That’s how famed filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, described what a group of cult followers did on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, near Beverly Hills, California, on August 9, 1969. In one of the most bizarre, horrendous crime stories in American history, an unbelievable series of disconnected circumstances all seemed to come together…and make absolutely no tragic sense. But as horrible as it was, the tragedy was just one of many gut-wrenching and game-changing milestones in arguably the most culture-shattering year of the 20th Century. However, to even begin to understand the impact of the cataclysmic events that changed the nation in 1969, we should remember how much of it was connected to 1968.
Here’s a 1968 historical sampling…
- Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated.
- The epicenter of the hippie counterculture revolution, the Haight-Ashbury District in San Francisco, went into sharp decline. People were encouraged to bring the revolution back to where they lived…
- The Civil Rights Act was signed.
- The Intel Corporation was formed.
- Humans left the earth’s orbit and circled the moon.
- The Beatles released the White Album.
- The Tet Offensive, 16,000+ casualties, and Walter Cronkite triggered Americans into realizing we were losing the Vietnam War and a surge of anti-war protests ensued.
- The summer’s most popular TV show, the Democratic National Convention, showcased violent, anti-war, street rioting “on live TV” in Chicago.
- Among the top movies were Rosemary’s Baby–a pregnant woman suspects a satanic cult wants her baby (directed by Roman Polanski), and Valley of the Dolls, a groundbreaking tale of sex, drugs, and fame (starring the young actress, Sharon Tate).
1969 followed up with …
- A human being actually walked on the moon and returned to earth alive.
- About 350,000 people unexpectedly showed up at a farm for a concert––Woodstock.
- The FIRST message was transmitted between the FIRST connected computers on a network called ARPANET–and became the internet.
- About 250,000 protestors marched on Washington against the Vietnam War.
- The polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland and Congress created the EPA.
- The Stonewall Riots took place in NYC, basically birthing LGBT activism.
- An X-rated movie won the Oscar…Midnight Cowboy.
- Charles Manson directed his cult followers to murder two households of people to start a race war on August 9 and August 10––the Tate-LaBianca murders.
Charles Manson was obsessed with strange ideas. It started with his music. He and “the family” of followers once moved in with famed Beach Boys’ drummer, Dennis Wilson. That lead to Manson meeting Terry Melcher, a renowned record producer (Doris Day’s son) who was renting a home at…10050 Cielo Drive, Benedict Canyon. In fact, Manson once visited Melcher there. Meanwhile, Manson and family reportedly lived it up with Wilson, writing and recording songs until the Beach Boy ended up with $100,000 in bills for damaged property, stolen goods and, significant medical bills for STDs.
Some of Manson’s bizarre visions were inexplicably rooted in the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King. But not like you might think. He saw it as the perfect catalyst for inciting a national race war. This was all psychotically amplified for him by the Beatles’ “White Album,” which the cult leader believed contained a prophetic code, directed at him and his followers, about an impending apocalypse. He was particularly fascinated with the song, “Helter Skelter.”
So, Manson, a shaggy 5’2”, illegitimate, juvenile delinquent, pimp from Cincinnati, (whose prostitute mother once sold him for a pitcher of beer) demonically manipulated a group of young, white, middle-class, hippie-wannabe, outcasts through sex, drugs and diatribes, to believe they were part of a chosen people––here to save the new nation of a black ruling class. (Paradoxically, he was also known for his racist rants.) Along the way, Manson convinced them that he was both Jesus and Satan, and they would all be reconciled to judge the world at the end.
Well, unless you have a high threshold for crime horror, and are living right, I would not advise delving too deeply into the gory, gruesome details of what Manson’s minions did on Cielo Drive, August 9, 1969, to start a war. Susan Atkins, one of the convicted murderers, explained years later on a TV interview that she witnessed an almost superhuman-possessed Tex Watson announce to his victims, “I am the devil. And I am here to do the devil’s business.” Sharon Tate was viciously butchered with an eight-month old son inside of her—along with four house guests and a random visitor.
