Category Archives: Helter Skelter

A True Crime Book List

B001D23SXA-IxaDh-200x300Thanks to this tweet from Mary Kayler, I found this list of the nine most disturbing True Crime books. I was happy to see that three of which are part of the True Crime course syllabus Paul Bond and I came up with for this semester. In addition to In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter (actually we watched the TV movie which is awesomer), and The Stranger Beside Me, there were at least two others I would consider if I were to teach this course again that are on that list. For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz provides an account of the Leopold and Loeb murder of the 1920s, something that would have worked well this semester to
frame the broader issues of the intellectualization of crime, thrill killing, queer studies, and a broader sense of a declining moral coda in the 20th century. The other book that I would consider is Columbine (2010), an account by Dave Cullen of the school shootings that shook the nation in 1999—but have almost become routine 15 years later. I think a book look this would help us start dealing with mass shootings like Virginia Tech, Aurora,  and even Newtown a bit more. It just still seems so raw and horrible to have to try and actually wrestle with. All the more reason we should, I guess.9170

I felt like I read Gommorah by Roberto Saviano because Antonella was reading it, and I got to hear all the gruesome details about the seemingly boundless brutality of Cosa Nostra. Unlike the U.S., Italy has far fewer romantic notions about organized crime. They understand how ugly it is through and through. And, to be fair, this is an itialian True Crime book, our class focuses on the current empire ;)

9781101608630.340x340-75That leaves three more books from the list. Joe McGinness’s Fatal Vision, which I had considered for the syllabus early on but left it out because for a survey of U.S. crime narratives over 300 years we were getting far too focused on the 1970s and 80s. Nonetheless, it is a truly disturbing book, but not oen I want to really tackle given it’s like a true crime version of The Shining wherein Jack Torrance wins.

The account of the Unabomber, A Mind for Murder by Alston Chase, is actually one I usually wouldn’t have all that much interest in reading. However, from the description it seems to blame the monster Kaczynksi became on academia, which might be just what I need these days.

0393325563Alston Chase’s gripping account follows Ted Kaczynski from an unhappy adolescence in Illinois to Harvard, where he was subject not only to the despairing intellectual currents of the Cold War but also to ethically questionable psychological experiments. Kaczynski fled academia to the edge of the wilderness in Montana, but Chase shows us that he was never the wild mountain man the media often assumed him to be. Kaczynski was living in a book-lined cabin just off a main road when he formulated the view of the world that he used to justify murder.

Adjunct culture made him do it!

last-victim-jason-moss-paperback-cover-artThe Last Victim by Jason Moss is a book about how John Wayne Gacy tried to kill the author when he went to visit him in jail. Really? There’s a book about this? How shocking, as if the 33 boys and young men he sexually assaulted, murdered, and buried beneath his house were not enough evidence he might have violenet tendencies. What’s more, during high school I read the mass paperback Killer Clown by Terry Sullivan which scared the hell out of me for a long time. Gacy was a dark, dark hole of humanity, one serial killer is enough for any true crime course.

All that said, however, thanks to Paul Bond our True Crime class was very much on the cutting edge of new true crime work given one of the works we assigned, “Mad Love: The Ballad of Freddie and Allie,” was just nominated for a prestigious Pushcart Prize for creative nonfiction.


From Mansonism to Bundyism

manson_clapping_better 01
The 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter ends on a fear-mongering tear about “the social compost heap” from which Charles Manson sprang that may lead to an even more “virulent strain” of “Mansonism.” [This usage of Mansonism pre-dates, and I imagine was the inspiration for, the other Mansonism of the 1990s.] It’s probably the best bit in the entire film, and it lays bare the moral at the heart of the film: Manson introduced a special variety of hippie that will endlessly mutliple and grow increasignly more aberrant and antisocial. They represent  a “virulent strain” of the youth movement that is coming of age presently, and that the viewer must be particularly wary of these mutants. Here is the clip, watch it through:

According to Helter Skelter, the idealism of 1960s youth movements in search of social justice, peace, and a better future effectively devolves into anarchic, violent cults led by fervent fanatics. A pretty effective narrative to stem popular support for any socially responsible activism during the 1970s. In fact, Vincent Bugliosi’s final commentary on this “era of madness” (which just as well could refer to the 1960s more generally as it does to the Manson murders) was probably the scariest thing about the TV movie when I watched it as a kid in 1976. The rabid Mansonites were out there multiplying wildy in mass orgies. It’s an image somehow akin to what 1950s youth must have felt when watching the xenophobic horror and scifi films of that era, namely Them! (1954) or  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). But the difference now was the threat was from within (somethign John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing updates brilliantly about the films from the 1950s).

