One summer in the late 1980s, when Eli Frankel was about 15, his father gave him a gift. An active part of the 1960s counterculture, the elder Frankel thought his teenage son should be reading more, so one day he brought him Helter Skelter, the 1972 true-crime bestseller about Charles Manson. Written by Vincent Bugliosi, the L.A. County deputy district attorney who had put the cult leader and several of his followers on death row, the tome — clocking in at almost 700 pages — set out the narrative the prosecutor had put in place during the trial: Manson, a crazed guru who had spent his childhood in the criminal-justice system only to emerge into California during the Summer of Love, brought together a group of wayward girls and boys using drugs, sex, and the Beatles’ White Album to cast his spell. He then persuaded a handful of his followers to commit seven horrendous murders, Bugliosi argued, to start Helter Skelter, or the ultimate race war.
Despite the book’s doorstop qualities, Eli dove in. “I was just absolutely entranced,” the documentary producer tells Rolling Stone. “I became obsessed with the story. The 1960s always loomed large to my generation, Gen X, as being this idyllic, romanticized past; this incredible time of creativity and explosive experimentation. And yet here is the story that contradicted everything that had come out of that era. But then the more you delve into it, the more you realize that in a lot of ways, it reflects the era. It’s just a twist on it.”
Frankel went in and out of periods of research over the next 30 years, with the internet making research into side characters and little-known theories easier. Finally, decades after his father tossed him that paperback, he’s brought his obsession to the screen with Helter Skelter: An American Myth, Epix’s new, in-depth docuseries on the Manson Family saga that premiered on July 31st.
Though the title shares its name with Bugliosi’s book, Helter Skelter offers a much more nuanced look at the man and his followers. Over six episodes, the series explores Charles Manson and his “family,” as well as the cultural context: 1960s Hollywood, the counterculture, the Summer of Love, and how Manson, an aspiring musician, manipulated those values for his own benefit. Though previous books and podcasts have gone past the surface, this is the first documentary that goes deep. Using archival audio recorded by the family, old and contemporary interviews with dozens of people who knew Manson, as well as video shot capturing some of the most pivotal locations in Manson’s story, sometimes using actors to illustrate events — “original photography,” clarifies director Lesley Chilcott, not re-creations — the series brings you into Manson’s life in a way never before been presented onscreen.
“Everything that had been on TV was basically the same truncated, CliffsNotes version, but failed to capture the questions at the heart of the matter,” Frankel explains. Manson was a con artist and a sociopath with the gift of gab who could convince others to leave their morals behind. “But he isn’t this larger-than-life Marvel Universe villain the way he’s portrayed in a lot of these TV specials,” says Frankel. “So it seemed to me that there would be an enormous benefit to being able to tell the whole story — and at the same time, to demythologize this guy and make him smaller than what he’s been made into, which is the truth.”
To execute this vision, Frankel brought on Chilcott, who had previously worked on less-disturbing documentary profiles, like Codegirl and Watson, and produced Al Gore’s climate-crisis documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Unlike Frankel, she wasn’t very familiar with the Manson story. When Frankel called her in to discuss his dream of making this series, her first worry was that there wasn’t much more ground to cover. “Why? Why do you want to do this?” she remembers asking. “There’s been so many stories.”
Based on Frankel’s passion, she decided to give it a shot, but instead of whetting her appetite with the prosecutor’s book, she opted for the Rolling Stone 1970 cover story by David Dalton and David Felton, a 30,000-word exploration into the family, written well before Bugliosi’s argument had become the mainstream, when the family was still around, living on Spahn Ranch and supporting their imprisoned brethren.
“It is such an incredible work of journalism,” Chilcott says of the story. “I was like, ‘Oh, there’s philosophy here.’ Dalton kind of fell for him at the beginning; Felton was, like, of course [Manson] did it. And to me, that perfectly represented how society looks at this. You have people that are obsessed with Manson and think he was railroaded. And then you have other people that want to make him into the face of all evil in the world. And I thought, ‘OK, there’s a lot more here. I can do an anthropological dig.’”
The dig went deep. She talked to his old Sunday-school classmate in McMechen, West Virginia, where Manson lived with his uncle while his mother spent time in the Moundsville prison, before he found himself a ward of the state, bouncing from reform schools to juvenile-detention facilities. She found musicians like Greg Jakobson and Johnny Echols who knew Manson when he first came to Los Angeles and began ingratiating himself with Dennis Wilson and the Laurel Canyon scene. She found family members like Dianne Lake and Catherine Share, who’d spoken on the record before but had never done so at length, on camera, like they were able to now — about their life at Spahn, about their escape to Barker Ranch in the Death Valley after the murders, about what had drawn them to Charlie in the first place. She found hours upon hours of footage and audio of the family, carefully sifting through it to find the perfect few seconds to shed light on what life was like at the ranch. She also found victims’ families, who declined to be interviewed on camera, but offered insight into what it was like to be on the other side of the horror.
Chilcott also found journalists, from the cub reporter who covered the murder trial for the Associate Press to the KABC journalist who tracked down the bloody clothes worn during the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends, and pointed them out to the police. She found Ivor Davis, who’d written the first book about the murders, and Rolling Stone reporters Dalton and Fenton, who visited Spahn Ranch and talked to the family as their friends stood trial. She talked to a handful of people — acquaintances, family members — who later decided they’d rather not appear on camera but who helped build the larger picture. “We tried to get to the bottom of this: Is a killer born, or made, or is it a combination of both?” she asks.
There were some people who’d never spoken on camera before, like Stephanie Schram, who was 17 when Manson picked her up from a gas station near Big Sur in early August 1969. She accompanied him to the Esalen Institute, where she waited in the van as he grabbed his guitar and went in to perform for the hippies gathered in the “intentional community.” “He was thinking they were going to be really blown away by his talent … ask him to come back, and possibly pay him,” Schram recalls in the film. “But they didn’t. He was pretty upset when he came back.”
“In a lot of ways, I really believe that incident was a major factor in his decision to implement these murders,” says Frankel. “It’s been written about in a few books, but it’s such an important and clarifying moment. And she’s there with him through that experience, and her telling that allowed us to really open up on his mindset and the events that occurred a day or two [before] the murders.”
Having Schram participate not only added a dimension to the story, it allowed Chilcott to re-create the scene of Schram and family member Kitty Lutesinger escaping Barker Ranch several weeks later. “You see these figures running in the dark, and their searchlights below,” Chilcott says. “I was really thankful that she shared that story with us, because not only had I not heard it before, it put me there and gave me some visuals to shoot so that other people could understand.”
So many people, Chilcott points out, see the Manson Family members as villains; and while some were murderers, others went on to turn in those who had committed the crimes and have had to live with the memories ever since. “Some of them did things that are very vilify-able. But others [who didn’t participate in the murders] … I think it’s very easy to say, ‘That would never happen to me. I would never fall for that guy, I would know how to get away,’” she says. “Look at the cultural factors that were present — frequent race riots, and protests from the Vietnam War, and protests about inequality. And people really wanted to drop out because they weren’t happy with their government and their parents and their politicians. A lot of those signs are present now. Our youth is just better educated. On the flip side, there are people falling for cult leaders as we speak.”