The current NBC series “Aquarius” charts the rise of Charles Manson from wannabe rock star to murderous cult leader. It’s the latest example of how the Manson story continues to have a hold on pop culture 46 years after the Tate-LaBianca murders.
The Manson case is the subject of the current season of “You Must Remember This,” a storytelling podcast by Karina Longworth. She explores Manson trials, theories and infamy through the lens of a Hollywood historian.
Your podcast explores some of Hollywood's forgotten histories. How does the Manson case fit into it?
Well, I think it fits into it because I don't think people think of the Manson story as a Hollywood story. There are a lot of explanations for why Manson did what he did and why his followers did what they did, but at least one of them is the fact that he really wanted to be famous. He was really trying hard to become a rock star.
The thing that really brought me to the idea of doing an entire series about Manson, the murders, and all the people he knew in Hollywood, was realizing that he had this relationship with this guy Terry Melcher who was a record producer and the son of Doris Day. So, you can connect Doris Day to Charles Manson in one step, and that is just fascinating.
What was happening in Hollywood in the late 1960s that influenced Charles Manson?
Well, you have a couple of different things. First, you have what is going on in the movie industry. By the mid-1960s, the studio system — as it had been known in the '40s and '50s — was falling apart. You start having studios feeling like they have no idea how to make money and how to reach this young audience, and so they're giving filmmakers like Warren Beatty a chance to make something like "Bonnie and Clyde," they're giving somebody like Dennis Hopper a chance to make "Easy Rider," and so there is this spirit of outlaws — of being against the establishment, maybe even being a criminal, that is kind of cool.
Then in the music industry you have a lot of focus on Los Angeles, the Sunset Strip, bands like the Byrds and the Mamas & the Papas who also have this really anti-establishment vibe to them. Los Angeles becomes this place where runaways from all over the country can come – like San Francisco, but the runaways that come to Los Angeles often have a guitar in their hands and they have something to say. That is part of who Charles Manson was in addition to all of the other things he was. He was a guy with guitar who felt like he had something to say.
The prosecutor that tried Manson and his followers, Vincent Bugliosi, just died at the age of 80. What role does he play in your next episode?
Bugliosi himself is not in my next episode, but in my next episode we are going to be talking about "Helter Skelter," which was the theory that Bugliosi used to convict Manson himself. Nobody has ever suggested at any point in time that Manson killed any of the seven people that he has been convicted in the relation to the deaths of. He was convicted for conspiracy to commit murder.
Basically, he came up with this idea that there was going to be an apocalyptic race war and that there were messages about this war that were being sent specifically to his family of followers by the Beatles in the album "The White Album." As we'll talk about in the next episode, which comes out on Tuesday, there are five or six different songs on the album that have specific messages that Manson told his family the Beatles were sending to them about their part in this apocalyptic race war.
Manson also thought that the Beatles wanted him to create his own answer record in which he would tell the Beatles how they were going to survive the apocalyptic race war. So it was this kind of thing that Bugliosi used to basically scare the jury and paint Manson's counterculture bonafides as being part of his evil.
Bugliosi commented on the relatability factor, which seems kind of bizarre, between the Manson killers and the average American youth. Do you think that idea plays any role in the enduring interest in the case?
Definitely. That's part of the reason why I am fascinated with it. It's this idea that really it must have felt like society was just completely falling apart. When you think about what was happening during this trial, I mean, not only do you have Manson who looks like a hippie that everybody knows — he looks like somebody's son who went awry – but you also have these girls who do everything he tells them to do. Again, at this time and culture everybody knew a teenage girl who had run away. It must have felt so close to home to so many people.
You mention that the post-Manson family paranoia helped "invent" the 1970s. What do you mean by that, and do you see any lasting effect today?
That is a big part of why Manson's story is a Hollywood story, because these murders really shook up the Hollywood community. For instance, Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son, who believed that he was the intended target on the night of the Sharon Tate murders, got 24-hour armed guards and slept with a gun under his pillow. Warren Beatty put up thousands of dollars of his own money as a reward for finding the killer.
You have this climate in Hollywood where people who had left their doors open at night — who were living a really open lifestyle – are suddenly very afraid, and it is these people who are making movies and are kind of redefining American cinema in the '70s. Movies that have a lot of paranoia in them.