Marilyn Manson: The Monster Hiding in Plain Sight
I t started as a vocal booth.
A decade before Marilyn Manson rented the apartment above a West Hollywood liquor store circa 2010, a former tenant — a label and recording studio specializing in electronic music — had built the cramped glass enclosure in the corner of a room with the goal of making uptempo, life-affirming house music. The only adornment was some foam for soundproofing on the walls.
Manson, whose real name is Brian Warner, soon converted the booth into what several people who dated and worked with him now describe as a solitary-confinement cell used to psychologically torture women. They say Warner frequently banished his girlfriends there, keeping them inside for hours on end to punish them for the tiniest perceived transgressions. He called it the “Bad Girls’ Room.”
Ashley Walters, a former assistant suing Warner for sexual assault and other charges, says he enjoyed telling people about the chamber. “He always had a joking, bragging tone,” she remembers. (Another former assistant, Ryan Brown, who worked with Warner for eight years, denies ever seeing any women confined in the so-called Bad Girls’ Room, but says, “It was common knowledge that’s what everybody had called it.”) In interviews, it was an open secret. “If anyone’s bad, I can lock them in it, and it’s soundproof,” Warner boasted to a magazine in 2012.
Ashley Morgan Smithline, who is suing him for sexual assault and unlawful imprisonment, among other charges, tells Rolling Stone that Warner repeatedly forced her to stay in the space — which was about the size of a department-store dressing room — for hours at a time when they were dating.
“At first, he made it sound cool,” Smithline says. “Then, he made it sound very punitive. Even if I was screaming, no one would hear me.” As she tells it, “First you fight, and he enjoys the struggle. I learned to not fight it, because that was giving him what he wanted. I just went somewhere else in my head.”
The rest of Warner’s apartment was decorated with blood, swastikas, and clipped photos from porno mags. “There were vaginas everywhere,” says one person who visited the place. Others recall a spray-painted message above his bed reading “AIDS.” The carpets, furniture, and decorations were black, as were the curtains he used to blot the light out of every window nearly 24 hours a day. The temperature was kept frigid; if anyone adjusted the thermostat above 65 degrees, Warner allegedly threw temper tantrums and destroyed furniture.
One ex-girlfriend has referred to the apartment as a “black refrigerator.” Another has called it a “meat locker.” It was here, multiple exes allege, that Warner inflicted repeated acts of mental, physical, and sexual abuse that have left them with crippling bouts of anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and PTSD.
Game of Thrones actress Esmé Bianco alleges that Warner frequently abused her verbally; deprived her of sleep and food; bit, cut, electrocuted, and whipped her without her consent; and raped her during their two years together. Bianco alleges that, in one horrifying episode, Warner wielded an ax and chased her around the apartment smashing holes in the walls after saying she was “crowding him.”
“That was a final-straw moment for me,” Bianco, who has sued Warner for sexual assault and sex trafficking, tells Rolling Stone. She says she felt “in imminent danger for [her] life.” Leaving, she says, “was my best attempt to survive.”
In October 2020, in the living room of a Los Angeles home, Bianco’s body shook and her eyes welled as she recounted that moment to about a half-dozen other women, including Walters, Smithline, actress Evan Rachel Wood, and model Sarah McNeilly. Some of the women knew one another; others were strangers. Yet the group shared a reluctant bond: Each of them said that Warner had abused them.
Walters felt stunned hearing some of the stories that day. “I just thought, ‘I can’t believe this happened to so many girls,’” she says. “Once we started talking … you could see the blood drain out of everyone’s face, like, ‘I thought I was the only one.’”
In the past year, more than a dozen women have come forward accusing Warner of psychological or sexual abuse, several in interviews with outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and People; four have filed civil lawsuits. The accusers who spoke with Rolling Stone say that Warner was able to hide his abuses in plain sight behind the Marilyn Manson character he created and the music industry that supported, and profited from, his living-demon shtick. To his accusers, some of whom have not spoken publicly or in depth about this before, he is a serial sexual predator who has been telling the world who he is for more than 25 years. This investigation is based on nine months of research, court documents, and interviews with more than 55 people who have known Warner at various points throughout his life.
According to a statement from his attorney, Warner “vehemently denies any and all claims of sexual assault or abuse of anyone.” The statement — which echoes a July court filing that sought to dismiss claims in a lawsuit filed by Bianco — goes on to denounce the accusers’ allegations as “part of a coordinated attack by former partners and associates of Mr. Warner who have weaponized the otherwise mundane details of his personal life and their consensual relationships.” Warner has further argued in court filings that his accusers “are desperately trying to conflate the imagery and artistry of [his] ‘shock rock’ stage persona, ‘Marilyn Manson,’ with fabricated accounts of abuse.”
“He has a way of getting in your brain,” McNeilly says. “I didn’t tell that many people what had happened to me, because so many people saw it happening and didn’t care.”
For the past three decades, the defining quality of Warner’s art has been his total rejection of conventional morality. Initially, his career was an assault on Christian values. He led chants of “We hate love, we love hate” at concerts and scored hits with lyrics like “There’s no time to discriminate/Hate every motherfucker that’s in your way.” The music and the band’s outrageous T-shirts were perfect fodder for hard-rocking goths who wanted to worry their parents.
That impish Marilyn Manson is the one that Halsey got tattooed on her rib cage and the one whose visage Lil Uzi Vert reportedly paid $220,000 to have turned into a bejeweled pendant. But former friends of Warner tell Rolling Stone that at some point he got caught in a state of arrested development and embraced “Marilyn Manson” as a lifestyle. It was this Manson who allegedly bragged about having a “rape room” in his apartment to a teenage Phoebe Bridgers — “I thought it was just his horrible frat boy sense of humor,” she tweeted this year — and whose scandalous public image has been increasingly mirrored in accusations of real-life abuse.
