Film Studies: At Cielo Drive, a new sort of horror movie was born

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Whenever you tell a story about what people did, you have to pick a level of detail and motive. At the same time, there are events that, from the moment we first heard about them, mean more than any participants can have intended or dreamt. When the small local action is projected on the screen of news, you see staggering metaphors, as violent and jittery as the people doing the deed.

So, yes, 9-10 August 1969 was the end of something, just as Joan Didion said, but it was a start, too. And as I look at it now, what started had something to do with attitudes to the body. At the height of body worship, and the stupid equation "body equals love", we become like the alienated victims of torture, sitting on one side of the room watching the pieces of our own body being cut off in strips, as if it were happening to a stranger - or someone in a movie. In the 1960s, the beautiful young things had been saying in so many wide-eyed ways, "Look, it's my body." Then, all of a sudden, that body belonged to fate, or the machine, instead.

Round about midnight on the night of Friday 9th and Saturday 10th of that August, four people climbed over the wall of the estate of 10050 Cielo Drive. Then and now, Cielo Drive was a side turning off Benedict Canyon Drive, one of the canyon roads that link Beverly Hills with Mulholland Drive, the miles-long northern sentinel of Los Angeles. These are the precious, privileged hills where the successful people live, the beautiful and those who can afford the beautiful lies that pass for the real thing. The houses on Cielo were set back in dense trees and the folds of the land, invisible from one property to the next. The nearest house was actually a hundred yards away. But this was a hot, quiet night: "You could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon," one of the four would later say.

The four had a gun and they had knives, and they were Charles Watson, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houton and Patricia Kremwinkle. They were all in the age range 20-23. And they killed everyone they found on the property: Steven Parent, a kid who had been visiting the caretaker; Jay Sebring, a well-known hair stylist; Abigail Folger, an heiress to the Folger coffee fortune; Voytek Frykowski, a Polish playboy, "a man of little talent but immense charm" it would be said; and Sharon Tate, the wife of film director Roman Polanski, herself an actress, and eight months pregnant.

That's right: he or "He" (let's go no further), Charles Manson, wasn't even there. His power, his sway, were so great, he didn't have to be there - like a director. He was back at Spahn Ranch, in the hills farther north, where the "Manson family" stayed - or even at Barker Ranch, their weird staging ground in Death Valley. But it had been Manson's plan, his assertion of authority, his prelude to Helter Skelter: the wholesale nemesis of society, the last orgy. And he had picked out the house, 10050 Cielo Drive, accurately yet in error, because he believed that it was where Terry Melcher lived, the son of Doris Day, a record producer, and the man who had once said, politely or not, that there wasn't a chance of a recording contract for Charlie, because he sang like a sad dog.

I am not writing this out of nostalgia; rather more as historian of the movies and their city. The Cielo Drive killings were followed, two days later, by the LaBianca murders. Hardly anyone recalls that, for the LaBiancas were not touched by celebrity or the rumours of sex and drugs. They were ordinary Los Angelenos. But Sebring had been Tate's lover - was he still? Frykowski was reckoned to be a drug connection: what else had talentless charm to do in that circle? And he'd been introduced to Folger by an old friend of Polanski's, the novelist Jerzy Kosinski, the author of Being There, and also of Steps - that astonishing cold-blooded book about the observance of depravity and torture.

Kosinski was the first person to dine out, as it were, on the idea that but for mere chance he'd have been at Cielo Drive that night. (Steve McQueen was another: Jay Sebring had cut his hair just a few days earlier.) Over the years in LA, I've heard half a dozen such stories - as if the event had a dread attraction, the feeling that one should have been there. Polanski wasn't there. He could have been. Should have been, with his wife so nearly ready to deliver. He was in London. But he flew to Los Angeles, in a state of "shock", and then posed for Life magazine, outside the door of the house, with "Pigs" still written on the door in blood. "Shock" is a strange thing.

What I'm trying to say is that the sickness of Cielo Drive took many forms, and if Manson's madness determined that innocents should die ... well, there really weren't that many people in those hills in 1969 who were innocent any longer. All of a sudden, sex and the body could be hateful, worthy of punishment. Joan Didion said it was the end of that strange cult called "Love".

I think Cielo Drive helped bring on the movies' dire theme of bodily invasion, of knives plunging up and down for ever, of bodies broken, shredded, laid out in fragments. The horror? No, horror was now betrayed by voyeurism. A part of us was ready, or trained, to watch. The sickness was out. And no matter what Cielo Drive did for the sale of hand-guns and the development of security systems in Los Angeles, our real inheritance is the ravaged icon of the beautiful blonde cut to pieces. She is us, she is ours. And we watched it happen.