Charles Manson: New Doc Goes Inside 'Family,' Spahn Ranch - Rolling Stone
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New Manson Doc Goes Inside Spahn Ranch

‘Inside the Manson Cult’ trods old territory but adds new color — and new revelations

Charles MansonCharles Manson

Charles Manson died in prison last year. A new documentary offers insight in his life and cult.


It would be easy to believe that Fox’s new two-hour, Liev Schreiber-narrated special, Inside the Manson Cult: The Lost Tapeswould simply re-trod old territory. With so much already out there on the man, his followers and their infamous two-day murder spree in Los Angeles in August 1969, does this documentary show anything new, or is it the latest attempt to capitalize on our continued fascination with Manson and the true crime genre?

In some ways, yes, it falls into this pattern. Sure, it tells the usual Manson narrative: he gets out of jail in 1967, winds up in San Francisco just in time for the Summer of Love, starts attracting women, grows the group, they move in with Dennis Wilson, Manson doesn’t get a record deal from Terry Melcher, they retreat to Spahn Ranch, Hollywood becomes the enemy, the murders take place, followed by the trial. That part hasn’t changed.

But what is different about Fox’s upcoming special is the color it provides, both literally and figuratively, through never-before-seen, sun-drenched film footage of the Family on Spahn Ranch, as well as new interviews with those involved. These video and audio recordings remind us that this was real — he was real — and so were his brainwashing tactics and followers. It’s not just an overused plot line from a procedural crime drama, it was a series of events that changed the course of countless lives forever.

Here are a few of the ways Inside the Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes is different from what we’ve seen before.

The documentary has its own backstory
Throughout his 30-year career, Simon Andreae, the special’s executive producer, has made documentaries on serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Armin Meiwes, dubbed the Rotenburg Cannibal. But he’s always wanted to make a film on Manson. He had heard about a young film director named Robert Hendrickson who took hundreds of hours of footage of the Family between December 1969 and March 1973 — some of which Hendrickson used to make his 1973 documentary Manson.

But Andreae knew there must be far more of the Family on film that didn’t make the cut in 1973. He just didn’t know where to find it. So, he hired a private investigator who tracked down the house where Hendrickson had lived, and made contact with his widow and son, who were still residing there.

Once he had access to the lost tapes, Andreae went through more than 100 hours of footage and ended up concentrating on three aspects of the Manson narrative for his documentary: telling the story of the Manson Family from the inside, showing how Manson was able to brainwash his followers and bringing to light revelations on the crimes.

Members of the Family on Spahn Ranch.


Brainwashing in real time
Hendrickson was granted unprecedented access to the Family and Spahn Ranch shortly after Manson and several other Family members were arrested in December 1969. At one point, he smuggled a video camera into Manson’s jail cell and recorded messages from the imprisoned leader to his followers, where he asks them to break him out from behind bars, providing an inside look into how he brainwashed and manipulated them.

“[The audience] will learn, in real time and from the inside, exactly how a charismatic maniacal demagogue can use sex, drugs, and the rhetoric of racial and sexual hatred to turn a group of regular young middle class kids into brutal and brainwashed assassins, all within the space of less than two years,” Andreae tells Rolling Stone.

One example of this is an audio recording of Manson preaching: “You’re born with survival instinct to be selfish. So, the first thing that happens, man, is that they start giving you their thoughts and making things out of you that they want to make out of, man,” he says in the recording. “And by the time you reach 30, you’re exactly what they want. You’re a free soul standing in a cage who has to die because he was taught.”

In the documentary, former Family member Catherine “Gypsy” Share says that they would listen to everything he had to say, without ever speaking up, disagreeing or commenting. In fact, she notes that Manson would always seem to answer their questions before they had any as part of his manipulation technique.

“Brainwashing often sounds like an improbable or even impossible technique, something that is either use as an alibi for criminal behavior or an ‘excuse’ when other explanations can’t be found,” Andreae says. “Here you can actually see it happening. It’s real and bizarrely, it’s not that hard to perform.”

The effects of the brainwashing are also apparent in the interviews with Family members. In one scene on the ranch, Thomas Walleman, one of Manson’s former followers, says: “I am Charlie. When he dies, I die. I gave up my personality and become what he showed me I could be.”

Another chilling example came from Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who leans on a rifle and tells the camera, “Every girl oughta have a daddy like Charlie. Should — deserves — to have a daddy like Charlie.”

New interviews with original players
In addition to Share, Andreae incorporates several other present-day interviews with key Manson Family players and experts, like former FBI criminal profiler John Douglas (who is the basis for Jonathan Groff’s character in Mindhunter) and former Family member Dianne Lake.