Warner has often joked in interviews about abusing women. For decades, the media has amplified and glamorized his voice — including Rolling Stone, which put him on the cover in 1997 with the headline “Sympathy for the Devil.” (Former contributing editor Neil Strauss, who wrote that story and co-authored Warner’s bestselling 1998 memoir, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, could not be reached for comment for this article.) Warner established himself early on as a defender of free speech, proclaiming his right to offend. His eloquence, coupled with his freak-show Prince of Darkness look, made him a media darling whose most shocking statements were normalized.
That all changed this year, when Wood, Bianco, and others came forward. Interviews with and legal filings by Warner’s accusers paint a picture of someone who conditioned women through flattery and dark humor before introducing a pattern of sexual and physical abuse. Accusers allege that he plied them with drugs and alcohol, controlled their eating and sleeping habits, and held them captive emotionally and physically until they submitted to his will. If they wanted to leave him, they say, he’d threaten to kill himself or, worse, them. They describe him as employing a cult-leader mentality that allowed him to hold complete power over them. “It was Brainwashing 101,” Smithline says.
Within months of the July 1994 release of Portrait of an American Family, Marilyn Manson’s first middle finger to the world, an ardent fan base was clamoring to embrace the band’s sophomoric darkness. The cutting industrial-metal backdrops made Warner’s rancorous words (Sample lyric: “Who says date rape isn’t kind?”) all the catchier.
Letters sent to the group’s fan club, Satan’s Bake Sale, include declarations of devotion and demands for merchandise, especially a T-shirt that framed the message “Kill God … Kill Your Mom & Dad … Kill Yourself” in a sarcastic disclaimer. Manson’s devotees connected with his macabre affectations and provocative stage spectacles — aspects of the persona that Warner had been cultivating for years by then. “Having people congregate and feel accepted, that was his big thing,” says one source close to Warner. “The cultlike mentality was to cultivate a mass market of disenfranchised people.”
Warner grew up in Canton, Ohio, where he was raised by helicopter mechanic turned furniture salesman Hugh Warner and nurse Barbara Wyer. Hugh had a violent temper, according to his son, and an oddball personality. “When I was in the fifth grade, the first time I had friends over from Christian school, my dad would always like to tell his favorite joke,” Warner claimed in 2012. “He’d say, ‘Hey, have you ever sucked a sweeter dick than mine?’ … Whether you say yes or no, you’re admitting to something.” According to one of Brian’s ex-girlfriends, Missi Romero, in the 2000 documentary Demystifying the Devil, “Hugh always had a thing for younger girls at Brian’s show.” (Romero, who was 17 when she started dating a 23-year-old Warner, did not return Rolling Stone’s requests for comment for this story.)
In 1997, Warner described himself as “kind of a mama’s boy.” “I had a weird relationship with my mom as a kid,” he added, “because it was kind of abusive — but on my part.” He wrote in his memoir that he once assaulted her with a perfume bottle, scarring her, when he thought she had cheated on his dad.
Tim Vaughn, who says he was friends with Warner in the early 1990s, remembers Warner frequently cursing and screaming at Barbara. Once, Vaughn recalls, “He chased her down the hallway with a microphone stand. I asked him, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ He’s like, ‘The bitch is always coming in at the worst times.’”
In Warner’s first known interview, in 1990, he defined Marilyn Manson’s music with a term that foreshadowed the glib way he’d flirt with misogyny for the rest of his career: “What we have come to call it is ‘beat up your mom’ music.” The group would later christen their music-publishing company Beat Up Your Mom Music. (Barbara died in 2014 after being diagnosed with dementia. Hugh died three years later.)
Warner gained an appreciation for the finer aspects of satanic panic at Canton’s fundamentalist-leaning Heritage Christian School. “There was a lot of shaming,” says a Heritage classmate who requested anonymity. (The school did not reply to a request for comment.)
One class dealt with the dangers of rock music, which led Warner to adore Black Sabbath, David Bowie, and Queen. In 1979, when Brian was 10, Hugh dressed up like Gene Simmons and brought him to see Kiss for his first rock concert.
Warner’s family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he was 18, and he enrolled in Broward Community College, where he became interested in journalism and got a gig covering music at a local publication, 25th Parallel. “The first thing that I thought about him was that he probably got beaten up a lot as a kid,” former 25th Parallel editor Paul Gallotta said in Demystifying the Devil. “He had a lot of anger and hostility, but he was a very quiet person; you know, the kind that you expect was going to be a serial killer someday.”
People who knew him in his early Florida days remember an awkward blond young adult who wanted to learn all he could about rock music. One former friend remembers Warner bringing a pen and notebook to Lollapalooza ’91, where he took notes on Perry Farrell’s stage act. “When I met him, he was wearing a pair of brown corduroy pants and a long surfer shirt,” says Nancy Marzulli, another person who knew him around this time. “He was a square kid from Ohio. Scared of his own shadow. He was quiet like a mouse. Wouldn’t say a word.”
“Did I want to make him my best friend? No,” says Paige Harvey, former frontwoman for local band the Livid Kittens. “I always thought there was something a little dark about him, but I didn’t know exactly what.”
Somewhere between selling CDs at the record store he managed and interviewing Debbie Harry, Malcolm McLaren, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers for 25th Parallel, Warner decided that he could give better interviews than his subjects. All he needed was a band and an act, which evolved from a character he’d developed for a short story named Marilyn Manson — a moniker that combined the names of America’s most beloved sex symbol with America’s bogeyman. “He was a character who, because of his contempt for the world around him and, more so, himself, does everything he can to trick people into liking him,” Warner wrote in his memoir. “And then, once he wins their confidence, he uses it to destroy them.”
“He named himself after a serial killer and a woman who had a very tragic life,” adds a source who has known Warner for decades. “He told us who he was.”
A fan of industrial pioneers Ministry and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Warner sought out like-minded musicians for his anti-society screeds. The first lineup of what would soon be known as Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids featured Warner singing alongside bassist Brian Tutunick, a.k.a. Olivia Newton Bundy, and guitarist Scott Putesky, who called himself Daisy Berkowitz. Like the industrial group Big Black, they played to a drum machine at their first gigs in late 1989 and early 1990.
