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Why We Keep Coming Back to the Manson Family

As the 50th anniversary of the Manson Family murders approaches, new books and films like Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ and journalist Tom O’Neill’s ‘Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties’ pick up a gruesome story that has come to define a turning point in American history.

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Spoiler alert

On August 10, 1969, a middle-aged couple named Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were viciously murdered by unknown assailants in their Los Feliz home. The night before, five people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, had been brutally killed at 10050 Cielo Drive, a swanky home in Benedict Canyon. The two consecutive nights of carnage left Los Angeles in a panic. Several months of unsuccessful investigating and mounting dread followed, until the police arrested Charles Manson, a charismatic con man disguised as a hippie, and several of his drifter followers, who had carried out the killings on Manson’s orders as part of a poorly orchestrated white supremacist plot. The ensuing trials were an era-defining spectacle. “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe the sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969,” Joan Didion proclaimed in her essay “The White Album.”

Except: Not really. All these years later, it seems that the Manson Family didn’t destroy the ’60s as much as calcify a corner of the decade into a horror story. In the ensuing years, Manson became one of America’s most enduring modern demons, the debaser of girls and architect of mayhem, a spooky fable the culture tells about the counterculture.

Rather than extinguishing the ’60s, the Manson Family’s crimes have made this particularly macabre chapter hard for many to leave behind.

People started trying to process the murders as a coherent narrative almost immediately after they happened. “As I first began to investigate the case for my 1971 book, The Family, the allure of the Tate-LaBianca murders seemed obvious: It had famous rock ’n’ roll stars like Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who briefly housed the so-called Manson family; it had the appeal of the Wild West; it had the bass drum of the 1960s, with its sexual liberation, its love of the outdoors, its ferocity and its open use of drugs. It had the hunger for stardom and renown; it had religions of all kinds; it had warfare and hometown slaughter; and it had it all in a huge panorama of sex, drugs and violent transgression,” writer Ed Sanders recently wrote for The New York Times, in reflection of his 1971 book that kicked off a still-ongoing obsession.

Helter Skelter, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book on the 1970-71 Manson trial, is one of the first modern true-crime blockbusters, and it shaped the general cultural perception of the murders as the result of a cockamamie white supremacist plot gone awry. The book begat a miniseries with the same name in 1976, which was then remade in 2004 (with the iconic Clea DuVall as Linda Kasabian). Manson Family members then started releasing their own stories, including Susan Atkins’s 1977 memoir Child of Satan, Child of God and Dianne Lake’s 2017 memoir Member of the Family. There’s the 2014 biopic House of Manson, the 2016 slasher-flick Wolves at the Door, the 2016 Lifetime movie treatment Manson’s Lost Girls. There are podcasts. There are documentaries. There was an opera at the Lincoln Center. There was the canceled ABC drama Aquarius, with David Duchovny Muldering his way toward Manson. The next season of David Fincher’s Mindhunter will tackle Manson as well. (And this is not even touching on the hundreds of books and movies that use the Manson murders as a reference point, from Emma Cline’s drifting 2016 novel The Girls to Mad Men’s Megan Draper-in-Hollywood arc to the 2011 thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene.) There’s even a mumblecore comedy about being obsessed with Charles Manson! As the 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders approaches, a number of new projects have been released. Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, which focuses on the female Manson murderers, and Daniel Farrand’s The Haunting of Sharon Tate, which stars Hilary Duff, were released this year. And, most recently, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, whose plot orbits around the Manson Family, imagining an alternate ending to its gruesome tale. “His image had become a repository for our fears,” Tom O’Neill, a journalist who investigated the Manson story for more than 20 years, recently wrote in his new book, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.

While the quantity of Manson-themed books, films, and television is vast, the quality is all over the place; in lieu of insight, these projects tend to rely on tropes about cults and hippies, resulting in shallow, incoherent Wikipedia rehashes instead of actual stories. One of the major challenges of creating a cohesive plot out of what is known about the Manson Family is that so much simply doesn’t make any sense. Manson’s exact motives for the murders remain unknown, but Bugliosi’s account—that Manson wanted his followers to jump-start a race war by flaming the Black Panthers for murders—is so strange and incomplete that it practically begs for a different ending. Journalist Rachel Monroe devotes a section of her upcoming book on true crime, Savage Appetites, to the long-lasting damage Sharon Tate’s murder had on her family, which splintered after the actresses’ death. In it, Monroe discusses how even people involved or intimately connected to the tragedy had an impulse to fiddle with the story. William Garretson, the teenage caretaker who claimed to have slept through the murders, later went on to marry a woman who claimed that she was the daughter of Sharon Tate who had been cut out of her mother’s womb by the Manson Family and spirited away. “We both survived the same murder,” the woman, who called herself Rosie Tate-Polanski, told papers at the time.

