how closely it remained true to the known facts. The trial itself, which takes up the second half, is based entirely on court transcripts. And it gives us the best scene when Manson abruptly decides to make a statement to the courtroom. The jury was appropriately led out of court, though this was irrelevant to Mr. Charlie Boy. His speech was intended for reporters and audience members. The rambling proclamation, in which he discussed his skewed philosophy, is authentic (though I doubt he delivered it with unblinking eyes a la actor Steve Railsback). For the one and only moment of this stagy 1970s production (I was expecting Jack Webb to make an appearance any second) we see inside the demented philosophy of this horrible cult. It’s probably as good a clue as any as to why these kids began committing random murders around Los Angeles during the summer of Woodstock, 1969.

Fascination with the Charles Manson cult is nothing new. The book Helter Skelter has remained in print for years, making Bugliosi millions. A new made-for-TV movie is to be broadcast May 16, including additional facts unknown in 1976. Fresh converts can now revel in a new-millennium retelling of the Manson mythos. Believe it or not, one can find as many books related to Manson as to the JFK assassination. It’s a damn cottage industry. I have read several, the best of the lot being The Family, first published in 1971.

Author Ed Sanders’ detailed account of the Manson murders is a superb companion to Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. It’s a long, strange alternative trip through the madness that defines this extended midnight massacre, eventually leading to the deaths of 10-13 people, depending on whom you ask.

Sanders, a pseudo hippie himself, well-versed in the howling of beatnik eras and the twang of Bob Dylan travels, had unparalleled leeway into the lives of Manson’s followers before and during the criminal trials of 1970. He hung with the waifs at Spahn Ranch before it burned to the ground. He camped with these very weird kids in Death Valley. And he caught wind of the numerous crazy rumors that floated around like so much LA smog.

He recounts many of the urban myths surrounding this crime, including Manson’s supposed alliances with Satanic cults, mysterious films, filmed sacrifices, CIA involvement, political connections stretching all the way to Washington D.C., and so on ad nauseam.

These were horrible times in American history, California Dreaming or not, and the simple fact is Charles Manson’s cult lived a counterculture lifestyle hip with the upper class of the era. They hung with the young bell-bottomed in-crowd of Hollywood (The Beach Boys actually recorded one of Manson’s songs, before the slaughter began, of course). They danced by the light of lava lamps, popped LSD like Tic Tacs, drove around in black buses, fucked like herds of rabbits, made long distance phone calls to The Beatles, wrecked dune buggies and dined on lettuce and peanut butter. Psych out baby!

But when the constant use of psychedelic drugs combined with the isolation of Spahn Ranch took hold of their near-empty brain pans, Manson and family entered an alternative zone having little to do with President Johnson’s Great Society. It became the Cult of White Trash Group Think, formed by the hangover of one endless lost summer weekend. Very little of this is seen in the 1976 film version, though it’s rumored the new TV movie shall examine this Valhalla of hippie communes more closely.

There’s a great 1970 documentary made on this seedy saga titled, imaginatively enough Manson. It has the only footage known to exist of the Manson cult. The kids swimming near Spahn Ranch, the kids singing a lovely tune, the kids tripping in Death Valley and Squeaky Fromme loading and unloading a gun obsessively, visions of killing Presidents dancing in her dilated eyes.

But the madness isn’t over quite yet. No sir, I took a trip to Death Valley last summer, drove my jeep right up Goler Wash and camped at Barker Ranch – the location where the Manson cult holed up and was eventually caught. It’s still there, discarded beer cans, stolen trucks, rusted bed springs, old bunkers with chairs, a graffiti-covered rock with terms from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (the Manson crew’s favorite tome). The bus is gone, though pieces of it can be found up and down Goler Wash (it was reportedly dynamited by kids, miners confiscating the remains for use in plugging leaky holes in cabin roofs).

I camped on that unholy ground for a couple of nights, looking for ghosts. I saw rats, a rattlesnake, a Gila monster and a burro, but I saw no ghost. Only the majestic insane silence that comes from being in the summer dessert when its 114 fucking degrees.

There were no truths to be found at Barker Ranch, just as there are no truths whenever someone tries to understand evil. It’s fascinating, no doubt. Why else would we watch Bela Lugosi stand on a cobwebbed staircase uttering “Children of the night. What music they make!” I suppose Charles Manson is the vampire of our generation. He could even be Dracula, if Dracula were a hillbilly redneck who could barely read and write.