At their first gig, Warner recalled in his book that he wore a T-shirt showing Marilyn Monroe with a Charles Manson swastika scribbled on her forehead. Other band members dressed in bright, flowery clothing raided from local thrift stores. “They were basically burlesque,” says Rick Myers, who taught Warner broadcasting in school. “It was kind of a goof. One time, they had a duffel bag sitting beside the drums all night. Before the last song, they dragged it out and put it in front of the mic stand. They start playing the song, and a guy got out of the bag and stood up and recited a Captain Beefheart poem and then got back in the bag and closed it up.”
In his memoir, Warner wrote about abusing a woman he called “Nancy” as part of his early stage act, describing how he would hold her by a leash and beat her onstage — “to make a point about our patriarchal society, of course, not because it turned me on to drag a scantily clad woman around the stage,” he wrote. He also claimed in the book that he and a bandmate plotted murdering Nancy before changing their minds. (When reached by phone, “Nancy” declined to comment for this article.)
Harvey, the local musician, remembers feeling unsettled when she saw a woman “locked in a cage” at Manson shows. “He would hit her or kick the cage,” she says. “It was part of the shtick, I guess. I’m not a prude or anything. I just remember thinking, ‘That’s not cool.’”
Friends of Warner’s from that time say that he taped sexual encounters and showed them to other people. Russell Vaughn recalls hanging out one night with his brother Tim Vaughn, a female friend, and Warner. “Brian popped in a compilation tape of every girl he had ever taken into his closet for a blowjob,” he says. “He was proud of it.” Both Vaughn’s brother and the friend, who asked to remain anonymous, confirm seeing the tape to Rolling Stone.
After Warner befriended Jeordie White, later known as Manson bassist Twiggy Ramirez, the pair started prank-calling a woman who worked at their local mall. They’d threaten her, telling her they were watching her, and Warner claimed in his book that they once told her, “We’re going to rape you in the parking lot and then crush you underneath your own car.”
“I thought he was a bully,” says a source who met Warner in his Spooky Kids days and stayed friends with him for the next two decades. “He was charismatic and talented, but from the beginning it was his way or the highway.”
Laura Werder, who took some of the first photographs of the band, ended up running the Satan’s Bake Sale fan club on and off until 1994. “There were underage girls sending nude pictures of themselves, people writing letters in blood,” she says. Warner referred to the club’s members as “the Family” (another nod to Charles Manson), and Werder remembers a newsletter urging those followers to break the law. “They were like, ‘We are having a contest to see who can send us a Polaroid with the most deviant usage of our logo,’” she recalls. “For example, ‘Your father’s passed out drunk and naked, you carve “Marilyn Manson” on his bald forehead and snap a picture.’… He was pushing people’s buttons. How far will people go?”
In 1993, the band signed with a label run by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, an artist Warner had interviewed in his pre-Manson days, and distributed by Interscope Records. With the pressure on, some of Warner’s former friends questioned whether he could live up to his own act. “I think when Trent signed him, it was, ‘I need to become everything that I’m singing about,’” says Tutunick, who had left the band a few years earlier. “I don’t remember any drugs when we were hanging out; he didn’t even drink. He was willing to sacrifice who he was to become this character he created.”
Rolling Stone described the band’s Reznor-produced 1994 major-label debut, Portrait of an American Family, as a “splatter-glam album … that includes a song about child molestation that could be seen as not entirely disapproving.” (“As a kid I experienced many different types of sexual abuse from all different directions,” Warner claimed in an interview the following year.)
If the lyrics about sex abuse didn’t attract an audience, Marilyn Manson’s blasphemous antics, such as tearing up Bibles onstage, did — along with protests and show cancellations. “The animosity is what springboarded him to fame, and he rode it,” Werder says.
The band gained traction by opening for Nine Inch Nails on a 1994 tour that featured debauched aftershow parties. In an interview with photographer Richard Kern the following year, Warner joked that he couldn’t discuss groupies “because of the statute of limitations.” He also unpacked the “Sweet Tooth” lyric “I want you more when you’re afraid of me.” “I’ve grown accustomed to getting sexual excitement out of a girl’s screaming,” Warner said. “There’s something about a terrified girl that I find exciting.”
The next year, on a tour supporting Danzig, Warner befriended bus driver Tony Wiggins, who joined Warner and White in humiliating and abusing young women and men backstage, according to Warner’s book. In The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, Manson recounts a time that Wiggins supposedly affixed a nude male fan, who had agreed to be tied up, to a device that spread his legs apart in a way that if he moved, ropes would tighten around his neck, choking him. “In order to keep from strangling himself, he had to work to keep himself in this awkward, vulnerable position,” Warner wrote. “Tony stood over him with a video camera, capturing his struggle from every angle.” (Wiggins declined to comment for this article.)
1995’s Smells Like Children EP marked a rare instance where Manson’s label told him he had crossed the line. The initial track list contained two terrifying audio vignettes titled “Abuse” culled from their recordings with Wiggins. In one, a young woman whimpers and screams in apparent agony as the bus driver asks, “You like it, don’t you?” while whipping her and rattling chains; in the other, a young woman describes molesting a six-year-old boy.
“That was the point when Interscope said, ‘Yeah, this is too much for us,’” says one person who worked on the EP.
“Everybody was like, ‘There’s no fucking way — we have to change this,’” another person involved in the EP launch adds.
But Marilyn Manson kept getting bigger. With the thumping, anthemic single “The Beautiful People,” the band’s second album, Antichrist Superstar, became a surprise hit in 1996, earning Warner his first Rolling Stone cover.
Like the murderers in Natural Born Killers, a box-office smash the year of Manson’s debut, the hints of danger in his persona seemed to make Warner an irresistible media sensation. With his over-the-top act, he was a hit with talk-show hosts who bemoaned the future of America’s youth. He even appeared on The Phil Donahue Show, trotted out like a sideshow attraction to defend moshing. And when the U.S. Senate held a hearing in 1997 related to a 15-year-old Marilyn Manson fan’s death by suicide — future vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman called the music “reprehensible,” singling out the lyrics as “some of the worst thoughts I’ve ever heard” — it only made Warner more of a rebellious alt-rock icon to his fans.