Such a message of paranoia and fear in Helter Skelter informs the general public’s idea of the hippies as the modern incarnation of violent commies. And it gets even more interestingly when set against another burgeoning identity group of the era: the yuppies. The emergence of this category of young, conservative, upper-class urban professionals was the oppositie extreme to the feral Manson hippies. White, clean-cut, all-American capitalists who are living the dream of social status and conspicuous consumption. The posterchildren for a re-worked vision of class consiousness that would ultimately celebrate the idea of material privilege in the mainstream media of the 1980s. Something that reaches its logical extreme with Bret Easton Ellis‘s 1991 novel American Psycho, but it can’t get there without first passing through Bundyism.

Ted Bundy on Trial

American Psycho

Ted Bundy in many ways was the prototypical yuppie during the late 1960s and early 1970s. A staunch college Republican who openly denounced student movements. In Ann Rule’s  The Stranger Beside Me (1980) she notes Bundy’s longtime girlfriend, Meg Anders, was asked by police what he had said when asked about the lug wrench with a taped handle he kept in his car (which he used to crush the skulls of women he abducted) he answered, “You never know when you can get caught in the middle of a student riot” (193).  A bizarre transference of his aggression onto the socially oriented activism of the day.

Yet, he seemed to use the unviersity as a cloak of privelege as well as a hunting ground for his victims. He hid within an affectation of culture, and dressed the part of a prep—complete with turtleneck, blazer, white tennis shoes, and corduroys. What’s more, he resisted any communal idea of organizing, he was an individualist. His determination to become successful was described in by Ann Rule as “an almsot Horatio Alger-like metamorphosis” (21). What’s more, he is described by Rule as anything but a radical:

He believed totally in the orderly progression of changes in the system of government through legislation. His stance made him something of a loner among the work-study students working at the Crisis Clinic. They were semi-hippies, in both their garb and their political views, and he was a conservative Republican. (36)

I love the way Ann Rule delineates the two foci of “semi-hippies”: clothes and politics. Can’t the same might be said of Yuppies? In this regard Ted Bundy really is a stand-out. He’s the very opposite of Manson, and in many ways scarier. He’s a clean-cut kid with predatory appetite that represents the most primal vision of a political rhetoric around social Darwinism that seems to buttress a system that amasses its fortunes in terms of human trophies, or  said another way disinvestment. He is the logical extreme of  such a system of accumulation. Without God, without fate, and within a very flimsy world tied together by a fragile lattice of coincidence, survival of the fittest is all you have left. It’s the horror at the heart of the vision of the serial killer that explodes throughout the 70s and 80s—we’re being preyed on by forces out of our control. We’re supine in the face of chance, we can only hope to survive the predations of the most twisted among us. It’s a view of the world Ann Rule seem to buy into, one wherein weakness is a trait that must be culled at all costs:

Had the man who approached these young women divined somehow that he had come his victims in a time when they were particularly vulnerable, when they were not thinking as clearly as they usually did? It would almsot seem so. The stalking, predatory animal cuts the weakest from the pack, and then kills at his leisure.

is Rule suggesting here that the common condition of the women who were abducted, beaten, raped, and then mutilated by Bundy might have been avoidable? Are we blaming the victims here? If only these women weren’t so vulnerable, if only they had a sense of how savage the world truly is, if only we were more scared of that stranger beside us. Ted becomes the one in total charge, the figure of pwoer—the women become the “weakest of the pack.” And this metaphor of nature’s culling of the weak tends to reinforce the most conservative political rhetoric. The strong will survive and the weak shall perish. It’s the montra of the corporate world, and it’s been an enduring a vision of our  society for the last forty years that in many ways could be considered at the opposite end of the spectrum from the revolutions of the 1960s. In such a predatory world there’s no sense of community, no support for the vulnerable, and a return to a pre-civilized moment in which humanity is on par with animals on the hunt. It’s the closest thing to a worldview in Rule’s book, and it’s probably the best way to sum up the escalation of U.S. political culture as we enter the 1980s. And like Bugliosi’s view of Mansonism, it’s equally feral, just far less distinguishable from normalcy.