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About Chris Wilson

  • Vince Amaya

    I disagree. The History of Barker Ranch and the ranch it self should be preserved due to the fact that the original builders Bluch and Helen Thomason were gold miners as was Jim and Kirk Barker’s family’s. Apart from the Manson Family. The Barker Ranch has a lot to offer. It is a place that not everyone will be able to visit except in photos but a place that some can go and discover what it is like to live off of what you bring with you. Now days people do not know what it is like to be without electrical power, no running water, no store on the corner to run to. or how to fend for them self’s. I have asked both DVNP and the BLM to sell or lease me the property so I myself can rebuild the Ranch house with a little help. But like i stated earlier no one responds to my offers. I will continue trying. I feel it is worth both my time and money to make the offers i have made. Vince

  • Chris Kent

    Notorious criminal history is different from actual life-changing history. The site of the Battle of Gettysburg, the location where the outcome of the Civil War was in many ways (though not entirely) decided, should be preserved as should the childhood homes of great writers and presidents. Hell, even Sun Studios where American music was changed, should remain pristine. These places have complex significance allowing us to relive and contemplate men and women and their changes to our societies. The locations of the JFK and MLK assassinations, while notorious, are preserved, with museums allowing us to celebrate these great men’s legacies. On the flipside, the homes of Ray and Oswald fall into disrepair (including the home where Lee had Marina snap the famous backyard photo of him holding the rifle and pamplets). The childhood home of Clyde Barrow, while boarded up and abandoned, still stands in west Dallas, but there’s no marker there and nor should there be. There’s a marker (ironically bullet riddled) that stands at the spot in Louisiana where he and Bonnie were killed. Barker Ranch, while having a notorious reputation, has no historical significance. It was barely habitable before kids burned it to the ground. There’s no need to rebuild. Granted, the Manson Family was essentially captured there, and perhaps the location deserves a marker for this heroic effort, bringing a hateful and murderous group of individuals’ legacy to an end. But there’s no need to preserve those barely functional man-made buildings. Bulldoze what’s left and allow nature to slowly reclaim and purify.

  • Vince Amaya

    My comments are on the investigation of the fire that destroyed Barker Ranch. It looks like the investigation has come to a halt. I have read many comments from interested people who want to help rebuild the main ranch house and the common comment is that they do not get replies when they inquire about the rebuild.I myself have replied to the complainers and they DO NOT even reply back so why complain. If you do not know, there is a web site called savebarkerranch.com. I would say you could look at it but it has not change since the day it was created. It shows some photos of the fire and some clown sitting where Charlie was found hiding in the bathroom. WOW what a photo to put on the web site that is supposed to get help from people interested in the rebuild. Is this guy trying to get the family back together. I will get off my high horse now and get back to my issue. I believe after 7 months of trying to get a reply from the powers that be that they are full of sh#t and that there is not going to be a rebuild of the main ranch house for years to come. I will continue to check all the web sites on a daily basis and i will continue to send letters vie email, snail mail and fax’s as i have done since the day i found out about the fire. I have been to to ranch 4 times since the fire and it appears that things are being removed and the rubble is being blown away by the wind. I look forward to any comments you may have.


  • Chris Kent

    My girlfriend and I spent three days there in June, 2006 and did not see or hear a single soul. The condition of the main cabin was considerably trashed compared to the first time I visited several years before, with all of the furniture and the many token items – books, candles, canned food, the notebook/diary where people would leave notes – gone or dumped into a pile nearby. The place was crawling with rats, at one point I looked up and there were three staring at me from a beam. We stayed in a tent in front of the main cabin. We explored the surrounding hills and drove out through the heart of Death Valley towards Shoshone – a beautiful route. I was saddened to hear the place had been burned down, with photographs showing the cabins almost completely destroyed. Such vandalism is usually the product of bored and drunk teens, probably from nearby Trona or Ridgecrest. With the notorious reputation of the place, perhaps it was just a matter of time. It’s amazing someone yelled at you as I have rarely encountered anyone but a few hikers when visiting Death Valley. I have also taken many photos at Barker Ranch, some at night around a campfire, and not a single one shows orbs. When you first arrive at Barker Ranch, its reputation hangs in the air. But after a day or so, it’s just a ranch in a desert valley, as beautiful and extraordinary a place as one can find in the U.S., and as isolated as the surface of the moon. Close to dusk, when standing on a nearby hilltop, you sense the expanse and intimacy of the world, and how insignificant the Manson aura truly is. People claiming dead bodies are buried there are usually enclosed by the Manson legend, having little understanding of the brutality of Death Valley (far more brutal than the Manson Family). Living there is a daily chore, with little down time available for murderous activities. But you have to visit the land to understand such truths.