Many of Warner’s accusers charge that the media’s embrace of an act full of barely concealed hateful aggression enabled him to abuse behind the scenes — and sometimes in plain sight — without scrutiny. “We give an awful lot of slack to men like this, and especially in the music industry,” Esmé Bianco says. “If you’re not a womanizer and a complete misogynist, are you really a rock star at all?”
Behind the scenes, tensions in the band were mounting. A 1996 label showcase devolved into violence when Warner vaulted his microphone stand into drummer Kenneth Wilson, sending him to the hospital. “[I’m] playing the drums, and also trying to read Manson’s mind,” Wilson said in an interview the following year. “If I miss a cue, I’m liable to get a mic stand thrown at my skull.” (Wilson did not reply to requests for comment.)
Around the same time, Warner linked up with manager Tony Ciulla, who would go on to oversee his career for the next 25 years. “Tony was the only dude who could tame the beast when shit was going down,” says a former Marilyn Manson band member. “When Manson would fucking destroy a venue or a hotel, Tony would be there with a checkbook and a smile.” (Ciulla did not reply to repeated requests for comment.)
In 1997, Warner fell for Rose McGowan, an actress in her mid-twenties who had starred in the art-house black comedy The Doom Generation a few years earlier. He proposed marriage, but McGowan called off their engagement in 2001. After the abuse allegations came out, she released a statement on Instagram: “When he was with me, he was not [abusive] like that, but that has no bearing on whether he was like that with others, before or after … I’m proud of these women and anybody who stands against an abuser.” (McGowan did not reply to a request for comment.)
Throughout this time, Warner continued making art imbued with intense misogyny. In 1998, he released Dead to the World, a concert video that includes a short clip of Groupie, a longer film Warner had made in which he verbally abuses a woman. The clip shows a woman screaming “Stop” as Warner tells her to “Sit down” and “Shut the fuck up.” (“It was acting,” Pola Weiss, a longtime friend who starred in Groupie, tells Rolling Stone. “It was hamming it up.”) Of the full film Groupie, Warner once said, “When I showed it to my manager, he said, ‘Please hide the masters. If anyone sees this you’ll go to jail and your career will be over.’” Several ex-girlfriends have alleged that Warner nevertheless showed it to them with pride.
The moral panic around Warner heightened toward the end of the Nineties, with press reports tenuously tying his fans to school shootings in Mississippi and Oregon and a supposed gang in Michigan. None of it stopped Warner — in fact, it likely helped boost sales of his 1998 memoir. One of his friends from Florida recalls this as the point in which the Marilyn Manson persona overtook Warner; if this person, who wished to remain anonymous, were to call him “Brian,” he’d insist on being called “Marilyn.”
“Manson is the kind of person who looks for weakness in people,” says a source who was present during the sessions for 1998’s Mechanical Animals. “He’d find something that would wind someone up so hard that they were getting visibly shaken and upset. And that would be the thing that he would use any time he addressed them. It was very manipulative and it was unpleasant.”
Mechanical Animals spun off a hit with “The Dope Show,” but the album underperformed sales projections. That fall, then-Spin editor Craig Marks took Warner off the magazine’s cover and replaced him with a more buzzworthy Manson: Garbage’s Shirley Manson. In a legal complaint, the editor described a chilling scene when he went backstage at one of Warner’s shows in New York: “Manson … began to threaten Marks by shouting that he could kill Marks, his whole family, and everyone he knew,” the complaint alleged. “Before Marks could respond, [Warner’s bodyguards] physically attacked him.… Manson approvingly exclaimed, ‘That’s what you get when you disrespect me.’”
“I walked into the dressing room, and everybody was just frozen, just dead still,” remembers an eyewitness who wishes to remain anonymous. “Manson’s security guy was holding this kid up against the wall.” (The case was settled out of court.)
The biggest challenge yet to Manson’s career at that point came on April 20, 1999, when two teenagers gunned down 12 of their fellow pupils and one teacher at Columbine High School in the Denver suburb of Littleton. Early reports suggested the killers were Marilyn Manson obsessives; it later became clear that they had been fans of industrial groups like KMFDM and Rammstein. Within days of the shooting, Warner called the assailants’ act “tragic and disgusting.” Far-right religious groups picketed his concerts, stoking his fan base, and he was slowly able to turn public opinion in his favor.
When he appeared in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine, which came out in 2002 amid Manson’s foundering album sales, Warner spoke intelligently and concisely. “I think it’s easy to throw my face on the TV because I’m, in the end, sort of a poster boy for fear,” he said. When Moore asked what he’d say to the kids at Columbine “if they were here right now,” Warner replied: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.”
Years later, his tone was more flippant. “I got blamed for Columbine, and I had absolutely nothing to do with it,” he said in 2012. “At least [the killers] had their kicks before the whole shithouse went down in flames.”
Warner’s career recovered after Columbine, but his image shifted as the public began to view him as more of a caricature. In 2001, the satirical newspaper The Onion ran the headline “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-to-Door Trying to Shock People.”
Offstage, Warner worked to distance himself from his past. He checked into hotels under the pseudonym “Patrick Bateman,” the murderer in American Psycho, and he had trouble maintaining relationships with band members. His former mentor Reznor was long gone by now: “[Warner] is a malicious guy and will step on anybody’s face to succeed and cross any line of decency,” the Nine Inch Nails frontman said in a 2009 interview. “Drugs and alcohol now rule his life, and he’s become a dopey clown.” (Reznor declined an interview for this story.)
Warner was also getting a reputation for using racial slurs. “He said the n-word quite a bit,” recalls an associate from later in his life, who felt that Warner “almost reveled in being able to say it in front of Black people.”