Interviews with Lake from 2018 are featured prominently throughout the documentary, though they don’t provide any crucial insights beyond what she already included in her 2017 book about her time in the Family and her participation as a witness in the murder trial. Still, her presence grants an air of authenticity to the film, as she explained how Manson lured her in at the age of 14, and how she eventually pieced her life back together.

“It felt good to tell my story and give glory to God for getting me through and giving me a wonderful life in spite of this horrendous piece of history,” Lake tells Rolling Stone. “The book was well-received and so being part of the documentary was an extension of my revelation of truth from my perspective looking back at my perceptions as a 14- to 16-year-old.”

Lake says that this documentary is different because it “reveals how people in the family and those close to the victims and those involved in the prosecution were affected, and responding to the murders emotionally and psychologically.”

But perhaps Andreae’s biggest coup was getting phone interviews with Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil, who has been in prison for nearly 50 years for the murder of Gary Hinman, a musician who was friends with Manson and the Family. Andreae says he explained to Beausoleil that they weren’t trying to glamorize or condemn the crimes because that has already been done. Instead, he says that he told Beausoleil that the aim of the film was to “understand how it was that he and so many others had come under Manson’s thrall and been turned from regular kids into brutal killers.”

Beausoleil’s interview segments in the documentary are short, but impactful, like when he says that it’s hard to fathom how long he has been incarcerated, adding: “I’ve shattered my soul.” The rest of Beausoleil’s involvement centers on Hinman’s murder, walking through what happened that night in July 1969, and noting that “Gary was a friend. He didn’t do anything to deserve what happened to him.”

Another modern-day interview features Windy Bucklee, a ranch hand who was living and working at Spahn Ranch when Manson and his Family took up residence there in 1968. She wasn’t impressed with the group from the beginning. “Every now and then, them girls would ask me why I didn’t throw away my bras and run like them half naked around the ranch. Didn’t I feel like I should be free? I said, ‘You’re not free. You’re slaves,’” she tells the camera.

Members of Charles Manson’s cult.


New revelations
At this point, after nearly half a century of police investigations, media reports and features on TV and in movies, there’s not much that’s not already widely publicized about Manson, his Family and their crimes. But that’s exactly why two seemingly minor remarks in Andreae’s film stand out so much today.

Perhaps the biggest reveal of the film came in Hendrickson’s original lost footage from former Family member Paul Watkins, whose long hair and California stoner accent appears throughout the documentary. At one point, during an audio-only portion of the lost tapes, Watkins says that Manson was plotting the murders up to three months before they actually took place: “He said that one day up in the mountains in Beverly Hills they’d just go in and have a bunch of mass murders, and that they would be so atrocious and there would be blood splattered all over everything, that people would be chopped into pieces with knives, and there would be things written on the walls in blood. And the white man would get all uptight about it and blame the n**ger for it.”

The other notable piece of new information came from a 2018 interview with Aesop Aquarian — a character actor who moved to Spahn Ranch and joined the Family shortly after Manson’s 1969 arrest — who says that during the trial, one of the girls approached him and said, “We’ve gotta get Charlie out. We want you to go to the courthouse and kill the judge.”

At that point, Aquarian says that he felt his jaw drop. “You want me to what? ‘We want you to kill the judge. That’ll show them that we’re serious and that will get Charlie out.’ Are you for real? And she said ‘yeah,’” he says. “My first thought was what the hell am I doing here? I don’t think that was the next day that I left, but it could have been.”

Manson’s legacy
In addition to some fascinating new footage of life on Spahn Ranch, showing carefree Family members laughing and dancing — as if it was actually the utopia they had been promised — another striking aspect of Andreae’s film is his use of Manson’s original recordings of his own songs. The first is “Home Is Where You’re Happy,” which plays during aerial shots of Spahn Ranch and the Family frolicking in the hills around their home.

His song “Cease to Exist” rolls at the ending of the film, as viewers get a glimpse into where former Family members are now, in 2018. If this song sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the one Wilson managed to get on the Beach Boys’ 1969 album 20/20 under the title “Never Learn Not to Love.” Not surprisingly, since it was credited to Wilson on the LP, Manson was enraged by what he perceived as Wilson’s theft of his song; after all, Manson always saw himself becoming a rockstar, gaining fame and notoriety until he was, in his words, “bigger than the Beatles.”

Arguably, Manson got his wish, albeit it in a far more sinister manner. And now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary, his own performance of two of his original songs will run on a primetime network television special.

Andreae thinks Manson, who died last November at the age of 83, would likely approve of certain aspects of his documentary.

“I think it portrays him as a little more needy and a little less of a mastermind than he would have liked, but pleasing him was obviously not our aim,” he says. “Having said that, I do believe that in his heart of hearts, he would confess that we got him pretty well.”

Inside the Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes, airs on Fox on Monday, September 17th at 8 p.m. EST.

In This Article: 1960s, Charles Manson, Documentary


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