What Exactly Was Helter Skelter?

and why did it lead to ten murders by the Manson Family?

You’ve heard the words Helter Skelter before — in fact, the first thing you probably learned about the Manson Family was that they killed people in order to start Helter Skelter, a race war. But just what exactly was Helter Skelter and how did Charlie come to believe it?

In November 1968 the Beatles released their ninth studio album, the double album marking the end of their psychedelic era and heralding their introspective, final years together. The album is actually titled The Beatles, but due to its stark white design has been known by its alternate title since its release.

The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing, published June 2019 from Swann Publications

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An insert from 1968’s White Album by the Beatles, featuring black-and-white photographs of the band

Charlie was a big fan of the Beatles. He was first introduced to their music while serving time at McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington State. While at McNeil, he was receiving guitar lessons from Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis, an old gangster from the Ma Barker gang of the 1920s.

Karpis was one of several older inmates who saw potential in the young man and sought to teach him something useful — in this case, guitar lessons.

Charlie wasn’t half bad. His training wasn’t orthodox but he had talent. He was introduced to the music of the Beatles during this time and the four lads from Liverpool made quite an impression upon the man. According to Karpis, Charlie wanted to perform music, he wanted to write his own songs and he wanted to be famous. In fact, Manson wrote between eighty and ninety original tunes during his time at McNeil.

The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing, published June 2019 from Swann Publications

The Beatles made an indelible impression upon Manson, although years later he scoffed at the idea that he was overly influenced by their music.

Shit, it was Sadie and Little Paul who started deciphering messages from the Beatles’ White Album.

— Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press

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Charles Manson with his guitar

But other Family members later recalled how influenced Charlie was by the Beatles, and how he ascribed to achieve their level of fame and success. In the spring of 1968, he was fortunate to meet the acquaintance of Dennis Wilson, drummer for the Beach Boys. Dennis thought that Manson had a chance at making it in the recording industry, and introduced him to several influential friends like talent agent Gregg Jakobson, singer Neil Young, and producer Terry Melcher. Each of these men gave hope to Charlie that he could have a successful career in the music biz.

Charlie and his followers lived for a brief time with Dennis Wilson, then during the summer of 1968 they lived at Spahn Ranch, a derelict 500-acre property in Chatsworth, California. Spahn Ranch had been used by some of the movie studios as a backdrop for Western films and television shows, but by the late 1960s it was in poor condition. Owner George Spahn, a blind 79-year old, allowed the Family to stay at the ranch because they helped maintain the property, ran the pony rides and cooked and kept house for him. Several of the women also kept him company after dark, if you know what we mean. Charlie and the Family made this their base of operations during the summer of ’68. But eventually, after Susan Atkins (Sadie) delivered a baby boy there, Charlie realized he had worn out his welcome at Spahn’s. He made arrangements to relocate everyone to Death Valley.

After a little more than a month in the desert, things were getting scary however.

Even getting to the nearest grocery store was a several-hour ordeal. Plus, there were dangerous snakes, spiders and scorpions and a lack of hygiene.

’While everyone professed to love the desert… it became clear that many were getting bored,’ explained Paul Watkins. ‘Gradually, things on a spiritual level began to degenerate.’

Manson began to test people’s loyalty and endurance. ‘I pretty well did whatever he told me to do,’ Juanita admitted. ‘I mean, for me to walk forty miles… I had blisters on the soles of my feet that were two and a half inches in diameter… because Charlie wanted me to go somewhere and I didn’t have a car, so I walked… If Charlie said, ‘Jump,’ my only question would be: ‘How high?’

Tensions mounted. There were two small babies with the Family and when their mothers conflicted with Charlie, he took it out on their offspring. Susan wrote, ‘He frequently became cruel, manifest most horribly when he would take my baby by the feet and swing him around and around high over his head and then down to within an inch of the rocky ground. He was crazy at those moments. But a split-second later he would seem to be full of love for the children, which he continued to think of as gods or kings.’

Watkins recalled witnessing Manson’s decline. “One night during a rap, he paused in the middle of a sentence and stared straight ahead, as though addressing a presence above our heads. ‘I came to you,’ he said softly, his face wearing a distracted expression, ‘as a deer in the forest. I came to you with wonder in my eyes and love in my heart for you… I came to you with love. And you slaughtered me.’ Though it didn’t register consciously at the time, his statement was a prophetic one. It was the first sign that the flower child in Charlie Manson was dying, wilting away in Death Valley.’