In 2001, Warner faced criminal and civil charges brought by Joshua Keasler, an Ozzfest security guard who accused Warner of grinding his crotch against him at a Detroit show. The lawsuit was settled out of court, and Warner ended up pleading no contest to disorderly conduct after a sexual-assault charge was dropped.
Keasler says now that he’s been upset to read of more recent assault allegations against Warner, and he wonders if his legal case 20 years ago could have done more to protect women: “Had he been a registered sex offender, maybe one of those young ladies would have considered a little longer before they thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t the guy I want to hang out with.’”
The next decade and a half went by in a blur of misogyny and boundary pushing. “Whatever I do, whatever I say, I am Marilyn Manson now,” Warner said in 2003. “I can’t turn it off.”
A yearlong marriage to burlesque performer Dita Von Teese ended in 2007 after she accused him of infidelity and drug abuse. “I was trying to get him help for his problems, and eventually I realized that he didn’t want help,” she said at the time. (Von Teese did not reply to a request for comment.)
He moved on with Wood, who met Warner at Los Angeles’ Chateau Marmont when she was 18 and he was twice her age; in interviews, he described her as a Lolita-like muse. “In the beginning, he was nice, charming, and I never thought he would hurt me,” she wrote, without naming Warner, in a letter to the Connecticut General Assembly on coercive control earlier this year. “He moved very fast in our relationship, telling me I was his soulmate and that we should move in together just shortly after we started dating.”
Within a year, Warner and Wood had broken up for the first time, inspiring the song “I Want to Kill You Like They Do in the Movies,” on his 2009 album The High End of Low. The video for another song on that album features a man repeatedly punching a Wood look-alike in her underwear. Warner told Spin that year that he had “fantasies every day about smashing her skull in with a sledgehammer.”
Bianco, who dated him later on, is haunted by quotes like that now. “Everyone passed it off as theatrical, like, ‘There goes Marilyn Manson,’” she tells Rolling Stone. “But when he started turning ugly against me, I was like, ‘Oh, he wasn’t kidding.’”
In 2009, when The Guardian asked Warner what his greatest fear was, he responded, “Fear is something I instill in other people, mostly young girls.” At a concert the same year, Warner told the crowd, “When you laugh after you fuck her, it is not rape.” “He would joke about rape all the time,” says a source who knew him around that time, echoing multiple people who spoke for this story. “He loved the idea of rape — talking about rape, seeing it in the movies.”
This lines up with Bianco’s allegations. “Before I was even in a relationship with him, he talked about raping me,” she claims. “[I thought], ‘I guess that’s just how he rolls and everyone is cool with it, so who am I to not laugh along?’”
Warner and Wood split for good in 2010, with Wood keeping the abuse she allegedly suffered a secret for years. The same summer they split, Warner began speaking frequently to Smithline, a model who was working in Thailand.
Smithline describes her personality at the time as “bubbly and effervescent,” immersing herself in local cultures, mingling with anyone, and practicing bikram yoga. “I look for the good in everyone and want to believe that everyone has good intentions,” Smithline tells Rolling Stone. “I was very vulnerable and susceptible to anyone showing care, love, and a feeling of safety.”
Soon after they met online, Warner told her she “was the perfect girl for him,” according to Smithline’s lawsuit. “[He’d say], ‘I’m the only one who understands you,’” she tells Rolling Stone. “There’s a lot of things that should’ve been huge warning signs, but when you’re naive, you just think it’s ‘kindred spirits.’” Warner flew her to Los Angeles, and Smithline quickly found herself moving into his apartment.
According to a statement by Warner, who has denounced her accusations as lies, their relationship, “to the limited extent it was a relationship, lasted less than a week in 2010” and was consensual. Smithline, however, claims that the two had a consensual sexual relationship that lasted until November 2010, when, she alleges in the suit, she “awoke from unconsciousness with her ankles and wrists tied together behind her back and Mr. Warner sexually penetrating her. Ms. Smithline told Mr. Warner to stop and said ‘No’ multiple times, and Mr. Warner told her to ‘Shut the fuck up’ and ‘Be quiet.’”
According to the lawsuit, Warner choked, strangled, bit, and burned Smithline without consent “for [his] sexual gratification,” and raped her “several times.” Over the course of their time together, the suit claims, Warner, without Smithline’s consent, carved the initials “MM” on her thigh, “threw a Nazi knife at Ms. Smithline, only barely missing her face,” “cut Ms. Smithline while she was raped” with “a knife emblazoned with a swastika,” and elbowed her in the nose, causing a hairline fracture. (In his own court filing this June, Warner denied virtually all of the claims made in Smithline’s suit.)
Years before Game of Thrones fans knew her as Ros, Esmé Bianco was an aspiring actress and burlesque performer who was friends with Warner’s then-fiancée, Von Teese. Warner told Bianco he was interested in casting her in a Lewis Carroll-themed horror film called Phantasmagoria.
What she characterizes as love bombing — the act of showering someone with praise and gifts to manipulate them for future control — began immediately. “I was flattered,” says Bianco, who had liked his music as a teen. “Literally the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I’ve been a fan of you for years.’. . . Now I look back and call bullshit.”
Bianco and Warner were friends for four years before their relationship turned romantic. “My relationship with him started out glorious,” she says now. “There’s a lot of glamour that comes with dating somebody like that, and at first it feels fantastic. You don’t realize that it’s not fantastic until it’s way too late.”
According to Bianco’s suit accusing Warner of rape, sexual battery, and sex trafficking, Warner flew her from the U.K. to Los Angeles in February 2009 for a never-released video for “I Want to Kill You Like They Do in the Movies.” Among other alleged horrors, the suit claims he plied her with drugs and alcohol while withholding food, “beat her with a whip that Mr. Warner said was utilized by the Nazis,” and “electrocuted her.” Their relationship, according to the suit, included a nightmarish pattern of drugs, constant monitoring, physical abuse, and sexual assault. (Warner, in response, has dismissed “each and every” allegation from Bianco as “untrue and meritless.” He also moved to throw two of her claims out of court due to the statute of limitations, but the judge denied that motion.)