  • Vince Amaya

    We last spent the night at Barker Ranch on 10-19-09, when we pulled into the property someone from a distance yelled (what are you doing here). I let them know they were welcome to come and find out but got no takers. so needless to say i stayed up all night. The only visitors i got were crickets and the wind. While walking around at night and i mean night there was no moon. I took some photos of the area and i don’t know much about orbs that show up in photos but i have a photo that has hundreds of these orbs in it. The Ranch is a very still place at night and is very peaceful during the day. There were some wooden signs on the property that read coyote canyon road, one sign said Barker Ranch 1930, and another saying beware. There was also a sign asking for visitors to help keep the place clean. When the sun came up i tripped around the hill side taking a lot of photos and still never ran into anyone. It’s a shame that the Main Ranch house has burned down. hopefully it can be rebuilt to some extent so it can be used for back road camping like it has been for many years. I myself have made many offers to help. but so far have not heard from the powers that be what they have decided to do. If you ever get to the ranch keep in mind the entire history of the area. There is a lot to see in Death Valley. Also when you come into Ballarat stop and say Hi to George and Rock very interesting folks and remember to give Potlicker a pat on the back.

  • Chris Kent

    Oh my gosh! I forgot I wrote this blog. Reading it now after a few years is kind of scary. Did I really say these things?! Anyway, I’ve been back to Death Valley a second time since writing this and would have to agree. There are no signs of the famous bus anywhere, and was simply going on a piece of info given to me by another writer. Who knows and who cares what happened to the damn bus? I stayed at Barker Ranch a couple of days and noticed someone had come in and trashed the place. Drove on through to the other side of Death Valley. It’s a beautiful route, isolated and majestic. Shooting stars at night are a common site. Several isolated cabins are available to spend the night in. Hikers and travelers have left cans of food there. It’s a nice trip, coming out on the other side around Shoshone, CA. My girlfriend and I stayed at a 1950s-era motel there and swam in a spring-fed pool, later walking across the street to have dinner at a comfortable restaurant. There’s so much more to Death Valley than ugly history and the trash-strewn Golar Wash!

  • Castle

    You won’t find any pieces of charlies bus, either in the canyon or on any miners leaky roof. Dynamite was involved in it’s going away, but none of it is on the surface to be found.

  • flans420

    i saw the truck in ballarat this past march and it was cool. i didnt know if the man there was just telling me a tall tale to get me to be like “WOW!!”. seems legit enough for me to continue the story…

  • I’d just like to get my views and opinion out there. truthfully manson had a great mind and was intellectually beyond his years or any of those that surrounded him at the time. I personally believe that manson wasnt responsible for the actions that he was prosecuted for because he WASNT present when these acts was committed. Thusly I’m going to leave my arguments and perceptions out there for others to discuss and will continue to stay up to date on this particular thread. I leave you with the sae thought that your parents(as well as mine) used to say “If little jhonny told you to jump off a bridge would you do it?” sure these kids were doped up on lsd but still yet one cannot be held accountable for anothers actions in the court of law, that is what we have juvinile detention centers and nut houses for , not so we can lock up probably one of americas most influential and brilliant minds in a penitentiry in the hope that it was working for a greater good. its been 40+ years and have we had any improvement socially, no we have rapists, child molesters, crackheads, illegal immigrants in the thousands, and so on. we’re on a social teeter totter and I say look at the statistics and tell me how much progress we’ve made as a “people.”

  • me

    My mother never said I love you I dont know my father i remember he smashed my favorite toy against the walll
    you told me confessss my sins or illll go to helll are you are more fulll of lies than anyone you who told me that what do I have to live for maturbating at oictures of women and the irqui war
    rap music crap alcoholism ‘now is the only thing thats real’
    we live ina society thats more interested in what happpens when you DIE than what happpens to the living !

