In August 1969, Charles Manson brought the free-wheeling 1960s to a halt. This was Charlie Manson's America now, where doe-eyed, long-haired women who sang promises of peace and love could turn around and decapitate a famous Hollywood actress and stab her friends and unborn child to death. Almost 50 years later, Manson's place in pop culture remains larger than life. Even after he dies, the public's obsession will return in waves, with every new book, film, conspiracy theory or development in the case. But as the Manson family legend lives on in books and movies, their victims remain dead inside the myth. Here, 10 unique ways the family's story has been told, each an attempt to make sense of one of the most unbelievable nights in American history.
Last year, Karina Longworth, host of Slate's hit podcast You Must Remember This, embarked on a 12-part series that directed the Manson mythology through the lens of Hollywood. This exhaustively researched account of Charles Manson's story goes into his childhood, religious and political ideologies, obsession with rock music and the deranged philosophies that led to his infamous rise. Longworth positions the story of the Manson family in the white-hot center of the socio-politics that cultivated it, while also diving into disturbingly personal information about the murderers and victims, from one of the girl's spiking another's hamburger with LSD to a rather damning view inside Sharon Tate's marriage to Roman Polanski.
The enduring mystique of Manson's young female followers has never been as cleverly explored. In The Girls, debut novelist Emma Cline reimagines the summer of 1969 through the eyes of a young teenage girl, Evie Boyd. Though the Manson name is carefully evaded, Cline's characters take on parallels to Susan Atkins, Lydia Kasabian, Dennis Wilson and the cult leader himself. The murders are depicted down to the markings on the wall, but it's the lead up to the event that proves to be most interesting and emotionally fraught. Cline has finally humanized the Manson girls by putting a fictional distance between Manson's allure on young people and the sensationalized coverage after the fact. She inserts Evie into the Manson family narrative as a fly on the wall, from lounging on LSD at the filthy ranch to falling in love with Russell, the Manson stand-in, and his most loyal female devotees.
This panned, though pleasingly melodramatic NBC television series stars David Duchovny, a stony LAPD detective through whose eyes the the Manson family story is told. What begins as the case to find a missing girl unravels into the detective's investigation of the Manson cult. Soundtracked to sun-broiled perfection, Aquarius evokes the racial undertones and Hollywood associations of the era as Sam Hodiak (Duchovny) becomes personally – though fictionally – involved in the legend of the family. The show makes a point to stress its fictional nature despite several historical accuracies, including the big black bus they used to get around, heavy use of psychedelic drugs and Manson's sordid relationship with the music industry and brewing "war on piggies."
Perhaps the most disturbing of all Charles Manson interviews is this footage from the 1995 Biography channel documentary Charles Manson: Journey Into Evil. Narrated by Judy Muller, the film patches together archived video of Diane Sawyer's 1994 interviews with a ranting, Swastika-baring Charles Manson played in succession with face-to-face conversations with the killers Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel. Other interview subjects, like Roman Polanksi and Manson's famed criminal attorney and Helter Skelter author Vincent Bugliosi, round out the film. If you're looking for the an authoritative break-down of the criminal proceedings from those who were closest to it, this should top your list.
Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is a stop-motion, celebrity endorsed, Charlie Mason musical directed by punk artist John Roecker. Set in the future, the year is 3016, and a humble nomad stumbles across a copy of the Bugliosi classic Helter Skelter in what appears to be the ruins of Los Angeles. The real life names of Charles Manson and Susan Atkins are evoked in the text using malapropisms (for example, Sharon Tate is Sharon Hate.) The film then tells the story through the music of the Beatles, claiming that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was a subliminal message to invoke murder. The 2006 film was narrated by Rancid singer Tim Armstrong, with help from his friends, including Billy Joe Armstrong, John Doe and the Madden Brothers. (This was 2006 after all.) At the end of the film, the "Hanson family" are arrested, tried and are killed by the state.
Popular weekly true-crime-cum-comedy show Last Podcast on the Left tackled the Charles Manson saga in a biographical three-part series. Manson's childhood antics are recalled at length and told jocularly by a panel of stand-up comedians Ben Missel, Henry Zebrowski and Marcus Parks. Stories range from his mother's abandonment to a series of misdemeanors that landed him in jail from an early age – they even go back to his first day of school, when Manson's uncle punished him by making him wear girl's clothes to school. The impressions are eerily spot-on.
The Family Jams are the Mamas and the Papas-esque recordings made by the Manson Family on the heels of Manson's arrest. While the leader himself does not sing on the album, the songs are credited in his name and sung in a fevered pitch by his most loyal followers. Notable Manson family members who appear on the album include Clem Grogan, Squeaky Fromme and Catherine "Gypsy" Share. Though recorded in 1970, the album was not released until 1997 – and the original Family Jams tape recordings are allegedly buried in a vault. The songs directly address Manson's arrest, especially the song "Get On Home," which references the infamous crosses cut into the family's foreheads.
Though Nikolas Schrek's controversial documentary Charles Manson Superstar originally came out in 1989, it wasn't released on DVD until 2002 after alleged fallacies were criticized for making the film "pro-Manson." Schrek filmed face-to-face interviews with Manson from inside the San Quentin Prison. He links the sensationalist media around the Manson murders to the capitalized branding behind his popularity, starting with the iconic photo on the cover of Time in 1969. Schrek goes deep into how the Manson mythology plays into the American media's particular desire for fear. The 1989 film features Manson's original music, including the songs "Clang Bang Clang" and "Mechanical Man" off Manson's 1970 psychedelic folk album, Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, that was distributed after Manson's arrest by record producer Phil Kaufman. Conspiracy theorists will enjoy the interview segment with James Mason regarding the Universal Order.
No one describes the cultural reverberations of the Manson murders as acutely as Joan Didion in her 1979 essay "The White Album." She definitively marks August 9th, 1969 as the end of the decade and carefully explores the enduring sense of unease settled over California. The most directly Manson-related parts of the award-winning essay come from Didion's prison meetings with Linda Kasabian, who famously went on to testify against Charles Manson and family. She recalls picking out a dress for Kasabian in Beverly Hills to wear to deliver a testimony. The former Manson girl had requested a short velvet dress in emerald green, because defense attorney Vincent Bugliosi insisted she stay away from the long white dress. But all the while, Didion weaves subtlety horrifying details to reflect the strange fear that loomed over Los Angeles county in the months following the murders.
The Manson story as only Lifetime could tell it. Visually, Manson’s Lost Girls is a lot closer to 2016 than 1969, but still, the story plays directly into the same romantic notions of the Manson girls that inspired Emma Cline to write The Girls. Told from the perspective of Linda Kasabian, who fled the Manson family just before the first round of slayings, she meets the family after she's fallen on hard times and they take her in. The party scenes have a flower-crowned likeness to Coachella, but it does successfully portray the excitement, adventure, and awe that inspired countless young women to leave home and run away with the man they called Charlie. The drug-induced warmth and sense of invincibility work to rationalize Linda Kasabian and the rest of the girls falling under the spell the same psychopath they would eventually learn to regret ever meeting.