By 2011, Bianco had secretly started to look for apartments to move into. “I thought that if I physically left, that magically all our problems would go away,” she says. Even when the alleged ax incident occurred shortly before their breakup, Bianco still blamed herself for Warner’s behavior. “You truly think that everything is your fault,” she says. “So even if someone is trying to kill you, you’re like, ‘What did I do to make them so mad?’”
Sarah McNeilly met Warner that same month. The Los Angeles model was upset over a breakup, and her roommate at the time had encouraged her to go to a party at the Chateau Marmont and find someone new. She met Warner that night, and when she woke up the next morning, she saw numerous messages from him asking her out. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m never drinking tequila again,’” she says. “‘No, thank you. I’m sure you’re a wonderful guy, but I don’t want to date any more musicians.’ And he replied: ‘I’m not a musician. I’m a magician.’”
She acquiesced, and Warner invited her over to his home to watch a movie for their first date a week later, she says. “He was super-charismatic, warm, and inviting,” McNeilly tells Rolling Stone. “He went the extra mile to try to get you to trust him. He seemed very vulnerable. But it was also learning about me, what made me tick and where he could pull the strings out later.”
McNeilly says she first noticed something was off when Warner told her he loved her during sex shortly after they met. “I stopped and I was like, ‘What the fuck did you just say to me?’” she recalls. “Like, we’ve been dating a week.… He wanted me to start picking out wedding dresses. He wanted to have a baby. I’ve never experienced a relationship like this — because it was fucking fake.”
Soon, McNeilly says, Warner began isolating her from her loved ones, threatening and verbally berating her for hours on end. (McNeilly’s friend Brittany Leigh confirms that McNeilly told her about the alleged abuse and isolation at the time.) McNeilly’s voice quivers as she describes the time when, she says, he sent her to the “Bad Girls’ Room” after he heard the name of another musician she’d dated in the past and “flipped the fuck out.” “That was absolutely terrifying, because by then, the mask is off and you can see what he’s capable of,” she says.
The most violent incident, she alleges, occurred during the singer’s video shoot for 2011’s “Born Villain,” directed by Shia LaBeouf. McNeilly says she had been helping Warner pick out pants for the shoot when he became enraged. “He threw me up against the wall, and he had a baseball bat in his hand, and he said he’s gonna fucking smash my face in,” McNeilly says. “The physical violence was almost a relief. Like, the mental shit that he puts you through, that he infects your brain with, that he brainwashes you, you just want it to stop.”
Like many of Warner’s accusers, Ashley Walters says her initial contact with him was positive, beginning when he reached out to her on Myspace in the spring of 2010 to praise her photography. Her legal filing states he invited her to his West Hollywood home for a photo session that turned ugly when he allegedly “pushed her onto his bed and pinned down her arms” and “bit her ear while grabbing her hand and placing it in his underwear.”
Walters has said she tried to block out the incident, and that Warner deluged her with adoring text messages soon afterward. That August, she became his personal assistant. At industry events, Walters’ lawsuit alleges, Warner would “offer her up” to his friends, encouraging her to “please his friends in whatever way they desired.” He allegedly threw dishes at her, pushed her into a wall, and at one point, according to the suit, broke down a door when she refused to come out of a room. (In court, Warner’s lawyers have said he “categorically denies each and every allegation.”)
In the weeks after Bianco’s and Walters’ lawsuits, one of Warner’s ex-girlfriends, identified in court papers only as a musician named Jane Doe, filed yet another lawsuit for sexual assault and sexual battery, accusing Warner of subjecting her to “further degrading acts of sexual exploitation, manipulation, and psychological abuse.”
Doe’s complaint alleges that she met Warner in February 2011 at a pre-Grammy party. Two weeks later, he allegedly told Doe he loved her and wanted a “serious, monogamous relationship.” This led to incessant texts and calls, demands that she be nude, and food deprivation, according to her court filings. “Warner told Plaintiff that because she was his girlfriend, she needed to lose weight because her weight embarrassed him,” Doe’s suit says. (A judge dismissed Doe’s suit due to the statute of limitations but allowed her to file an amended complaint. The case is currently pending. A lawyer for Doe declined further comment.)
“Coercive control cannot be underestimated,” Bianco says. “There is no consent when you think you might be killed or raped if you don’t do what you’re told and you’re locked in somebody’s bedroom.”
In her suit, Doe details claims that “Warner began demanding [she] not move a muscle during sex. He ordered her to lie on top of him and stay perfectly still, or else he would scream at her.” Their sexual encounters, she alleges, became “increasingly violent.” “He would grab her extremely forcefully,” the suit says. “At one point, Warner bit Plaintiff on her neck exceedingly hard.… One time after seeing Warner, Plaintiff remembers that the left side of her chest and neck had turned completely black with bruises he had inflicted on her.”
Doe claims in the suit that Warner once “forced [her] to perform oral sex on him” while she cried. On a subsequent visit to his apartment, Warner “forcibly pushed her to the ground,” the suit says. “With her face down on the carpet, and his hands on top of her, Warner raped Ms. Doe,” the court filing states. “He was saying that she had driven him crazy, and she was making him do this to her. Warner was wearing black jeans under a kimono, and Plaintiff remembers seeing them around his ankles as she looked back during the rape. Afterward, while standing in the doorway, he said to her: ‘Don’t you ever fucking make me do that to you again.’”
Following the alleged assault, Doe says, Warner threatened to kill her, saying he would “bash her head in” and boasted that he could “get away with” murdering her “because she was a ‘nobody’ and he was a celebrity who had contacts with the police.” (Warner’s lawyers have denied all of Doe’s claims in court.)
