Charles Manson remains one of the most haunting spectres of the American cultural imagination. Over two days in the August of 1968, the Manson Family cult murdered six people across Los Angeles, including the heavily pregnant actress Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski. It was in the couple’s shared home that Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger were found dead. When the press arrived, Polanski allowed photographers to take pictures of him standing in front of the house. In some of them, you can see the word ‘PIG’ written in Tate’s blood on one of the exterior walls. The coroner’s report later found that the actress had been stabbed 16 times, just one of the grisly details to emerge from the crime scene.
Thankfully, Manson and his followers were eventually arrested and sentenced. But judging from the kill list later found by police, the celebrity killings would have continued if they hadn’t been stopped. Indeed, despite the apparent random nature of the attacks, the murders were, in fact, carefully planned and organised. They intended to send a message to the Hollywood elite – to make it clear that the party was well and truly over. As Dylan Howard and Andy Tillet note of Tate’s murder in The Last Charles Manson Tapes, “What would have more impact than killing an eight-month-pregnant Hollywood actress?”
Howard and Tillet’s book also explains that the Manson family’s hit list included Hollywood names such as Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Tom Jones. If Manson and company had succeeded in finding them, they likely would have experienced the same horrific fate as Tate and her friends, who were brutally tortured before finally being stabbed to death. It later emerged that the killings were part of a plot to trigger a race war that would bring about the apocalypse. The Family planned to frame the Black Panthers for the August murders, prompting what Charles Manson believed would be a chain of events allowing The Family to seize control of America.
Manson named the ploy ‘Helter Skelter’ after The Beatles song of the same name from 1968’s White Album. According to Susan Atkins, a member of The Family who took part in the killings, her fellow cult members had planned to torture and murder many other Hollywood stars beside Tate. Virginia Grama, Atkins’ former cellmate, told the court on October 9th, 1970, that “she [Atkins] told me she had decided to murder Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She said she had given great thought to this and that she wanted to do something she thought would be unusual and again would shock the world.”
Graham, who was 37 at the time of the Manson Family Trial, continued: “She told me she knew how to gouge people’s eyes out; that Charlie [Manson] had shown her how to do it – so she decided that she would take Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes out. She was going to take her knife, burn the end of it until it was red hot, and put it on the side of Elizabeth Taylor’s face, to leave her mark.”
Howard and Tillet go on to note that Graham and Atkins planned to “castrate the famously virile Richard Burton”. Detailing further, they said: “Atkins also described special punishments for crooners who might compete with Manson, such as Tom Jones (having sex with him at knifepoint and then cutting his throat) and Frank Sinatra (suspending him upside down from a meat hook, skinning him alive while playing his music in the background, then tanning his flesh and turning it into purses).”
These horrific plans were clearly crafted with a sense of pride. None of Manson’s followers wanted to let down their leader. They wanted to prove their originality, inventing novel ways to bring death to the Hollywood elite and grab the attention of the national press. It is a haunting reminder of the dark side of the 1960s, one that continues to cast its shadow over American popular culture to this day.