  • Teal, Order of the Rainbow

    I wish you all Blessed Fortune.
    some would like to know that while the urban youths of today along with those crazed media hosts still long for new news of some sort dealing with manson, he is still humble and in good spirits. i still blame many of those who betrayed him. what happened on that nite of august is something unforgettable and unforgivable but the true criminals the ones who betrayed and decided to do things their way in hopes of freeing cupid they are the true murderers. Manson only wanted to give the lost a home. i will not get in depth on the latter due to ongoing debate, my only goal is to show that those who remain loyal to manson and his teachings still do exist we are alive and active. we seek to help our earth, and return it to it’s natural beauty by destroying pollution and poverty. One Love, One Mind. Unity is key.
    do not loose sight of the truth and fall victim to the medias lies. the Goverment is the puppet master pulling our presidents strings…show your voice as one and all the heavens will hear our cry. do not waste this precious earth.
    Animals, Trees, Air, Water-ATWA.org
    Peace be with you all. Teal, Order of the rainbow.

  • bob2112

    Yer all livin’ in a garbage dump!

  • AManda

    Charles Manson is fuking nuts omg holla back atcha girl!!!!!

  • Chris Kent

    Thank you for info on the infamous truck, and am glad to see it is still residing, free of vandalism, in that dusty, quiet town.

    That’s quite an offer. Good luck! When I was in Ballarat last summer there was not a soul to be found and the general store was locked up as tight as an old man’s trunk. I enjoyed sitting on the porch, about as isolated as I’ve ever been. It was a beautiful spot, but at 117 degrees (there was a thermometer on the front porch), I just stayed in the shade, cursed the heat and poured water on my head. After two minutes, my head was as dry as if I had just used a blowdryer…..Let the kids know there’s a well at Barker Ranch, and the spring water is quite good………..rugged conditions, to say the least, but hey, I’m just a city boy from Dallas…….;)

  • Rock Novak

    As caretaker of the ghost town of Ballarat, close to Manson’s Barker Ranch, I should have mentioned visitors are always welcome here. We have cold drinks, munchies, rest rooms and hot showers with gold and silver ore for sale along with emergency car supplies.
    Rock Novak.

  • Rock Novak c/o

    My buddy Pete is allowing me to clear up some points. As “mayor” of Ballarat I am also caretaker of this ghost town. It is a wonderful place in Panamint Valley and gateway to the Barker Ranch where Charles Manson and his people lived for so long. One of his girls lived in nearby Trona for a while until she moved to Texas a few years back. The pickup is here still. There is a working goldmine. I am anxious to find a lady about 30-50 who is interested in living here with me for a while to help document the history of this area. Quite a task. Somebody who loves history and with an eye to journalism would be great. I can supply the home, food and companionship. Write to Rock Novak, PO Box 80, Trona, CA 93592.

  • Peter

    I live a few miles away from Barker Ranch and Ballarat in the town of Trona. The green truck is still there in good shape and a caretaker watches over the ghost town where a movie called Danger Zone was made in the 80s. The truck is fine and still bears the painted black sky and stars (or pentagrams) on the inside of the roof. Email me for pictures and I will try to help.

  • Chris Kent

    excuse typos – Ceast=Cease

  • Chris Kent

    Sorry, Beach Boys renamed song “Never Learn Not to Love,” with line Ceast to Exist changed to Ceast to Resist……

    It’s just all a big LSD mess after a while….I think I’ll listen to The Doors instead…..

  • Chris Kent

    If Crispin Glover can record Manson, I suppose anyone can.

    As for Lemonheads’ note, I would think it was done in jest. At least, one would hope so…..

    “Ceast to Exist” was the song recorded by The Beach Boys in 1968, only they renamed it “Ceast to Resist.”

  • HW Saxton Jr.

    L.A.punk band Redd Kross also recorded
    the Manson tune “Cease To Exist” on the
    LP “Born Innocent”.It isn’t listed on
    the sleeve or the vinyl but rather as a
    hidden track.It’s the last track on side
    two.It may be listed on the re-released
    CD though.


    Anyone know what’s up with Evan Dando’s love of the Manson Family? On that one Lemonhead’s album he gives them props in the liner notes.