Multiple people who knew him say Warner was a master of cult-like mind-control techniques, such as asking his employees, girlfriends, and hangers-on to monitor one another and report any dirt back to him. “You couldn’t trust anyone,” says one source. Drugs were everywhere: “Anybody that was in his inner circle knew that he was probably doing, like, an eight-ball a day and drinking absinthe and various pills,” the source adds. “He offered [cocaine] like hors d’oeuvres.”
His accusers claim that the drugs, far from being recreational, were often used as another means of control, evoking interrogation methods that have been denounced as torture by human rights groups. Both Smithline’s and Walters’ legal complaints accuse the musician of forcing them to stay awake by giving them cocaine and, according to Smithline’s suit, “depriv[ing] her of sleep and food in order to weaken her physically and mentally and decrease her ability to refuse him.… Between the sleep deprivation, drug use, and malnourishment, Ms. Smithline’s weight dropped to approximately 80 pounds.”
On tour, sources say, he was just as erratic. Warner attacked bassist Fred Sablan, threw his mic stand into Jason Sutter’s drums, and treated his own crew recklessly. “One time in Vegas, he had this prop mirror,” remembers a source who was on tour with Manson around 2012. “It didn’t work the way he wanted it to, and he took the microphone stand that weighed 60, 70 pounds, and he tried to smash through it. The stage manager was standing behind it, and it knocked him out; he had to go to the hospital.”
During one show circa Warner’s Rape of the World Tour in 2008, former keyboard/guitar tech and assistant Dan Cleary says Warner punched him in the back of the head with no explanation or apology. “He hit me hard. He was just laughing after it,” Cleary says. “It knocked me off my stool, and I see him scurrying away to get back onstage.” (A spokesperson for Warner did not deny the incident, but said: “It’s important to note that the events in question happened onstage during a rock & roll show.”)
Many of his associates, including his employees, say that Warner attempted to wear them down through intimidation. “Everybody received a text from him at some point that was like, ‘Do not fuck with me,’” says one source. “He would tell [a former assistant], ‘Do not look at me. I will fucking kill you. I will kick you out of the circle, and no one will care about you.’”
Around the time of 2015’s The Pale Emperor, Marilyn Manson’s critically acclaimed comeback album, Warner invited Rolling Stone to his home, which he then shared with model and photographer Lindsay Usich (whom he went on to marry in 2020). He was no longer living above the liquor store, but he still kept the thermostat at a chilly 65 degrees; a wall sported a painting by murderer and rapist John Wayne Gacy, and he displayed an unused canister of Zyklon B, the gas Nazis used to murder Jews during the Holocaust. “It was weird,” one source remembers. “I saw him show it off to Jewish friends of his, like, ‘Check this out.’”
In 2017, Jessicka Addams, of the provocative alt-rock group Jack Off Jill, accused former Marilyn Manson band member Jeordie White of physical abuse and rape when they were in a relationship two decades earlier. (“I do not condone nonconsensual sex of any kind,” White said in a statement at the time.)
That same year, a reporter asked Warner for his thoughts on the #MeToo movement, which had begun to bring down men like Harvey Weinstein. “If you have something to say, you should say it to the police, not to the press,” Warner said. “That’s what I would do.” The movement, he warned, “could ruin a lot of people’s lives that don’t need to be ruined.”
By 2018, Wood was ready to share her tale of abuse with the world. That February, she spoke to the House Judiciary Committee in support of the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act. “My experience with domestic violence was this,” Wood testified without naming Warner. “Toxic mental, physical, and sexual abuse, which started slow, but escalated over time, including threats against my life, severe gaslighting and brainwashing, waking up to the man that claimed to love me raping what he believed to be my unconscious body, and the worst part, sick rituals of binding me up by my hands and feet to be mentally and physically tortured until my abuser felt I had ‘proven my love for them.’
“In this moment, while I was tied up and being beaten and being told unspeakable things, I truly felt like I could die, not just because my abuser said to me, ‘I could kill you right now,’” she continued, “but because in that moment, I felt like I left my body and I was too afraid to run — he would find me.”
Wood’s testimony made her a prominent advocate for survivors of sexual assault, and in 2019, she spoke before the California Senate Public Safety committee on behalf of the Phoenix Act, a bill she co-created with Bianco that extends the statute of limitations for domestic-violence survivors to pursue charges against their abusers.
“When Evan and I first realized that very similar things had happened to both of us, we went to seek justice and were told it was too late,” Bianco says. “We decided to write a law.… I think I called every single member of the California Legislature and told them my story.”
When Bianco testified before the California Assembly in 2019 in support of the Phoenix Act, she detailed her allegations without naming Warner. “The physical violence was most often disguised in acts of intimacy, and was not consented to,” Bianco testified. “I was bitten until my body was covered in bruises; on another occasion cut with a knife during sex. He took photos of my naked, mutilated body and posted them online without my knowledge.”
“When it comes to the criminal justice system, survivors have practically no control over the process,” Bianco tells Rolling Stone. “I fully intend to pursue every avenue I have, because that’s how I take my agency back. I’m standing up and saying, ‘No, you don’t get to just walk away from that.’”
“Pursuing a civil lawsuit allows a survivor to take control of the narrative,” says Jay Ellwanger, the lawyer representing three accusers. “Regardless of what the criminal justice system does, a survivor can seek justice on her own terms and try to get her life back.”
Some of Warner’s recent band members remain loyal to the musician. “I never witnessed any kind of abuse in any setting,” claims guitarist Rob Holliday. “Manson is a sweet, misunderstood outcast.” Tim Skold, who is currently writing new music with Warner, says the allegations don’t reflect the man he worked with in the mid-2000s or now: “If you’re asking me if I saw any aggression or abusive behavior, I did not.”
Warner’s publicist offered Rolling Stone interviews with five defenders of Warner — including people like Manzin, a performance artist who befriended the singer in the mid-2000s. “He’s always been a supportive, wonderful friend,” he says. Greta Aurora, who says she had a consensual sexual encounter with Warner in 2011, says that she received an email from a friend of the accusers — whom she calls “self-proclaimed victims” — asking if she wanted to listen in on last year’s support group. She declined.
