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A Pre–‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ Lesson on the Manson Family

Quentin Tarantino’s new film takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, the same year Charles Manson’s cult began its killing spree. So before seeing the movie, here’s what you need to know to catch the references to real-life events.

Getty Images/Sony Pictures Entertainment/Ringer illustration

As evident from its title, Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood takes place … in Hollywood. It follows actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman/gofer/best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they cling to their lower-rung Hollywood status during the summer of 1969. The film’s plot was kept on lockdown during production, although the casting of Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate hinted at a story that intersected with the Manson family’s notorious killing spree that August. As anyone who watched Shosanna burn Hitler alive in Inglourious Basterds knows, Tarantino is fond of letting his characters loose within historical moments and crafting an alternate history. As an audience, though, it’s always more fun to watch the past get remixed if you’re familiar with the real story. So, ahead of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, here is a rundown of the real-life people and places the movie folds into its story.

Who was Sharon Tate?

While Rick and Cliff are Tarantino’s inventions, Tate and her friends were real people. In 1969, the 26-year-old Tate was an up-and-coming actress renowned for her beauty. Her turn as Jennifer North in the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls had earned her a Golden Globe nomination, despite the film’s negative reviews. (It is now considered a cult classic; and while she was not especially acclaimed during her lifetime, Tate has emerged as an enduring 1960s style icon.) Her marriage to Roman Polanski had raised her profile considerably, as Rosemary’s Baby had turned the Polish director into a revered auteur, and the couple were part of an extended group of the young, rich, famous, and libertine circulating around Los Angeles in the late 1960s, including actress Candice Bergen and music producer Terry Melcher. Prior to her relationship with Polanski, Tate had dated celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, who cut Warren Beatty, Bruce Lee, and Frank Sinatra’s hair, and who was close with his client Steve McQueen. The two remained close friends. At the beginning of 1969, Tate and Polanski moved into a house at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, taking over the rental property from Bergen and Melcher.

What really happened to her?

In the summer of 1969, Tate was murdered at the Cielo Drive rental property, along with Sebring, aspiring screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, and coffee heiress Abigail Folger, as well as 18-year-old Steven Parent, a friend of the home’s caretaker. Tate was eight months pregnant. The killers mutilated the bodies, and used Tate’s blood to spell the word “pig” on the door. The sheer horror of the killing made it the most notorious murder of an era filled with notorious murders. At first, police arrested 19-year-old property caretaker William Garretson. However, they eventually convicted members of the Manson family cult for the murder—including its leader, Charles Manson.

Who are Charles Manson and the family?

Charles Manson was a drifter and career criminal who aspired to be a musician. He spent most of his life in prison before being released at 32 years old in 1967. Manson moved from Terminal Island Prison to San Francisco after his release and lived in an apartment in Berkeley during the “Summer of Love.” He began preaching on the street and attracted a devout following, primarily of young women who had left their homes. He peddled a hodgepodge of beliefs, based partly on Scientology, which he had studied in prison. He sometimes claimed that he was Christ resurrected, other times that he was the devil. While his exact philosophy was incoherent, Manson consistently encouraged excessive drug use and female sexual subservience. His followers included Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten, as well as “Tex” Watson; the exact number of followers waxed and waned, but at its height it was less than a hundred or so people. (Much of the information about the inner workings of the group came from Linda Kasabian, a former follower who later testified against Manson.) This group called itself the “family” and moved to Southern California.

Manson and his followers hung around the Hollywood music scene, befriending the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson and living on Wilson’s property for a time. At the time of the Tate murders, around 20 members of the family lived on Spahn Ranch.

What is Spahn Ranch?

Spahn Ranch sat in the far northwest corner of Los Angeles County. Before it gained notoriety as the home of California’s most murderous commune, it had a storied Hollywood history. Producer William S. Hart bought the 55-acre ranch in the 1920s with the intention of using it in film. It soon became “a full-blown soundstage, as numerous filmmakers were attracted to the desolate landscape,” Slashfilm’s Jacob Knight noted in a history of the ranch. David O. Selznick shot Duel in the Sun on the property in 1946. In 1953, George Spahn bought the ranch and shifted its focus to television, and it then became the set for shows like The Lone Ranger and Bonanza. Already an old man, Spahn saw his Hollywood fortunes dwindle as Westerns fell out of style. So when the Manson family came calling, he didn’t turn them away. “With very little dough to pay George for rent, Charlie and the blind man reached a sort of gentlemen’s agreement,” Knight wrote. “The Manson family wives would have sex with Spahn and act as his personal slaves, so that the clan could stay for free.”