“In my nearly twenty years of reporting on this case, people have asked me all the time: What do I think really happened? I hate that question more than anything. The plain answer is, I don’t know,” O’Neill writes in Chaos. O’Neill took an assignment to write about the impact that the Manson murders had on the Hollywood community from the now-defunct Premiere magazine in the late ’90s. He blew his deadline again and again, then decided to turn the project into a book, and then blew that deadline, too, as he stuffed his home with files of transcripts of conversations he had with hundreds of people for thousands of hours. While O’Neill had originally envisioned prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi as his protagonist, many of his other sources questioned the official version of events to the point that the celebrity prosecutor became an antagonist, threatening to sue the perpetually behind-schedule reporter. (In a page-turner stacked with gobsmacking facts, O’Neill’s years-long stipend for a single longform feature is still one of the more incredible tidbits detailed.) O’Neill was eventually able to produce a finished manuscript after bringing on a cowriter, the journalist and biographer Dan Piepenbring, to help organize his voluminous reporting.

The result doesn’t quite rewrite the Manson narrative, but it makes a compelling case that the real story is unknowable. It doesn’t answer questions so much as it raises them, and provides a pocket history of the CIA’s illegal domestic surveillance program, CHAOS, as well as the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation, which sought to “increase factionalism” within the left wing.

The book examines evidence that the United States government granted the Manson family “curious leniency,” allowing them out of situations others would have been prosecuted for many times prior to their murder spree; O’Neill ultimately suggests that these privileges may have been connected to a plan to allow Manson to form his cult in order to foment negative public sentiment toward left-wing radicals. While it leaves much unanswered, Chaos successfully argues that the Tate-LaBianca murders are still, in many fundamental ways, a mystery, and not the horrifying and pat “Helter Skelter” nightmare presented by Bugliosi.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood also veers away from the established narrative about the Manson Family. Instead, Quentin Tarantino’s film recasts the events as a revenge fantasy. In 1969 Los Angeles, fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best bud Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are able to thwart the Family through a combination of happenstance, acid, and ready access to a flamethrower. Funny and immensely entertaining, Once Upon a Time will likely serve as an introduction to the Manson Family for a generation less familiar with its crimes. But it also highlights one of the most captivating aspects of the real crime—the way it tapped into fears about women.

Tarantino secured permission from the Tate family to portray Sharon Tate, who serves as the film’s avatar for innocence. Margot Robbie’s performance is a gentle tribute, one that luxuriates in Tate’s playfulness and imagines a world where she gets to stay happy and alive. While Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood has been warmly received, much of the critical thinking about the film has reflected on its often-cruel treatment of its female characters. The way Cliff and Rick kill the Manson women is shown in gleeful, gruesome detail, and even the non-murdery Manson girls are depicted as repellant nincompoops—the ultimate, dirty-footed example of being led astray. Meanwhile, while Tate is lovingly portrayed, a damsel on a pedestal; unlike how Inglourious Basterds let its Jewish characters whoop Nazi ass, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood shows us two archetypically tough dudes saving a woman by … violently murdering other women.

The way Tarantino positioned Tate is worth pausing on, even for ardent fans of the film. (I include myself in that category.) Tate’s longtime position as Hollywood’s most infamous sacrificial lamb is part of a broader cultural impulse to imagine and obsess over murdered women—particularly murdered young, beautiful white women—as sources of wisdom, vectors for understanding the world. “In antiquity, notes the historian Mary Beard, women were allowed public speech only as victims of martyrs. Some of that old thinking still lives with us, baked into the bones of Western culture,” Monroe writes in Savage Appetites. “So even as some victims are blamed or debased, others are afforded a kind of wounded authority, or an authority rooted in their wounds. Famous victims can speak for the rest of us. And we can use their tragedies to stand in for our personal cataclysms.”

The catalog of Manson Family content is part of a broader fixation on dead women. That this particular crime provides both Madonna (Tate) and whores (the Manson women) makes it even more irresistibly sordid, on top of all the other elements (hippies, cults, Hollywood) that collided to make it into one of the country’s most infamous massacres. Tarantino has plenty of company in leaning into this trope of the victimized woman as a symbol, including the popular podcast My Favorite Murder, which is hosted by two women and which reimagines heinous crimes as popcorn stories starring “sweet baby angels.” By presenting a daydream about two handsome fellas stumbling into savior roles, Tarantino has created a self-consciously wistful fairy tale about a world where Cliff and Rick’s brand of masculinity could actually help.

Although one imagines a tidy conclusion to the Manson saga and the other spends hundreds of pages tearing holes in the very concept of definitive answers, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties share an urge to find something new in the very well-tread narrative grooves of these murders. As Sanders noted, the crimes are so easily freighted with portentous significance; they can be rearranged as parables about the dark edge of ambition for celebrity, the perils of cultural change, and how drugs and racism can addle the brain. Senseless slaughter will never suddenly make sense, but the lasting desire to untangle the impossible knot speaks to the storyteller’s impulse to root out a moral, to find a better sense of an ending. This appetite seems unlikely to fade as this particular anniversary passes. Manson movies and books will continue to be released, forever—or, at least, until another real-life horror can tap into national anxieties with such grim specificity.