The Cult of Personality: The Dramatization of Charles Manson

 Me with Dad and my sisters in 1973

Me with Dad and my sisters in 1973

Growing up in the 70s, I witnessed quite a bit of the drama and fear that surrounded the cults and groups that were exposed as brainwashing young adults including Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and the kidnapping and indoctrination of 19 year old Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

I recall one family vacation in particular to the Ozarks, when we stopped for lunch in the small town of Alma, Arkansas. There had been a portrait of Holy Alamo Christian Church Consecrated founder Tony Alamo hanging in the restaurant lobby.

My father became quite unnerved by a woman who was extremely friendly and gave me candy at the gift shop. The realization that we were in a town that was populated by over two dozen Tony-Alamo-owned businesses that were staffed by Tony Alamo's followers made Dad uneasy. In what seemed an irrational fear and overreaction to me at the time, Dad was concerned that my younger sister and I would be kidnapped and brainwashed -- we hightailed it out of Alma, putting as much distance between the town as we could that afternoon. 

 Charles Manson then (and more recent)

Charles Manson then (and more recent)

That incident wasn’t my worst exposure to cults in that decade. On August 9, 1969, actress Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by members of the Manson Family in her home. At the time of her death, she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with a son by director Roman Polanski, who wasn’t home at the time. A macabre pop culture arose around Manson, as his photo was plastered over newspapers and news broadcasts portrayed him as an insanely violent madman.

 The Manson Family

The Manson Family

The murders committed by the Charles Manson Family were the basis of a book titled Helter Skelter, written by by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. Allegedly Manson borrowed this term from a Beatles song, using the term for what the future that he predicted of an apocalyptic race war. He believed that the murders would be the catalyst for that war, with "healter skelter" [sic] scrawled in blood on the refrigerator door at the LaBianca house, the site of the second night of their murderous rampage. 


The 1974 book was later adapted as a 1976 television film -- starring Steve Railsback as Manson and George DiCenzo as Bugliosi and directed by Tom Gries. This televised portrayal of the Manson Family murders not only dramatized the murders Manson and his followers committed, but also the investigation and subsequent trial in 1970-1971. Screenwriter JP Miller received a 1977 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best TV Feature or MiniSeries Teleplay.

Much of the dialogue for the courtroom scenes came directly from court transcripts. Not only was the LaBianca house sequence filmed at the actual crime scene, but the LAPD loaned the film’s producers the 1959 Ford driven by Manson Family member Linda Kasabian on both nights of the murders.


Helter Skelter was shown over two nights, and I recall that my parents did not let me watch the entire movie. The horror of the violent deaths implied by the film's foreshadowing was too much for my age. Even as an adult, more than a moment's glimpse of the crime scenes remain unbearable to me. 

More recently, NBC aired 26 episodes over two seasons of the crime drama Aquarius, with Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones, Copenhagen) portraying a fictionalized Manson and David Duchovny (The X-Files) as Los Angeles Police Department Detective Sam Hodiak investigating the disappearance of a young woman. Set in 1967, Aquarius included fictional storylines inspired by actual events which involved Manson in that time frame. The series is interesting not only for how it portrayed the cultural events of the time as a historical fiction, but also the complexity of the character portrayed by Anthony.

 Gethin Anthony as Manson in Aquarius

Gethin Anthony as Manson in Aquarius

Unfortunately the series was cancelled after its second season. According to online sources, Sharon Tate’s sister had called for a boycott as she reportedly was upset with the dramatization of her sister’s murder and true crime as entertainment. 

Aquarius was quite effective in its insight into how Manson was not only extremely persuasive but had many connections -- by design -- to celebrities including the Beach Boys co-founder Dennis Wilson. The pair met after Wilson had picked up some of Manson's “girls” as they hitchhiked, who had actually been sent out in pairs by Manson with the intent to meet musicians. Wilson even introduced Manson to record producer Terry Melcher, who had once lived at the site of the Sharon Tate murders.

Watch Gethin Anthony in this Behind the Scenes interview as he speaks about his portrayal of Manson in Aquarius:

Find out more film and television portrayals of Manson in this well-curated article over at ScreenCrush.


While researching this post, I discovered that Tony Alamo passed away earlier this year. Apparently over several decades, the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries was involved in a number of lawsuits with Alamo himself being jailed on a variety of charges, including income tax evasion, the theft of his late wife’s body -- and transporting underage girls across state lines for sex.

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