And there is so much more. Bundy’s defining romance with Stephanie (a girl from an affluent family) that ultimately a source of rejection. After undergraduate, she no longer considered theirs a viable, longterm realtionship based on his prospects (which might be read as class). The whole thing kinda reads like the plot of a John Hughes film from the 1980s. It’s as if Bundy was the other side of Manson, the bizarre horror of submersed class consiousness as well as the worst of sensationalized violence against women. As Bundy is coming into the national scene as a media sensation, so are slasher movies. The popular vision of violence against women is another cultural touchstone. The deranged killers of the slasher cycle of films that represent so much psychic baggage of a decade of deeply scarring turmoil, from Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve  (1971)through Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and many many more. Culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that’s why they call it cutlure. And the struggle between the horrific carciatures of Manson and Bundy might be exactly the political battle we are still fighting today, to borrow from Mike Caulfield‘s awesome comment here that inspried much of my ramblings above :)

But let me end this post somewhat haphazardly with another quote from Ann Rule’s book that captures for me an image of Bundy’s life that I believe supports my theory of him as the proto-typical yuppie. In this scene during May, 1975 Ted is entertaining people he used to work with in Washington in his partment in Salt Lake City:

The trio from Washington found Ted’s apartment very pleasant; he’d cut pictures out of magazines and tried to duplicate the decor he favored. He still had the bicycle tire, hung from the meat hook in his kitchen, and he used that to store knives and other kitchen utensils in a mobile effect. He had a color television set, a good stereo, and he played Mozart for them to accompany the gourmet meals he prepared.

It almost seemed like a scene out of some bratpack movie from the 80s like St Elmo’s Fire. The attention to decor, the Moart accompanied by gourmet good, not to mention the hifi system. Ted is about things, he is about possessions and appearance, but as this passage also makes clear he is also has a meat hook that holds knives and maybe even the cleaver he brings on his midnight forays. Part of the vision here is out of  style magazine, and the other part a slasher film—Ted is the premise of a cultural flashpoint of consumption, predation, and affectation that would come to define the next 15 years of U.S. culture. If Helter Skelter killed the hippie, then The Stranger Beside Me gave the yuppies their first serial killer, but certainly not there last ;)

Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter Bogus Conspiracy Theory?

"Truman Capote and Bobby Beausoleil at San Quentin " by Peter Beard

“Truman Capote and Bobby Beausoleil at San Quentin ” by Peter Beard

As my last post made all too clear, this week in True Crime we’re talking about the 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter. Last night, as a follow-up to the discussion of the film, we discussed the interview between Truman Capote and Bobby Beausoleil published in 1973 as “Then it All Came Down.” Capote went to San Quentin in 1972 to talk with Beausoliel who was (and still is) serving life in prison for killing Gary Hinman—the first of the Manson murders. What’s fascianting to me about this conversation is that it suggests Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter scenario argued during the Manson trial, namely that the various murders were committed to spark a global race war, is overstated.

Instead, the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders were actually attempts to free the charismatic and handsome Beausoleil from prison. In fact, Capote lays this theory out pretty clearly in the preface to the published interview:

It all began with the murder of Gary Hinman, a middle-aged professional musician who had befriended various members of the Manson brethren and who, unfortunately for him, lived alone in a small isolated house in Topanga Can­yon, Los Angeles County. Hinman had been tied up and tortured for several days (among other indignities, one of his ears had been severed) before his throat had been mercifully and lastingly slashed. When Hinman’s body, bloated and abuzz with August flies, was discovered, police found bloody graffiti on the walls of his modest house (“Death to Pigs!”) ­graffiti similar to the sort soon to be found in the households of Miss Tate and Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca.

However, just a few days prior to the Tate-LaBianca slayings, Robert Beausoleil, caught driving a car that had been the property of the victim, was under arrest and in jail, accused of having murdered the helpless Mr. Hinman. It was then that Manson and his chums, in the hopes of freeing Beausoleil, conceived the notion of committing a series of homicides similar to the Hinman affair; if Beausoleil was still incarcerated at the time of these killings, then how could he be guilty of the Hinman atrocity? Or so the Manson brood reasoned. That is to say, it was out of devotion to “Bobby” Beausoleil that Tex Watson and those cutthroat young ladies, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Hooten, sallied forth on their satanic errands.

So, after watching the TV movie which spends three hours articulating and celebrating the brilliance of Bugliosi’s elaborate conspiracy theory tying the Manson murders to the Beatles’s song “Helter Skelter,” Capote offers a very logical, condensed version in just two short prefatory paragraphs. Rather than buying into an overblown theory that The White Album was the basis of an impending global racial conflagration, Capote argues Manson and the family had come up with the bloodiest, most horrific way to get Beausoleil out of jail. Still twisted thinking, no doubt, but somehow more believable than the vision of Helter Skelter laid out during the trial. That said, I must admit Bugliosi’s elaborate theory is far more entertaining than Capote’s, and maybe that’s the point.

