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.