Even as speculation grew online that Warner was Wood’s alleged abuser, the traditional media remained largely silent. Virtually no major outlets prior to 2020 directly referenced or alluded to the accusations against him in their profiles, interviews, or album reviews.
In September 2020, U.K. metal magazine Metal Hammer became the first outlet to ask Warner what it was like to be implicated in Wood’s testimony. He hung up on them. Two months later, his U.K. representative issued a broad denial: “Unfortunately, we live in a time where people believe what they read on the internet, and feel free to say what they want with no actual evidence.”
Wood ended the years of speculation on Feb. 1, 2021. “The name of my abuser is Brian Warner, also known to the world as Marilyn Manson,” she wrote on Instagram. “He started grooming me when I was a teenager and horrifically abused me for years. I was brainwashed and manipulated into submission. I am done living in fear of retaliation, slander, or blackmail. I am here to expose this dangerous man and call out the many industries that have enabled him, before he ruins any more lives.” Walters, Smithline, and McNeilly were among several women who went public with abuse allegations against Warner the same day as Wood’s post.
Warner attempted a rebuttal that evening. “Obviously, my art and life have long been magnets for controversy, but these recent claims about me are horrible distortions of reality,” he wrote in his own Instagram post. “My intimate relationships have always been entirely consensual with like-minded partners. Regardless of how — and why — others are now choosing to misrepresent the past, that is the truth.”
Later that week, stylist Love Bailey recalled her own traumatic experience with Warner on Instagram. Bailey was in her early twenties in 2011, when she says she was invited to Warner’s home for a photo shoot. Bailey, who is trans, said that Warner took out an unloaded gun, put it to her forehead, and said, “I don’t like faggots,” then laughed before pulling the trigger. “The thought that crossed my mind was ‘Am I going to die?’” Bailey tells Rolling Stone. “‘He’s too famous to kill me, right?’” (Warner has denied Bailey’s allegations.)
The retribution that followed for Warner was swift, if partial. Loma Vista, the record label that distributed 2017’s Heaven Upside Down and last year’s We Are Chaos, stopped working with Warner, as did his booking agency, CAA. TV shows American Gods and Creepshow removed his planned appearances, while Ciulla, Warner’s longtime manager, finally dropped the musician as a client.
On Feb. 19, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department opened up a domestic-violence investigation against Warner covering the years 2009 through 2011. (A representative for the department declined to comment on the status of the investigation.) But despite radio stations significantly reducing his airplay since the accusations hit, his streaming numbers have remained steady at about 5 million per week.
Warner has kept a low profile in recent months, responding to court documents but rarely showing up at events. In August, however, he made a surprise appearance at Kanye West’s Chicago listening party for his album Donda alongside rapper DaBaby (who was widely condemned for homophobic remarks at a show weeks earlier). Dressed in all black with a horizontal line of dark makeup under his eyes, Warner paced around a replica of West’s home while nodding along to the music.
Now 52 and embroiled in multiple sexual-assault lawsuits, the musician seemed to view the appearance as a comeback, aligning himself with West, hip-hop’s biggest provocateur. When West released the album two days later, Warner appeared on “Jail, Pt. 2,” singing “Guess who’s goin’ to jail tonight?/God gon’ post my bail tonight” alongside West. Weeks later, Warner — once famous for rejecting Christianity — appeared again with West at the devoutly religious rapper’s “Sunday Service” livestream, this time with Justin Bieber by their side.
Smithline watched Warner’s appearance at the album launch with disgust, and says it helped drive her to an eating-disorder relapse. “It was just such a kick in the teeth,” she says.
Sarah McNeilly thought Warner would have to be dead before she publicly accused him of abuse. “This is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done,” she says. Years after their relationship ended, she still wonders: If she posts something online, will it get back to him? Could he retaliate? “I’ve been afraid for 10 years,” she says. “Some of these girls who came out and it happened to them five years ago, God bless them. Because five years after [our relationship ended], I was a shell of a person. He took everything from me and then spit me out.
“I don’t know what kind of pain he’s in,” she adds. “But he just wants to make people feel that pain over and over again.”
Smithline says she started mentally suppressing what she’d experienced in the relationship after leaving Warner. “It’s all I could do to survive.” She felt “powerless and disgusting.” She’d curl up in a ball to cope. Her weight plummeted; she eventually required an IV and feeding tubes. She went through “radical, ’round-the-clock therapy.”
“I started to [feel] smaller and smaller and quieter and quieter,” Smithline says. “When you’re silenced or locked in a box where no one can hear you, you really start to think about how small and unimportant you are. I just didn’t want to speak anymore.”
Like other Warner accusers, she says, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and still has panic attacks. But she’s trying to find strength and relief in other people who tell her she’s given them the power to leave an abusive relationship. She’s thought about someday going to schools and teaching students about sexual assault and abuse. “If any good can come of this horrific thing,” she says, “I hope I can help other people.”
Bianco, too, says she deals with the aftereffects of her relationship with Warner on a daily basis. “By far, the psychological abuse has been the hardest to recover from,” Bianco says. “I blamed myself for everything. Getting past the guilt and the shame and gaslighting has been incredibly difficult.”
She says she’s had to deal with death threats from Manson fans, people showing up at her home, and a car waiting outside her house for days. On some days, she still asks herself, “Why have I done this?”
“I really just have to hold onto the fact that if nobody speaks up, then nothing changes,” Bianco says. And while Warner is not currently facing any criminal charges for his alleged sex crimes, she adds, “nothing could be a better outcome for me than him spending the rest of his life in jail.”
Other people in Warner’s orbit have declined to participate in this story, citing their fear of Warner and the need to protect their own mental health. “That’s in part why he got away with it for so long: Because victims of his felt completely ashamed that they still didn’t realize what was happening to them until it was way too late,” Bianco says. “He told the whole world and nobody tried to stop him.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing relationship abuse, help is available. The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides free, confidential support 24/7/365. Text “START” to 88788, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or chat online at TheHotline.org.