The Spahn Ranch burned down after a brush fire in 1970, but the grounds are still open for tours.

Can we go back to the Beach Boys thing for a moment?

Yes—it’s wild. Even though Charles Manson was untalented, short, and covered in filth, he managed to make friends with a bizarrely large amount of connected people. Manson was skilled at emotionally weaponizing the hippie lifestyle; in the late 1960s, when it was en vogue to pick up hitchhikers, smoke weed with strangers, and practice “free love,” Manson took full advantage of the atmosphere. “Wilson was initially intrigued by Manson’s songs and philosophy. He also enjoyed the favors of Charlie’s subservient ‘women,’ who did all the household chores, in the kitchen and the bedroom,” a Curbed report on Manson family lodgings explained. “But the group soon outstayed its welcome (Wilson estimated their stay cost him around $100,000, including a trip to a local sexual health clinic), and Wilson fled his own home.” Wilson liked Manson so much that he actually convinced the rest of the Beach Boys to record a revamped version of one of Manson’s songs in 1968, and introduced him to the Byrds’ producer, Terry Melcher, who agreed to listen to Manson play. Melcher did not end up giving Manson a record deal, which angered Manson, who also cut ties with Wilson because he was angry that Wilson reworked his song “Cease to Exist.” While the song did appear on the Beach Boys’ album 20/20 as “Never Learn Not to Love,” Manson was not given writing credit.

But why kill Sharon Tate?

The explanation offered by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi both in his book Helter Skelter and during the trial of Charles Manson is that the Manson family wanted to jump-start a race riot Manson called “Helter Skelter”—after the Beatles song—by framing the Black Panthers for the brutal murders of white people. According to Bugliosi, Manson believed that the family could provoke the bloodshed, hide in the desert, and then re-emerge after the war and enslave the remaining black survivors. “I knew this was just the beginning of helter skelter,” Atkins told a cellmate in jail after killing Sharon Tate, according to Helter Skelter. “Now the world would listen.”

When Bugliosi interviewed Atkins, she was even more specific. “The whole thing was done to instill fear in the establishment and cause paranoia. Also to show the black man how to take over the white man,” she said.

The family may have chosen 10050 Cielo Drive as their first target because Melcher, who had rejected Manson’s attempts to secure a record deal, had previously lived there. In another interview with police, Atkins indicated that scaring Melcher was also a motive. Tate wasn’t the specific target.

Another theory: Manson may have wanted to blame the Black Panthers to help his follower Bobby Beausoleil, who had been arrested for the murder of a former Manson family associate, Gary Hinman, and who had blamed the Black Panthers for the killing. “I suppose he, meaning Manson, said to himself, ‘How am I going to help my friend Beausoleil out? By showing that the actual murderer of Hinman is still at large. So I know that Melcher used to live in this house on Cielo Drive,’” Rolling Stone’s 1970 investigation on Manson hypothesized.

Let’s go back to this “Helter Skelter” thing for a moment.

It won’t make any more sense if you think about it longer. In the 2019 book Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, journalist Tom O’Neill argues that Bugliosi had both lied and hidden information as he prosecuted Manson. While O’Neill does not conclusively offer another motive for the murders, he suggests that the “Helter Skelter” motive does not hold up, and that both drugs and government counterradicalism programs may have played a role.

Where else can I read about this history?

For anyone looking for the most comprehensive explorations of the family, You Must Remember This podcaster Karina Longworth’s series “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” is a thorough and insightful primer. Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter is the original true crime text on the case, while Jeff Guinn’s Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson is a detailed biography. And most recently, O’Neill’s Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties delves into evidence contradicting Bugliosi’s narrative and deeply examines the possibility of conspiracies connected to the case. While the book does not come to any hard conclusions on what Manson’s real motives were or what exactly was withheld from the public regarding the prosecution, it does make a compelling argument that the official narrative is incomplete.

So what happens in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood could be true?

Uh, well … maybe just see it for yourself.