Helter Skelter or, how I came to hate the dirty hippies

This weekend I watched the 1976 TV documdrama Helter Skelter for the first time since I was a young boy. And while watching it again I came to the stunning realization that this TV movie is the reason why I’ve hated dirty hippies so viscerally for the last three decades. In fact, this TV movie could have just as well been named The Family: A Bunch of Dirty Hippies. And when I say dirty hippies, I mean DIRTY hippies. According to this TV movie, the love children that were part of Charles Manson’s family may have been the dirtiest people ever. Just take a look at the evidence presented as part of the TV movie, these shots come early on in the program when the Ranch is raided by the police.

Dirty Hippie with Gun

Dirty Hippie with gun protecting the ranch

A series of dirty hippies making ugly faces

A series of dirty hippies making ugly faces

A depth of dirty hippies

A depth of dirty hippies

There is some serious dirt going on here, and I would normally scratch this up to overenthusiasm on the part of the director if it wasn’t reinforced throughout the movie. In fact, there’s a scene between Vincent Bugliosi (the crusading hero determined to stomp out the last remnants of filth) and his wife in which he breaks the Helter Skelter conspiracy behind the murders wide open. While Bugliosi is ennumerating this vision his special lady friend delivers the final blow by tying the Family’s lack of cleanliness to their senseless preying on the lives of the showered establishment people.

I can’t tell you how much this scene made me love this movie. It reinforces everything I feel about Hippies, the 1960s, and Manson more generally, In fact, this TV movie has a few themes it is trying to push pretty relentlessly: 1) Hippies are dirty, 2) the free love movement of the 1960s would ultimately devolve into psychos like Manson taking control of their minds, 3) Manson is the devil, 3) Bugliosi is a legal genius, and 4) Mansonism is a growing epidemic consisting of burgeoning dirty hippies that murderously misinterpret Beatles’ song lyrics.

Scene from Helter Skelter wherein Manson decides to represent himself.

Scene from Helter Skelter wherein Manson decides to represent himself.

While we were talking about this movie in class last night, Seth Dorman brought up the point that this was a major network TV event. In fact, it’s the 16th highest rated movie to air on network television of all time! This was a cultural phenomenon of epic proportions, and I only half joke when I suggest this TV movie had an indelible imprint on my current view of hippies. I can remember the ranch, the filth, the descriptions of love-ins, and the resulting bloodshed. In the U.S. at least, April 1st and 2nd of 1976 were the final days of the 1960s. Helter Skelter put the final nail in the popular peace and love movement perpetuated in the mainstream by Woodstock. It made way for the 1980s, and for that I am ever grateful!

You've Got Charlie Manson Eyes

“The story you’re about to see is true”

4You are about to see a dramatization of actual facts, in which some of the names have been changed. But the story is true

1That’s the way the Helter Skelter movie starts, with actor George DiCenzo portraying prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in his author role. We’ve seen that kind of statement over and over again, from the colonial narratives to Capote’s book, attesting to the veracity of the tale. In this case, it’s probably necessary since the story is almost too crazy to believe.

Bugliosi’s part in the story is an interesting contrast to Capote. Capote was in Kansas, living among the townsfolk as he was researching the book, in the cell with Dick and Perry, yet he never showed himself in the novel. There was one point, where a quote is said to have been given to “a journalst” (216), that might have referred to the author, but otherwise he’s invisible. Bugliosi is omnipresent in Helter Skelter. It’s his tale, not Manson’s.

And as a coincidence, Capote calls the truth of Helter Skelter into question. In his jailhouse interview with Robert Beausoleil and alternate, and far more plausible, motive for the murders comes up. The media, we’re told, was only interested in the crazy story. Was that simply because more shocking = more headlines = more sales? Or did it play upon concerns arising from the various social and political upheavals of the sixties? The Civil Right movement, the Vietnam War, those crazy kids with their rock and roll…

ConfessionsOfNatTurnerAn interesting thing about that Helter Skelter race war hypothesis is that we heard something like that earlier, from Nat Turner. I found the parallels really fascinating when I read his Confessions: a charismatic leader, from/of a downtrodden underclass, considered to be a prophet or divinely inspired, visions of a race war, culminating in a killing spree. In 1967 William Styron’s novelization of Nat Turner was published, garnering a great deal of both controversy and critical acclaim. So Turner’s story would have been in the public consciousness at Manson’s time. As far as I can tell, no one suggests a connection between Manson and Styron’s book, but I can see how the idea of race war would resonate with the public, between the upheaval and the riots and the assassination.