Despite a series of maddeningly missed opportunities by law enforcement, the Manson suspects were eventually apprehended. Strangely, the arrests were for burning a National Park Service bulldozer while looking for entry to “the bottomless pit,” a secret city below Death Valley where Manson believed they could hide during the carnage of the race wars. (I did not make this up.)
Which brings me to Tarantino’s current film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In the movie two men, an actor and a stunt man, are painfully encountering the reality that everything in their show business world is changing––and they are feeling left behind in ‘69. Their real and imaginary roles are painfully uncertain. (How is this connected to the Manson murders? Well, one of the men lives next door to Sharon Tate on Cielo Drive…) Much like today, the entire entertainment business was being force marched through a painful recalibration process. Studios, in an effort to bring back audiences lost to tame TV shows, had produced more shocking, explicit content like… Rosemary’s Baby and Valley of the Dolls. And it worked for a while…for some. But all stars eventually fade, particularly in Hollywood.
As crazily entertaining, and historically untrue as Tarantino’s celluloid fairy tale is, it beautifully and authentically mirrors a love letter memory of a faded Los Angeles…and maybe some other insights. All our storylines are unrelated…until they are not. And we are all connected in these stories by unseen threads to both darkness and light. Stories like this underline the very possible reality that we can be drawn by those threads to either side.
Tarantino saying that Manson’s ability to get young women (and men) to carry out this evil was “unfathomable,” prompts the same question heard after the Nuremberg War Trials. How do seemingly once normal people carry out unspeakable acts of evil against other human beings? We immediately try to make sense of something like this. But there is no human sense to be made from the sickening evidences of what really happened that night, other than a horrifyingly explicit, cautionary tale.
But that’s what good stories still try to do—make some kind of sense out of tragedy, right? So, storytellers often take poetic license with historical facts, to try and provide packaged meaning to our troubled souls about the things that our eyes, ears and minds…simply cannot fathom. That’s why I contend, that besides escaping reality, many of us often actually do subconsciously enter the narrative realm of any altered entertainment reality with just a little hope of enlightenment when we buy a ticket or boot up Netflix. And if we can’t get a happy ending, then there should at least be some justice! I certainly believe Once Upon A Time in Hollywood speaks profoundly into the deep human need for authentic friendships. It also humanizes Sharon Tate as the kind, sweet human being, by all accounts, she actually was, instead of just another marquee murder victim in the annals of Hollywood crime stories. But again, the story is not what actually happened, and Tarantino was honest about this long before any opening credits. His title says it all. (That said, while I greatly admire Tarantino’s movie-making chops and I personally like the movie, his violent, gritty style of filmmaking is not for everyone. You can read for yourself why this film is R-rated.)
Under the seismic pressure of all the historical events and cultural shifts, many societal conventions wobbled and buckled as the 60s came to an end, along with the post-war innocence of American society. There was just too much blood splattered on our hands and TV screens. The Manson Family crimes were a murderous exclamation point to the worst of what happened. Although this entertaining movie may not bear much accurate witness for our eyes to see what actually transpired on Cielo Drive that night in 1969, hopefully it might just encourage us to remember what actually DID happen…and to see something else with our souls.
Ideas certainly have consequences. Bad ideas have victims. We find ourselves at the end of the second decade in a 21st Century that is every bit as uncertain, dangerous, dark and troublesome as the end of the 60s. We are vulnerable. If anything, this movie and this crime should remind us 50 years later that all sides of a very confused political and cultural spectrum would do well right now to honestly check to see where the threads of our ideas, actions, desires and destinies are attached…to darkness or light? Otherwise, we might all just find ourselves in a one nightmare of a story or a gigantic crime scene.
“Anything you see in me is in you. If you want to see a vicious killer, that’s who you’ll see, do you understand that? If you see me as your brother, that’s what I’ll be. It all depends on how much love you have. I am you, and when you can admit that, you will be free. I am just a mirror.”
–Charles Manson, Rolling Stone interview, 1970
The Hollywood Reporter
Helter Skelter: The Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
Susan Atkin’s 1976 Television Interview