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Charles Manson's pop-culture influence: From co-opting a Beatles hit to 'South Park'

Monday - 20/11/2017 20:37
Cult leader and mastermind of the horrific murders in 1969, Charles Manson's fame lingered for decades within popular culture. USA TODAY

Charles Manson, who died in prison Sunday at age 83, inspired more than a murderous cult. Here are five works of pop-culture linked to the mass killer:

1. More people associate 'Helter Skelter' with Manson than the Beatles

An old adage says there's no such thing as bad press but having a mass killer co-opt your song is a less-than-optimal bit of PR.

"Charles Manson interpreted that Helter Skelter was something to do with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse," Paul McCartney, who wrote the 1968 song, noted in the 2000 Beatles book Anthology.  "I still don't know what all that stuff is; it's from the Bible, Revelation — I haven't read it so I wouldn't know. But he interpreted the whole thing — that we were the four horsemen, Helter Skelter was the song — and arrived at having to go out and kill everyone." 

Though Manson denied he had interpreted the song that way while on trial in 1970, former acolyte Catherine Share confirmed that's how he had explained it to his followers leading up to the August 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary.

"He thought that the Beatles were talking about what he had been expounding for years," she said in the 2009 documentary Manson. "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 reality, McCartney said Helter Skelter was only an attempt "to make a very loud, raunchy rock 'n' roll record" and pick up the gauntlet laid down by The Who's Pete Townshend, who'd claimed in a recent magazine interview that his band had done just that. 

He titled it after a popular amusement-park ride and used it as a metaphor for the downfall of civilization: "I was using the symbol of a helter-skelter as a ride from the top to the bottom – the rise and fall of the Roman Empire – and this was the fall, the demise, the going down." 

2. Rocker Marilyn Manson took his name

The shock-rock singer, born Brian Warner, explained his stage name during an early-mid-1990s interview on MTV's Headbanger's Ball: "The name Marilyn Manson came from watching a lot of talk shows and reading Hollywood Babylon — that kind of literature — and realizing that Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson, to me, were the most memorable people from the '60s for their own separate reasons. Putting those two together was a pretty powerful balance that was kind of irreconcilable: Male and female, positive and negative, good and evil."

Like the Beatles, Manson's music would come to be associated with atrocity when the teenage perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre were wrongly reported to be fans. 

 "Honestly, the Columbine era destroyed my entire career at the time,” he told Britain's Guardian in September 2017, noting he received hundreds of death threats while touring in Colorado, where the killings occurred.

3. His crimes are getting the Quentin Tarantino treatment

In July, news surfaced that Oscar winner Quentin Tarantino is making the Manson murders the subject of his next film.  At the time, trade magazines The Hollywood Reporter and Variety said the script, his most reality-based project to date, was nearly finished with plans to shoot in 2018. In November, Sony acquired the distribution rights.

No casting announcements have been made, though both outlets reported that Margot Robbie is being considered for the role of actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant when Manson's followers broke into the Benedict Canyon home where she was living, believing it to be occupied by a record producer who rejected his work. They killed Tate and four other people.

It's unclear whether the movie, tentatively listed in IMDB as Untitled Quentin Tarantino/1969 Project, will be directly about the murders or whether it will serve as the backdrop for other, interwoven stories.

4. His followers were the focus of a novel

In 2016, Emma Cline published her debut novel The Girls, which reimagined the months leading up to the August 1969 Tate-LaBianco murders from the perspective of Evie Boyd, who falls under the sway of a Manson-like figure named Russell. But rather than dwelling on the cult leader himself, the author sought to understand the young women who followed him at the risk of their own freedom. 

5. 'South Park' made him the star of a Christmas episode

The Comedy Central animated series, now in its 21st season, has built holiday specials around some decidedly non-traditional figures. Its first, 1997's "Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo," featured a talking, singing piece of human excrement who helped middle-schooler Kyle, a Jew, cope with feeling left out on Christmas.

The following year, they gave the Grinch and Charlie Brown-inspired "Merry Christmas, Charlie Manson," in which Stan's Uncle breaks out of prison and brings cellmate Charles Manson home for Christmas dinner.

After taking in some holiday specials with the Marsh family, Manson undergoes his own Grinch-like change of heart, even altering the swastika tattoo on his forehead into a smiley face. He surrenders to the police, but not before lecturing Stan on the importance of family: "I had a family once; at least I called them my family. Really, they were a gang of people I thought were my friends. After we killed a bunch of people together, I realized my real family was who took care of me and took the time to care about what I did."

Later, back in prison, he reads aloud from his latest book: "I'm sorry for what I've done but that doesn't make up for it. I deserve to be in jail." Before going to bed, he's serenaded by the Marsh family Charlie Brown Christmas-style.

Source: USA Today:

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