Charlie felt like all he did was love and give and nurture these kids, and what did he have to show for it? Where was his recording career? Where was the fame and wealth he was due? This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

Maybe he was sick of doing for those kids what nobody ever did for him.

The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing, published June 2019 from Swann Publications (with citations from My Life with Charles Manson by Paul Watkins with Guillermo Soledad ©1979 Bantam Books, and Joan Wildebush, interviewed in 1984 by Win McCormack, reprinted in “The Dichotomy of Evil: The Manson Girl Who Got Away” ©November 2017 Tin House magazine)

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From Getty Images, a 1969 photograph of Barker Ranch, where the Family stayed in Death Valley

Sometime that November, Charlie walked away. Out of spite, frustration and anger with his Family, he decided to leave them in the middle of Death Valley. He grabbed some day-old bread and leftover coffee and set off toward the Panamint Mountains. By evening, he was no longer angry — and exhausted. He laid down to rest, and woke in the morning in a much better mood and with one singular focus: to improve his music talents and get that recording deal. He returned to his followers and several of them departed for Los Angeles, to work on getting Wilson, Jakobson and Terry Melcher — the producer who lived at 10050 Cielo Drive — to get them in the studio.

Within a couple weeks of returning to L.A., Charlie listened to the White Album for the first time.

In November 1968 the Beatles released their ninth studio album, the double album marking the end of their psychedelic era and heralding their introspective, final years together. The album is actually titled The Beatles, but due to its stark white design has been known by its alternate title since its release.

The White Album features some of the most instrumentally mature music by the Lads from Liverpool. The rousing rock of Back in the U.S.S.R. and Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, the country-inspired Honey Pie and Rocky Raccoon, the poppy sing-alongs Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Dah, and Happiness is a Warm Gun, the ballads Blackbird and Julia — each tune was masterful, some of the Beatles’ best. What fans didn’t know at the time was that The White Album represented the first significant fracture in the band (drummer Ringo Starr actually left the group briefly, returning just ahead of the studio schedule) and the seeds for their demise less than two years later were sown on that recording. Charlie didn’t sense the impending doom of the Beatles but he did nonetheless pick up on a message he believed to be simmering below the surface of the songs.

Manson was blown away by four tunes in particular: Piggies, which lamented the greed of Western Culture, Sexy Sadie (‘you made a fool of everyooone…’), which would later prove somewhat prophetic, Black Bird, and of course, Helter Skelter.

The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing, published June 2019 from Swann Publications

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Crazy Charles Manson

In what we can only assume was an acid-induced psychosis, Charlie apparently experienced some kind of vision while listening to the White Album. He saw what he believed to be Armageddon — a global apocalyptic war between white people and black people. Remember, Charlie had been fomented in his early years by white supremacist influences (his uncle was in the KKK and prisons were racially segregated, often provoking ‘white against black’ or ‘black against white’ riots). It was in his early educational experiences to believe that when you put the races together, conflict would ensue.

The 1960s might have been a progressive era but when it came to racial relations, not everyone was ‘woke’. Certainly Charles Manson wasn’t forward-thinking when it came to race or to gender, for that matter. White men ruled the world, in his opinion.

But when he listened to the White Album and experienced his vision, he saw something that ran counter to his prior thinking. He imagined black people actually winning this war. As he later told some of his followers, black people had been ‘down’ so long that it was there turn to ‘rise’ — oh, and lo and behold, there were lyrics in the White Album saying ‘arise’! In fact, many songs on the White Album were held up by Charlie as ‘proof’ that his vision was correct, that the Beatles knew it and were leaving hidden messages to the Family within their lyrics.

