By Terry Ott
So, Charlie Manson is no longer with us, but is the age and mythology of Helter Skelter dead as well?
The mainstream media Manson death watch and good riddance over the past 72 hours might tend to indicate that what former Los Angeles assistant district attorney Vincent T. Bulgliosi wrought back in 1974 with what became the biggest selling true crime book of all time at 7 million copies shifted, will survive the death of the "cult leader."
Bugliosi's Helter Skelter, subtitled The True Story Of The Manson Murders absolutely enthralled millions of readers, attracted by the fact-stuffed and insider nature of the text. And seeing that it was Vince T who presented the state's case and won death penalty verdicts for Manson and seven members of his "Family," what later became a sometimes mythological narrative constructed by Bugliosi in Helter Skelter would still seem to have book shelf life as you can bet that many more copies of the book will be purchased in the next three months or so. When one LA detective at the murder scene of Sharon Tate, Abigal Folger, Voytek Frykowski, Jay Sebring and Steven Parent described the crime as "a weird homicide," he most likely never knew how prescient he would be. And "weird," surely still sells.
Bugliosi, and Manson authors who have followed him have all pounded out the same basic narrative of what became known at the "Manson Murders" and the alluring but eventual toxic cocktail of Hollywood decadence and pop/counter culture accoutrements, specifically, the music of the Beatles found on The White Album (The Beatles), released almost a year before the murders in November, 1968 and offered by Vince T as the "blueprint" for the Manson slayings as well as a weirdly believable thread to tie the whole mess to what Bugliosi claimed was Charlie's Helter Skelter world tour.
And when during the Easter Week of April 1976 the TV version of Helter Skelter appeared with an amazing doppelganger performance by Steve Railsback as Charlie, it is said the two part pyscho/horror-drama became the largest watched TV movie of all time-or at least at that time. Watch for this 4 hour television drama to reappear as well as a new interest in the Beatles' White Album music by those perhaps too young to have have been previously seduced by some of its more spooky and raucous and coincidental tracks threading to the Manson Family experience.
On the 30th anniversary of the of the murders, I wrote a retrospective for the National Post asking the question of what still drives the Charlie Manson murder mystique and I got some interesting answers.
Political science professor Henry Jacek of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario had the interesting observation that Manson "taps into what I think is a very important part of American culture: a pure manifestation of revolt against state and social authority, which is a common theme about American culture."
As for Manson's continuing media attraction, even tabloid whoring, I had also asked the question, has any other mass murderer been rock 'n' rolled like Charles Manson?
Jacek said: "I think the media are fascinated with anyone who has a personality and is articulate. The fact that Manson is intelligent makes him interesting. An unintelligent murderer is of much less interest that an intelligent one."Also featured in the story was Dr. Clara Livesy, author of The Manson Women. She wrote: "I was confused by the picture of him I was getting from others and from reading about him. he was, I heard repeatedly, mentally ill and deteriorating. Or still endowed with evil powers, ready to influence his alleged followers. These generalizations did not satisfy my curiosity because they did not explain anything."
Then, and now, the word "evil" gets thrown around a lot when describing Manson. The Satan too, as evidenced by a recent front page in the New York Daily News.
Or as Don Mclean once sang, "Helter Skelter in a summer swelter...cause fire is the devil's only friend," and Manson certainly at times embraced that notion that he was a modern day devil, if not the anti-christ. But then again, Charlie was always good at selling a story...
But for those that do not subscribe to the idea of evil, or devils and demons and slaves of Satan etc., but rather look at pyscho/sociopaths and mental illness and even timing and randomness and drugs and sex, the saga of Charles Manson and his crimes take on a slightly different aura, as evidenced by the voluminous and intuitive renderings on the Manson case by the contributors and operators of The Manson Blog.
The (still) imprisoned former Family members Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Bruce Davis have surely come to understand that Charlie was but a conduit of the crazy times rather than the owner of the powers claimed him by Bugliosi and the larger media.
Van Houten and Davis have been granted parole but are still stuck in the joint, now going on 48 years, due to the governor of California's calculated political gambit. Perhaps that gambit will slowly dissolve now that a new post-Manson dynamic is in place.
So, with the "intelligent murderer" now departed at age 83 said to be "eaten alive" with cancer, again, the central question becomes what becomes of the Helter Skelter motive mythology.
Just because Bugliosi was able to win convictions against Manson and other Family members using a Helter Skelter motive presentation and score an after-law career bonanza with Helter Skelter does not necessarily mean that it will survive further scrutiny and revisionism.
Besides saying that "no sense makes sense," Charlie also claimed that the real motive for the Tate/Labianca slayings would never be known. Perhaps now that the head of the Family is mortally gonzo that prediction will prove true. But perhaps not.
Perhaps another look at the circumstances around the murders will at the very least modify the enduring template of Helter Skelter. Ironically, and even counter-intuitively, probably the best thing that ever happened to Manson was Vincent T and his 1974 and on Helter Skelter circus. Vince made Charlie into an international superstar, a happening that even Manson himself noted when he chided news-hounds and others that they were just as much responsible for the horror by continually perpetuating and re-enforcing it, especially the narrative of Beatles music motives and race war and paradise underground in Death Valley. Sexy stuff for sure yet, palpable nonsense or truth is stranger than fiction?
After Manson and the girls' death sentences were commuted in 1972 it is even money that the saga of the Family and its leader were destined to become but grisly footnotes to most until Bugliosi achieved a cultural sensation with Helter Skelter and perhaps to some degree re-wrote if not reinterpreted actual history.
And yet the bizarre trial and Bugliosi's Manson pulp blockbuster produced this continually repeated denial uttered by Manson at trial: "Mr. and Mrs. America-you are wrong. I am not the King of the Jews nor am I a hippie cult leader. I am what you have made of me and the mad dog devil killer fiend leper is a reflection of your society."
If anything could be said to be "good" about the life and times of Charles Manson et al, it may be that regardless of what was advertised as "the true story of the Manson murders," the "real"and accurate story is yet to be fully told.
Terry Ott is a Canadian journalist who has followed the Manson case since 1969.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org