Charles Manson never released his grip on the American imagination. Since 1969, when his “Family” committed mass murder in L.A., he’s inspired operas, YA novels, South Park episodes. But the years surrounding his 2017 death and the 50th anniversary of the slayings have seen a surge in Manson mania. Beyond Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Family lore has fueled Emma Cline’s buzzy novel The Girls, Mary Harron’s indie film Charlie Says, and parts of the shows Mindhunter and American Horror Story. Every month seems to bring a new memoir or podcast or TV special.
The latest is Helter Skelter: An American Myth, a six-part Epix docuseries from director and producer Lesley Chilcott (An Inconvenient Truth), with executive producers including the ubiquitous television creator Greg Berlanti. While schlocky Manson-ploitation projects make no attempt to avoid redundancy, An American Myth nobly aspires to say something new. As Chilcott sees it, the Black-vs.-white race war Manson prophesied—and dubbed “Helter Skelter,” to help convince his followers that the Beatles’ White Album was a coded message intended specifically for them—wasn’t the true catalyst of the Tate-LaBianca murders. Manson, she argues, was simply a grifter looking to cover up earlier crimes and, ultimately, get famous. It’s a canny thesis; if only it weren’t submerged in such a conventional retelling of the Manson saga.
Chilcott presents an artful collage of archival footage, existing audio—including lengthy clips of Manson’s mediocre music—and new conversations with former associates and experts. So-called Manson girls Catherine “Gypsy” Share and Dianne “Snake” Lake are the most fascinating; both women seem to regard their youth with a mix of nostalgia and horror. And although the show relegates too much of its argument to the last third of the finale, episodes that trace Manson’s path through the penal system to Haight-Ashbury and L.A. illustrate how he absorbed ideas (like the sales psychology of Dale Carnegie) for reasons more practical than philosophical.
An American Myth might’ve worked better as a leaner, more daring essay film. The premiere contains quite a bit of material that’s recycled in later episodes, to the extent that it feels like an hour-long trailer. More frustrating is that in avoiding voice-over narration, Chilcott makes her point through interviews that can contradict one another.
Some of the best reconsiderations of the Manson Family in recent years have, like An American Myth, questioned how an ex-con in his mid-30s managed to amass an army of hippie kids ready to kill for him. Mindhunter plumbed his psyche. Cline and Harron delved into the minds of the women, many of them still in their teens in 1969. A remarkable season of Hollywood podcast You Must Remember This examined Manson’s many connections to the film industry.
Tarantino got closest to capturing what remains salient in this story: its cultural legacy. As he suggests, it was in the ’60s that Americans started rejecting old-school heroes in favor of the darker characters the Family represents (see: Bonnie and Clyde, and later Taxi Driver). But Tarantino repeats the mistake many have made, twisting these outliers into a cautionary tale about the counterculture—Reefer Madness on acid. Buried in An American Myth is a smart case for disentangling the Family and the hippies. If Manson believed in nothing, then his gospel of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll was just as superficial as the racist fantasy of Helter Skelter.