Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter by Sam Gibbons

The murders perpetrated by members of Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ were inspired in part by Manson’s prediction of Helter Skelter, an apocalyptic war he believed would arise from tension over racial relations between blacks and whites. This ‘chimerical vision’—as it was termed by the court that heard Manson’s appeal from his conviction for the Tate/LaBianca killings—involved reference to music of The Beatles (particularly songs from ‘The White Album’ of 1968) and to the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.

In its final form, which was reached by 1969, the scenario had Manson as not only the war’s ultimate beneficiary but its musical cause. He and the Family would create an album with songs whose messages concerning the war would be as subtle as those he had heard in songs of The Beatles. More than merely foretell the conflict, this would trigger it; for, in instructing ‘the young love,’ America’s white youth, to join the Family, it would draw the young, white female hippies out of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury.

Black men, thus deprived of the white women whom the political changes of the 1960s had made sexually available to them, would be without an outlet for their frustrations and would lash out in violent crimes against whites. A resultant murderous rampage against blacks by frightened whites would then be exploited by militant blacks to provoke an internecine war of near-extermination between racist and non-racist whites over blacks’ treatment. Then the militant blacks would arise to sneakily finish off the few whites they would know to have survived; indeed, they would kill off all non-blacks.

In this holocaust, the members of the enlarged Family would have little to fear; they would wait out the war in a secret city that was underneath Death Valley that they would reach through a hole in the ground. As the only actual remaining whites upon the race war’s true conclusion, they would emerge from underground to rule the now-satisfied blacks, who, as the vision went, would be incapable of running the world; Manson ‘would scratch [the black man’s] fuzzy head and kick him in the butt and tell him to go pick the cotton and go be a good nigger….’

The term ‘Helter Skelter’ was from the Beatles song of that name, which involved apparent reference to the British amusement-park ride of that name (it also referred to a general state of confusion) and was interpreted by Manson as concerned with the war. According to former Manson follower Catherine Share, ‘When the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ came out, Charlie listened to it over and over and over and over again. He was quite certain that the Beatles had tapped in to his spirit, the truth — that everything was gonna come down and the black man was going to rise. It wasn’t that Charlie listened to the ‘White Album’ and started following what he thought the Beatles were saying. It was the other way around. He thought that the Beatles were talking about what he had been expounding for years. Every single song on the ‘White Album,’ he felt that they were singing about us. The song ‘Helter Skelter’ — he was interpreting that to mean the blacks were gonna go up and the whites were gonna go down.

In the months before the murders were conceived, Manson and his followers began preparing for Helter Skelter, which they thought inevitable. In addition to working on songs for the hoped-for album, which would set off everything, they prepared vehicles and other items for their escape from the Los Angeles area (their home territory) to Death Valley when the days of violence would arrive. They pored over maps to plot a route that would bypass highways and get them to the desert safely. Indeed, Manson was convinced that the song ‘Helter Skelter’ contained a coded statement of the route they should follow.

Manson had said the war would start in the summer of 1969. In late June of that year, months after he’d been frustrated in his efforts to get the album made, he told a male Family member that Helter Skelter was ‘ready to happen.’ ‘Blackie never did anything without whitey showin’ him how,’ he said. ‘It looks like we’re gonna have to show blackie how to do it.’ On August 8, 1969, the day Manson instructed his followers to carry out the first of two sets of notorious murders, he told the Family, ‘Now is the time for Helter Skelter.’ When the murderers returned to Spahn Ranch, the Family’s Los Angeles area headquarters, after the crime, Manson asked Tex Watson, the sole man among them, whether it had been Helter Skelter. ‘Yeah, it was sure Helter Skelter,’ Watson replied. At the conclusion of the second set of murders, the following night, one of the killers wrote ‘Healter [sic] Skelter’ on the refrigerator of the house in which the murders took place. That, along with other references to Beatles songs, was written in blood.

When The Beatles first came to the United States, in 1964, Charles Manson was an inmate in the United States Penitentiary at McNeil Island, in southern Puget Sound. He was serving a sentence for attempting to cash a forged U.S. Treasury check; he was twenty-nine years old. His fellow inmates found his interest in the British pop group ‘almost an obsession.’ Taught by inmate Alvin Karpis to play the steel guitar, Manson told many persons that ‘given the chance, he could be much bigger than the Beatles.’ To the Family, a few years later, Manson spoke of The Beatles as ‘the soul’ and ‘part of ‘the hole in the infinite.” When he delivered the Helter Skelter prophecy around the campfire at Myers Ranch, the Family members believed it: ‘[A]t that point Charlie’s credibility seemed indisputable. For weeks he had been talking of revolution, prophesying it. We had listened to him rap; we were geared for it – making music to program the young love. Then, from across the Atlantic, the hottest music group in the world substantiates Charlie with an album which is almost blood-curdling in its depiction of violence. It was uncanny.’

If Manson’s interest in and references to ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ constituted a prologue to his focus on the White Album, there was also a kind of epilogue in the form of Family references to ‘Abbey Road,’ the Beatles album that came after the White Album. ‘Abbey Road’ was released in the United Kingdom in late 1969, after the murders. By that time, most of the Family was at the group’s camp in the Death Valley area, searching for the ‘Bottomless Pit’ (the underground hideaway where the group would escape the violence of Helter Skelter). In October, three Family members arrived at the camp with an advance copy of the album, which the group played on a battery-operated machine. The following week they were raided by law officers who found the Family with stolen vehicles, including dune buggies; Manson and several others were arrested.

Tex Watson took part in both the Tate murders and the LaBianca murders. Indeed, in his own recounting of the crimes, he is the only killer to participate directly in every one of the seven homicides and is the sole killer of at least three of the victims. While awaiting trial, he told other Family members, ‘It seemed like I had to do everything.’ On the late 1968 day he and Manson first heard the White Album, Watson separated himself from the Family, which he did not rejoin until March of the following year. By that time, Manson’s prophecy had captured the group’s imagination; but Watson would be a while in grasping its details. In his 1978 autobiography (as told to Ray Hoekstra), he wrote as follows: ‘Although I got it in bits and pieces, some from the women and some from Manson himself, it turned out to be a remarkably complicated yet consistent thing that he [Manson] had discovered and developed in the three months we’d been apart.’ ‘It was exciting, amazing stuff Charlie was teaching, and we’d sit around him for hours as he told us about the land of milk and honey we’d find underneath the desert and enjoy while the world above us was soaked in blood.’

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