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."

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas