Helter Skelter: An American Myth Director Deflates the Legend of Charles Manson

Lesley Chilcott, the director of Helter Skelter: An American Myth, looks at small clues to shrink a big picture to normal size.

Helter Skelter An American Myth
Photo: Epix

Charles Manson was five foot, two inches tall. He would claim to be five foot six, and some papers list him as 5’4″, but he was much smaller than how he has been presented. He is certainly not as physically imposing as the stature of his lore. Helter Skelter: An American Myth in one of the most comprehensive examinations of Charles Manson found in one title. The six episodes of the documentary series delve deep into the childhood of the man who would start the Family that committed the Crime of the Century.

Directed and executive produced by Lesley Chilcott, who produced An Inconvenient Truth, Helter Skelter: An American Myth doesn’t depict Manson as the mystical mastermind who infested a nation’s nightmares. Using interviews with former family members, journalists and archival footage, the documentary hopes to look past the legends to determine what makes a career criminal.

Manson is probably the most infamous convicted killer of all time. He was also one of the most institutionalized, having spent most of his life in prisons. After a lengthy and very public trial he was sentenced to death along with four of his disciples, but it was changed to serving life in prison after California did away with the death penalty. Manson, who died in November 2017, led a group of young followers to commit a series of 7 murders, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski. As the story goes, Manson believed the crimes would be blamed on African Americans and national unrest would follow.

Charlie Manson was the original prepper. He believed people were born with a natural instinct to be selfish, and prison taught him he would do anything to survive. Media interpretations say Manson headed to the desert to wait out a race war where he would wind up in charge as the last white guy standing. The documentary makes the case that was an exaggerated claim. He was a racist and a reactionary in an insulated world of liberal freethinkers, the Hippie nirvana of California. Quentin Tarantino attempted to take back the magic of the period Manson desecrated with his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

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Lesley Chilcott, who also directed the feature documentaries Watson, CodeGirl, A Small Section of the World, and produced Waiting For “Superman,”spoke with Den of Geek about Helter Skelter: An American Myth and what she hopes to dispel about the legend of Charles Manson.   

Den of Geek: What is the biggest misconception about the Manson murders?

Lesley Chilcott: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that he was this master strategist and a brilliant bearded Svengali, someone called him at the time, and that he had a real authentic plan to ignite a race war. It just isn’t true. He was a small time con artist that committed one paranoid blunder after the next. And while he had a certain amount of charisma and he did have these people that were simultaneously fearful and enthralled with him, he was not going to bring around a race war. It was a very easy construct.

It was the late ’60s, there were a lot of racial tensions, there were race riots happening in every major city across America and he glommed on to that and he explained these terrible things that were happening in society. And he would retreat into philosophical abstractions and say to his family, that’s why they needed to believe in him and that he was the only one with the answers. They would go out there to the desert because he liked the desert. And if the language about waiting out a race war was convincing, then he used it.

Most of your work has been for good, it’s been uplifting. An Inconvenient Truth, the film about Captain Paul Watson. What drew you to this story?

Me not understanding it. And what I mean by that is I don’t understand the obsession with Charles Manson and the crimes. People all over the world have heard about them and I find it very interesting because to me there’s so many more important issues and things that we could be talking about. And so I wanted to look at it, what is it? Is it because you can’t write this stuff because it’s more horrifying than fiction? Is it because it’s a time capsule for a certain time period in the late ’60s? So I just said, I want to find out if this killer was born or made. I want to do an anthropological dig and a social history of the late ’60s and of Los Angeles in the late ’60s and how there were all these simultaneously exciting freedoms happening. Yet on the other side, you had the Vietnam war, an unpopular president, political strife. And I wanted to do a cultural dive in and see why Charles Manson kept interrupting, if you will.

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Waiting For “Superman” and CodeGirl, both dealt with education and economics. Is Helter Skelter the flip side of that?

That’s a good question. I think, in a way, that could be right. I think that because there were all… I’m trying to answer this in a short way rather than give you a long winded answer. But I think that we didn’t know all the ingredients that went into guru making and cult making and the late ’60s. Initially, the girls and some of the boys, and I say girls and boys because they were in their teens and early twenties, that were attracted to Charlie Manson thought, “Why not live on the fringes of society? The 50s wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, my home life is not so good. So why not use less resources and live out here on the edge or move to the desert?”

What Charlie did is he took that and he took the clocks and the watches and television and radio away and the only news the family got was through him. Most everybody got a new name. He gave each person a ton of attention and then would later abuse them. This is all classic cult behavior. And then he had a few good lines that he just kept repeating over and over again, what they were calling at the time acid rap, like LSD infused insights.

I think that it was a really unique time and without access to outside education, some people fell for this. But you also have to remember, for as many people that did fall for Charlie Manson, there are a dozen who didn’t.

I think there’s intentional myth creation. There were a lot of tabloid-esque reports in the paper at the time, the press was very competitive. On the flip side, how do you explain a crime that has no motive? And so there was uneducated myth creation about what happened, but that doesn’t take away the fact that some very, very horrific and unforgettable, unforgivable crimes were committed.

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The original air date was pulled because of the protests and his connection with the race war. Do you think this is a necessary discussion for right now?

I do think it is. There were a couple of reasons that went into pushing it. Part of it was leaving space for some very important conversations that were happening. Part of it was because of the stay at home orders, we weren’t done with the episodes. So we were trying to get our stock footage and all of those things in. But I think there are some common factors about societal upheaval and inequalities and unpopular foreign wars and government officials and a lot of that stuff is happening now. So I think it’s an important conversation.

I think it’s easy to look at family members and be like, “I would never fall for a cult leader. I would never be in a cult. I would never do those things.” Yet we have cults today. People do fall for charismatic leaders. And I think it’s a good time to have these underlying conversations.

Charlie was a racist. There’s no doubt about that. And racism was a curse throughout the nation then, and it is now.

How did the ex- family members go on to have a normal life? Besides being accessories after the fact, how do they reintegrate themselves? Did they reintegrate themselves?

I think there are two categories there. I think there’s the category of the family members that did commit crimes, of which all of them except one are still in prison. They have not been able to reintegrate. Then there are the family members that weren’t involved in the murders and found out about them after the fact and went through years of therapy or rehab and years of study. And a lot of those people are in this series and were willing to sit for longer interviews because they want their tale to be a cautionary tale. They also want to attempt to explain how something like this could happen.

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But Dianne Lake was 14. Her parents were on a different commune. Her parents knew she was with Charlie. Of course, Charlie wasn’t the Charlie he later became. But she’s doing a lot of acid, having sex with someone who’s two decades older than her. And you look at her and you think, “I don’t know that she really had a chance.” Yet she has recovered and finally, about 12 years ago, wrote a book and is willing to sit for these interviews, I think, because she wants people to know what happened and she wants it to be a cautionary tale.

There’s a part where Roman Polanski says the police and the media were blaming the victims. What does he mean by that?

After the crimes at the Tate house and the LaBianca house happened, the police initially didn’t make the connection between the two crimes. There was a third crime that predated that, the killing of Gary Hinman in Topanga a few weeks, or a couple of weeks earlier. Those three separate crimes, nobody was making that connection, even though there was blood written on the wall or refrigerator or something at all three locations. I think we have all these forensics now that we didn’t have then and they were all in different parts of the city and different people were investigating.

So when you look at these crimes that seemingly had no motive, the press started guessing. The police weren’t making the connection, so the press was making the connections and then they would talk to people that would say certain crazy things and then there’s no answer. We still don’t know why the crimes were committed. So they start saying, “They all must have been drug users,” and to a certain extent it’s late ’60s, a lot of people were using drugs. But they started saying it must be something because Roman Polanski made these films. It must have to do with him. Or it must have been that the victims must have attracted this violence in some way by something they were doing. And it’s completely wrong and unfair. They were total victims that just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Did you actually encounter any of the other conspiracy theories, which surround the Manson case? The CIA, the Process Church, things like that?

I did, and we started looking into a lot of those initially. In fact, there is another cult-commune down the road from Spahn Ranch that is still there now. We started going in that direction and there are million rabbit holes that you can go down.

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But I think it’s a natural response to think the puzzle pieces don’t fit. These crimes didn’t have motives. It doesn’t make any sense so therefore there must be some grand conspiracy. There were places that Charlie Manson lived that people who later had something to do with MKUltra lived, so therefore they must be in cahoots together. I think it’s really easy to be like, “I hate the color blue, you hate the color blue, therefore we’re the same person and we must be connected.” It’s just not that simple.

New information will always spill out about the family because there were so many family members and each person was involved in their own thing as well as being in the family. But I think people really want to find some connections that aren’t necessarily there.

The big connection that I saw from yours was his learning of Dale Carnegie and Scientology and putting it together with LSD for the perfect compound for a new church.

That’s a great way of saying it. Charlie was very careful about implying that he was Jesus and that he had some sort of spiritual connection. He would sign things and say, “I am Christ, God, Charles Manson,” those types of things. So that’s absolutely right. On some level, maybe he wanted to believe he had some sort of spiritual connectedness that nobody else had.

I mean, LSD was being used for the first time in the ’60s and there weren’t many books about it. There weren’t many studies yet. In fact, there was studies going on at that time and people thought they saw God. And Charlie would step in, play records, he had a real gift for lyrics. Would recite them over and over, recite Bible passages over and over. You feed anybody the amount of LSD that he was feeding people and people get confused.

It’s also important to remember that the Charlie Manson who kept himself in the press, when he would go on Geraldo, when he would go on all these shows or when he would do outrageous things from prison, he was playing us. We’re puppets, too. He found a way to keep us talking about him and we’re still talking about him because the crimes are so inexplicable. So what we tried to do with the series is bring a bit of moral seriousness, to talk about the moral seriousness, if you will, that’s underneath the spectacle that became the Manson family.

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If Manson was trying to incite a race war, which would be blamed on Blacks, what did he quote a white band, The Beatles?

I don’t think he was trying to incite a race war. I think that is the acid rap that he skewed to everybody. Some family members thought he was trying to do this, and some thought it was campfire talk, but they were all afraid of him. I think he was just taking convenient things. There were over 200 race riots in the late ’60s, so it wasn’t hard for him to point to racial unrest because it was real. Racism is a curse that was everywhere in the late ’60s and it’s everywhere now. So it wasn’t hard for him to do this. But to tell the family members that The Beatles were speaking to them through song, even that wasn’t original. Everybody in the late ‘’60s thought they were hearing messages in lyrics and in records.

One of the original investigators says that anyone that thinks this is about Helter Skelter and the race war is wrong. Do you think he’s talking about a different alternative?

Yeah, that’s his opinion, but I found that that was many people’s opinion, that this race war made for really good conversation. LA had the biggest race riots of all in ‘65. Charlie gets out of prison in ‘67, he was in Long Beach, he goes to Northern California. He comes back to LA, there are all sorts of racial tensions. He was a racist. He thinks we’re sort of separated into racial groups in the prison system that he grew up with.

But I think saying that it was about orchestrating a race war is giving Charlie way too much credit. When the houses that they chose to commit murders at random happened to contain movie stars, heiresses, famous hairstylists, a couple people that were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you have all the makings of what you would want for a fiction story. Only in this case, it was real. And I think people can’t let it go.

And then Charlie becomes this counter-culture hero for a very small group of people who feel that he was railroaded and then you have a whole other spin on it. But I think it’s time for us to stop being puppets and move on.

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Why do you think Manson was getting proposals and propositions throughout his entire stay in prison?

I think he orchestrated those. He managed to record some music in prison and the biggest surprise for me in this is finding out that he actually was a decent musician. He wrote some very decent lyrics. And you imagine this girl that’s run away from home and then Charlie sings a song to her called “Look At Your Game Girl,” and tells them exactly what they want to hear and they start to believe it as gospel. I think he had a way of taking something in each era. He was going to parole hearings up until the ‘90s and then I think he gave up, realizing it was never getting out and he would do something outrageous and newsworthy. He would say things to provoke people just to keep himself in the news. He was very clever that way and everyone kept falling for the story over and over again. When you look behind the curtain, it turns out there’s not a lot there.

But he continued to get fan mail and romance propositions.

Yeah, and he would write people and he would farm out writing people to other fellow inmates. He didn’t have the greatest of education and I don’t know how… I’ve seen his penmanship last year when we were doing our research. It had been 50 years since the crimes and there were these events and people would bring their letters from Charlie Manson and you would see his crazy writing and he would create art that he would smuggle out. He still tried to grow this group from within prison.

Steve Grogan is left out of most of the coverage that we’ve seen with the Manson family trials. Why is his name not as recognizable as Watkins, Atkinson, Squeaky? She wasn’t even part of the killings.

Steve Clem Grogan was involved in the murder of Shorty Shea. Shorty Shea happened after the Tate and the LaBianca murders and it’s a murder that people don’t talk about a lot. People often say, “Manson wasn’t involved in any crimes.” That’s not true. He was involved in the killing of Gary Hinman. He was at that house, he sliced Gary Hinman on the ear and then he left. He helped kill Shorty Shea, so he committed that murder. So, that’s another myth about how Charlie never committed the crimes.

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Steve Clem Grogan was also involved in the murder of Shorty Shea. Incidentally, he is the only murderer that is out of prison and has not committed those types of crimes since then. He was younger, I think he was 15 or 16 when he was first at Spahn Ranch. We did try to interview him, people have tried to interview them over the years, but he has tried to leave that time behind him

The documentary itself had a lot more information about the life of young Charles Manson than any I’ve ever seen.

Yeah. We went to West Virginia and we actually shot in Moundsville Prison. When Charlie was four and a half, his mother was sent to prison and he would go and visit her in this horrific prison. If it’s not bad enough visiting someone in prison, this was this dirty, gothic, cold, wet, old prison with 11 foot thick walls designed to intimidate. He would go and visit his mother and he couldn’t touch her, she was behind this glass. And he was living with an aunt and uncle who were trying to take care of him, but he was a handful and he didn’t have a good childhood. He really did have a bad childhood.

I think when people are weighing nature versus nurture or are killers born or made and they’re weighing that question in their mind and you wonder that a lot about someone like Charles Manson, he definitely had the ingredients growing up that were not good, that could turn you into something. But I think the question, whether he was born or made, I think the viewers are going to come to their own conclusion by the end.

Was Terry Melcher right about his assessment of Manson as a musician?

Music is a matter of opinion. I don’t think he was a brilliant musician by any means, but I was relieved to hear that he was a good lyricist and he had a nice voice. And so when you’re saying, “Oh my God, this is a horrible story. I would never be in that position, I would never fall for him,” and then you hear a song that actually sounds kind of nice and insightful, you think, “Okay. Maybe had things gone a little differently he could have had a music career,” and we would hope that things would have turned out differently.

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Helter Skelter: An American Myth, episode 1, premieres Sunday, July 26 at 10 p.m. on Epix.