  • Chris Kent

    Is there a single weird thing Crispin Glover has NOT done?

    I will not knock him too much however, as he did star in The River’s Edge, one of the great unknown movies of all time…..

  • Nick Jones

    Manson trivia:

    Manson’s song, “I’ll Never Say Never to Always” has also been covered, as “Always is Always”, by Psychic TV and Crispin (Hellion) Glover (of Back to the Future fame).

  • Chris Kent


    I loved Goler Wash when I drove up it and into Death Valley. Beautiful, lonely land. There is a green truck in the ghost town of Ballarat that belonged to Charles Tex Watson and the Manson family. It is still there and I think is probably the one you refer to – though when I saw it it was not crushed.

    There is also an old furniture truck half buried in mud that belonged to the Manson family in the junk pile next to Barker Ranch. I am told there is another junk pile near Barker Ranch with about 10-20 abandoned automobiles, about half of which likely belonged to the Manson family.

    There was no truck that ever belonged to Manson, though he did have a dune buggy which is in Vegas. A lot of the old miners will tell tall tales up there, and you can only believe half of what they say. The truck in Ballarat is legit, and was left by Charles Tex Watson stuck in the mud on the salt flats when he left the family a few weeks before they were captured. Miners towed it out and left it in Ballarat, where it is on display today.

    Miners have been going up and down Goler Wash for over 50 years, and these days what once belonged to Manson and Crew has disappeared or been consumed by the miners’ own trash.

    I can forward you to a Death Valley chat site where you can get more info on the discarded Goler Wash autos…just e-mail me…..

  • Jaybird

    I enjoyed reading your story about the Manson cult.
    I traveled up Goler wash two weeks ago and checked out the mines and Newman cabin.
    Near the Iris Mine there is a junk yard of mining equipment and various vehicles that have been stripped.
    The guys I was with insisted that an old green pickup that had obviously been crushed by a dozer was the truck Manson drove.
    If you have any knowledge of what he drove other than busses I’d sure like to know the truth about that truck.The odd thing about it is the key is still in the ignition! The undercarrage has been removed and the engine and trans. are still in it.
    If you have any input I’d sure be glad to put this story to rest.
    Thanks for your time.

    goler w

  • Chris Kent

    A good point Duke my friend,

    I don’t think too many would have realized the connection if not for Axl wearing a Charles Manson shirt in concert…..which brought quite a bit of hellfire down upon him. Ol’ Axl, the rock star who loves to shoot himself in the foot with repeated, machine-like precision……Once the media got wind of that, they went to town……Guns’N’Roses were at their peak at the time, and could get away with such a peculiar artistic direction……What a great band they were prior to self-destructing….

  • Not being one to pay convicted murderers any money, especially not neo-nazi ones, i did not purchase the manson album in question, but in fact downloaded it. As for the GNR thing, i wonder how that worked legally anyhow, what with it being a bonus track and uncredited and so on. Mind you, as hidden stuff goes, i think its up there with the eiffel tower. Was there anyone who bought it not knowing that track was on there? Come to think of it, was there anyone who bought it period?

  • Chris Kent

    Thanks Senor Duke. Your comments are appreciated. Manson always freaks me out, but it’s close to ground zero and fascinating. A lot of misinformation as the hoopla was in full throttle at the time. But authentic never-the-less.

    Guns’N’Roses took a lot of heat for covering that tune, and am not sure if it was the right thing to do. For all intents and purposes, these folks should be dead by now as they were all given the death penalty. If it had not been abolished in 1972, they would be long gone. I would hope these convicted murderers could not receive any payment from their infamy, though I know that is wishing for a perfect world….

  • Chris, this was great. I haven’t saw Helter Skelter, slthough i do have a copy of the 1972 doc you mentioned, Manson. Those opening shots of the family members brandishing rifles and revealing thier dogmatic theories and intentions was incredibly chilling. Manson’s album, Lies, i belive its called, is similarly unpleasant company, although wether or not one cares to admit it, he did write at least one genuinely brilliant song; Look At Your Game, Girl, later covered with aplomb by Axl Rose PHD for The Spaghetti Incident AKA The G’N’R Album No One Remembers. Excellent work, Chris. Especially enjoyed the brief travelogue.