TELEVISION In Hollywood, a Focus on Manson and His Women
By STEVE CHAGOLLAN
JUNE 3, 2016
Late in Season 1 of NBC’s “Aquarius,” the character of Charles Manson is
confronted by his mother, who gave birth to him at 16 and abandoned him
when he reached adolescence. Despite his anger and resentment, this
Manson cowers in her presence and reveals a vulnerable streak at odds with
the public image of him as evil incarnate.
This scene raises the question of what might have been had this man not
been cast off at such a young age and had not spent more than half his life in
prison, even before the heinous Tate-LaBianca murders sealed his infamy.
“Just villains are boring,” the “Aquarius” creator John McNamara said.
“We live in a culture that really uses villains the way bowling uses 10 pins —
to just knock them down and do it again.” Like a recurring nightmare, the menace of Charles Manson continues to
both haunt and fascinate us. The man who in 1969 orchestrated killings in
Southern California, including the murder of the pregnant actress Sharon
Tate, has inspired a spate of recent and forthcoming independent features and television projects. (Mr. Manson remains in prison.) And the focus seems
to be shifting to his female disciples — known as the Manson family — with
women handling the directing reins.
Lifetime broadcast “Manson’s Lost Girls” in February. On June 16,
“Aquarius” will begin its second season, picking up in January 1968, more
than 18 months before the killings. In the works are “The Family” (a working
title), from the director Mary Harron and the screenwriter Guinevere Turner,
who were behind the “American Psycho” film adaptation, and “Manson
Girls,” an $8 million independent feature to be directed by Susanna Lo. (Also
due in June from Random House is “The Girls,” Emma Cline’s novel inspired
by the Manson murders.)
Amid the competition, two projects have been shelved: a limited series
for Fox from Brett Easton Ellis and the horror meister Rob Zombie, and a
planned biopic with James Franco as another Manson victim, Jay Sebring, a
hairstylist to the stars.
Whether there is an audience demand for new interpretations of the
Manson phenomenon is open to question. “Manson’s Lost Girls” — told from
the point of view of Linda Kasabian, a follower turned prosecution witness —
attracted about 1.8 million viewers over two broadcasts. The ratings were
slightly above average for Lifetime’s Saturday night movie slot.
“Manson Family Vacation,” a half-cheeky, half-serious look at two
brothers (played by Linas Phillips and Jay Duplass) who bond by touring the
Manson murder sites, was released on Netflix and iTunes in the fall after
making the rounds on the festival circuit.
“He’s part of the American psyche now,” said Sera Gamble, an
“Aquarius” writer and executive producer. “I think he pushes different
buttons for different people depending on what creeps you out or what
Recent developments have further fueled interest. The identification in
April of the body of a young Canadian woman who was found in 1969 near
the site of two of the Manson family killings has led to speculation that she
was another victim. That same month, parole was recommended for the
convicted murderer and Manson disciple Leslie Van Houten.
“Manson is unique and terrifying because he convinced other people to
do things,” Mr. McNamara said. “And he didn’t convince hardened criminals
or Mafia members; he convinced suburban kids.”
This is not the first time the Manson family has been appropriated by
pop culture. “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders,”
written by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, was published in
1974 and became the definitive book on the murders. Countless books and
several films about the Manson family and its crimes (including two
television versions of “Helter Skelter”) have since fed the public’s appetite for
Over 12 episodes last summer, “Charles Manson’s Hollywood,” a series
in Karina Longworth’s podcast “You Must Remember This,” explored Mr.
Manson’s complex relationship with entertainment figures and his obsession
with fame. She said she was fascinated by the climate of paranoia that
enveloped Hollywood after the murders, and how that affected cinema.
Ms. Longworth said by phone from London that many films from that
era were “directly related to this sense that none of us are safe; people who
look like us can do harm to us.”
Hollywood’s fixation on Manson comes at a time when cult leaders and
serial killers have joined doctors and lawyers as the television protagonists
du jour. “I think in this era of ‘Making a Murder’ and ‘The Jinx,’ people are
just especially fascinated by serial murder,” said Jeremy Rosen, a producer
on Ms. Harron’s film “The Family.” “And I think in this time where safety is
no longer a given,” he said, referring to terrorism, “I think people are just so intrigued and horrified at the same time. And for whatever reason, over 45
years later, Manson still embodies that intrigue and horror.”
“The Family,” which is scheduled to start shooting in early fall, centers
on three women who were tried with Mr. Manson: Ms. Van Houten, Susan
Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel. The film is based on two books, “The
Family” by Ed Sanders and “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten”
by Karlene Faith. Mr. Rosen, the producer, called it “the needle in the
haystack” that led to a new perspective on the subject. Ms. Faith was “the
prison-appointed social worker who actually deprogrammed the women and
still maintains a strong relationship with them,” Mr. Rosen said.
Ms. Lo, whose film is in preproduction with shooting delayed by
financial setbacks, said she found parallels to today’s societal ills, from
teenagers who commit mass gun violence to young women who join ISIS.
She noted that Manson’s women were abused or felt alienated from their
families. “The more educated ones, Sandra Good and ‘Squeaky’ Fromme,
just didn’t care for their parents and the type of life they were growing up
in,” she added.
Viewers will decide how much Manson and his deeds are relevant today.
Of all these projects going forward, Mr. Rosen said, “They’re going to live
and die by the originality — something that will allow people to have some
kind of closure or understanding instead of the expected.”
Correction: June 6, 2016
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the title of
Karina Longworth’s podcast about Hollywood. It is “You Must Remember This,”
not “Charles Manson’s Hollywood.” The latter was the name of a 12-part series
on the podcast.
A version of this article appears in print on June 5, 2016, on page AR13 of the New York edition with
the headline: Hollywood’s Fixation With Manson.
© 2016 The New York Times Company