Helter Skelter

Manson 30 years on

This is the way the murderers came on that warm summer night 30 years ago: down through the Hollywood Hills along Benedict Canyon, off to the right along a winding, single-lane road and then sharply off to the left up a steep hill, until the asphalt dead-ends at an imposing gateway made eerily familiar from countless news photographs and TV specials.

This is 10050 Cielo Drive, the address where three members of the Charles Manson family arrived without warning in the early hours of 9 August 1969, and slaughtered everyone they found inside: a highly pregnant Sharon Tate, who was renting the property with her husband Roman Polanski, three of the couple's movie-world friends and a passing visitor unlucky to be caught on the driveway as he was leaving the caretaker's guest house.

Utterly unmotivated and almost surreal in their sheer brutality, these murders were a crime that both defined and in many ways ended an era: an era of drugs, free love and wild parties; an era in which the line between hip experimentation and flirtation with danger was frequently blurred or crossed; an era in which shaggy beards, beads and tatty clothes could just as easily belong to movie stars or mass murderers.

Out here on Cielo Drive, at the end of the millennium, few physical relics of that terrible night remain. The house has gone. Even the earth beneath the house has gone, levelled to make room for a vast new monster villa built in the Italianate style. The house number has gone, too - the new villa is now said to be house number 10066.

Something intangible, some sense of a lurking evil remains none the less. After the Manson murders, nobody ever lived in this place for long, despite its idyllic mountain setting and its stunning views over the Los Angeles basin. The man who owns the property now, a businessman called Alvin Weintraub, made a conscious decision five years ago to knock down the old house because he wanted people to forget its old associations.

But even the sprawling Villa Bella, with its 18,000 sq ft of floor space, its four garages and its regraded landscape, has not been able to shake off those associations so easily. Originally put on the market at $12.5m, its current asking price is down to $7.7m - and still a buyer cannot be found.

A man who may or may not be Mr Weintraub - he won't say, though he has rolls and rolls of architectural plans of the property in his boot - pulls up in his car, appalled to find a journalist sniffing about. "There's nothing to write about here," he says. "Why don't you write about Mickey Mouse instead? There's no reason to dredge up events from so long ago that most people can't even remember them."

Ah, but they do remember. That's the problem. They remember those haunting reports of Sharon Tate, in just her panties and bra, begging for the life of her baby as she was stabbed over and over again; the way her hairdresser friend Jay Sebring, tied to her by a nylon rope slung over the ceiling- beam and tightened around both their necks, was shot and left to bleed to death in front of her on the living-room floor; the gargantuan struggle put up by Voytec Frykowski, a chum of Polanski's from Poland, who was shot twice, pistol-whipped around the head 13 times and stabbed 51 times before he finally succumbed.

Who could forget, too, the spine-tingling weirdness of the murderers? Tex Watson, who led his fellow killers into the house with the announcement: "I'm the devil. I'm here to do the devil's business." Or Susan Atkins, known to the Manson family as Sadie, who said killing Sharon Tate was the most exciting sexual experience of her life. It was she who smeared the word PIG on the front door of the house with a towel dipped in Sharon Tate's blood, she who contemplated cutting out the eyeballs of her victims and smearing them into the walls, she whose only regret was not having time to rip the baby from her victim's womb and bring it to Charles Manson as a trophy.

Then there was the grim fascination of the two off-stage protagonists of the drama. On the one hand was Roman Polanski, in London when the killings occurred, who had just made a hit film about satanism, Rosemary's Baby; whose whole filmography was obsessed with absurd, random violence and the workings of deranged minds; and who reacted to the Manson killings by making Macbeth, one of the goriest Shakespeare adaptations ever to hit the big screen.

And on the other hand, of course, was Charles Manson himself, a lifelong drifter and violent criminal, a man of extraordinary charisma who gathered his young disciples at a disused Western set, on the northern fringes of Los Angeles, where they lived together, dropped acid, held wild sex parties (including a ritual pleasuring of the landowner in lieu of rent) and scavenged for discarded scraps of food. Manson had an entree to the music business thanks to his lugubrious songwriting abilities, and he lived for a time at the Malibu home of Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys. Indeed, his link to the house on Cielo Drive came through the record producer Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son, who lived there before the Polanskis moved in. There was speculation at one point that Melcher had been the intended target of the killing spree, particularly since he had turned Manson down for a recording contract. But Manson knew perfectly well who was living at Cielo Drive because he had been there himself a few months earlier, briefly coming face to face with Sharon Tate as she patiently explained that Terry did not live there any more.

Manson was in many ways the seminal cult leader, a man exceptionally able to order his disciples not only to kill, but to kill at random and with breathtaking savagery. Much has been made of the theory put forward by the prosecuting attorney, Vincent Bugliosi, that he took the words of the Beatles song "Helter Skelter" as a prophecy of a race war in which his all-white sect would eventually take over the world.

But that does not fully explain why Manson dispatched his followers to Cielo Drive, or why he sent them to the Los Feliz home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the following night, where they killed in similar fashion all over again, or why he ordered them to carry out any number of other murders (the estimates range as high as 35) without apparent purpose.

The mystery has only added to the Manson mystique, making him an object of enduring fascination even as he ekes out his days in a protective holding cell at a maximum-security prison in the Mojave desert. He still receives more mail than any other prisoner in the history of the US penal system. He is the subject of countless websites, including one maintained by a former disciple, Sandra Good, who has moved to a godforsaken desert town to be as near to him as possible.

His songs continue to be produced, notably by Guns N' Roses, and a number of Manchester-based bands like Indigo Prime (whose credits include "Charlie's '69 Was a Good Year"). He has been the subject of several plays, novels and at least one opera. His followers continue to shave their heads, as they did at his trial, and sear their foreheads with crosses or swastikas. Beyond the strange adulation of a serial killer, however, the Manson murders continue to be felt most deeply in Hollywood itself. At the time, the carnage at Cielo Drive had an immediate sobering effect, causing film types to cut back drastically on the drugs, the free-for-all parties, the policy of letting anyone in the door no matter how alarming they looked. The production designer Richard Sylbert sardonically commented that he could hear the toilets flushing all over Beverly Hills.

High-security gates, armed guards and guard dogs became all the rage. The age of the easy-going, accessible movie star came to an abrupt halt and a new era of handlers, minders and security personnel was ushered in - an era that persists to this day. If Los Angeles is now notorious for its gated communities, its "armed response" burglar-alarm services, its electrified fences and other such paraphernalia, it is due in large part to Charles Manson.

Could it really all happen again, or is Hollywood simply paranoid? Certainly, the new celebrity culture seems to spawn its own brand of sickos, stalkers and deranged fans. But could anything even remotely approach the weirdness of the Manson gang?

As Vincent Bugliosi wrote in his best-selling book Helter Skelter: "If these murders had never happened, and someone wrote a novel with the same set of facts and circumstances, most people would put it down after a few pages; because, as I understand it, to be good fiction it has to be somewhat believable, and this story is just too far out."

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