Some of those alleged messages include:

  • The children asked him if to kill was not a sin / ‘Not when he looked so fierce,’ his mummy butted in / ‘If looks could kill, it would have been us instead of him’ Bungalow Bill
  • I look at the world and I notice it’s turningWhile My Guitar Gently Weeps
  • Happiness is a warm gun (bang, bang, shoot, shoot) / Happiness is a warm gun, momma (bang, bang, shoot, shoot) / When I hold you in my arms (ooh, oh, yeah) and I feel my finger on your trigger (ooh, oh, yeah), I know nobody can do me no harm (ooh, oh, yeah) Happiness is a Warm Gun
  • Blackbird singing in the dead of night / take these broken wings and learn to fly / All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to ariseBlackbird (Charlie thought that ‘blackbird’ was an allusion to black people, who were waiting to ‘rise’
  • Everywhere there’s lots of piggies living piggy lives / You can see them out for dinner with their piggy wives / Clutching forks and knives to eat their baconPiggies (Charlie saw this song as a judgement on rich people, feasting on other people’s hard work and talents)
  • Rocky Raccoon — now the song in particular had no specific references to race or war (there is a conflict that results in a shooting, but it’s a romantic triangle not racial disharmony). Charlie simply felt that this song was validation by use of the word ‘raccoon’ which includes an epithet for black people that Manson was well familiar with
  • I said that’s alright, I’m waiting here, just waiting to hear from youDon’t Pass Me By (Charlie thought this was a message to him personally from the four Beatles, letting him know that they were in agreement with him and were waiting for his response — in the form of his own record release with hidden messages back to them)
  • The deeper you go, the higher you fly / The higher you fly, the deeper you go / So come on, come on / Come on, it’s such a joy, come on, it’s such a joy Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey (Charlie thought the Beatles were saying that killing was a joy, if it was justified and the more you did it, the more validated you felt)
  • Sexy Sadie, what have you done? You made a fool of everyone / You made a fool of everyone / Sexy Sadie, oh, what have you done? Sexy Sadie, you broke the rules / You laid it down for all to see / You laid it down for all to see Sexy Sadie, oh, you broke the rules / One sunny day, the world was waiting for a lover (Sexy Sadie) She came along to turn on everyone / Sexy Sadie, the greatest of them all (Sexy Sadie, she’s the greatest) / Sexy Sadie, how did you know? The world was waiting just for you / The world was waiting just for you / Sexy Sadie, oh, how did you know? Sexy Sadie, you’ll get yours yet / However big you think you are / However big you think you are / Sexy Sadie, oh, you’ll get yours yet / We gave her everything we owned just to sit at her table (Sexy Sadie) Just a smile would lighten everything / Sexy Sadie, she’s the latest and the greatest of them all / Ooh woo She made a fool of everyone Sexy Sadie However big you think you are Sexy Sadie — Sexy Sadie (now, this song was secretly about the Maharishi, a spiritual guru that the Beatles met about two years before and followed his teachings for a while, only to eventually discover that he was a sexual predator and a bit of a charlatan. But Charlie believed the song was about his own Sadie — Sadie Mae Glutz, true name Susan Atkins. And later, some of those lyrics did prove somewhat prophetic when Susan Atkins snitched on the Family to inmates at the Los Angeles county’s women’s jail “You broke the rules, you laid it down for all to see”)
  • When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide / And I stop, and I turn, and I go for a ride And I get to the bottom, and I see you again! Yeah, yeah, yeah! Helter Skelter (Paul McCartney later explained that the lyrics were a reference to the Holy Roman Empire, and how everything that is up must eventually come down, but Charlie thought he was singing about his crazy visions of a war between black and white people, and so he named his end times vision ‘Helter Skelter’)
  • And of course, two songs with the word ‘Revolution’ in the title
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Catherine ‘Gypsy’ Share tries to explain Helter Skelter

In a 2009 documentary, Catherine ‘Gypsy’ Share explained, ‘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… He felt that they were singing about us. The song Helter Skelter… he was interpreting that to mean ‘The blacks were going to go up and the whites were going to go down’…

For Manson, Helter Skelter didn’t just cement an existing theory that a racial cataclysm was imminent. It validated an internal belief system that he was destined for greatness — at the expense of others. It confirmed that he was an exalted being, a Master, a Messiah. It told Charlie that it was right and good to desire the destruction he saw coming because he personally stood to benefit. He felt he’d tapped into the greatest prophecy of all time. He was given a great responsibility, to accept a mission of world domination.

He knew it to be true because the Beatles told him so.

Manson’s revelation actually mirrored an existing precept by some Black Muslims: ‘The primary beliefs of the Black Muslims… were that the black man was morally and culturally superior, and was destined to rule the earth. preached that the white race was conceived of devils whose time to reign was coming to an end. It encouraged the reclamation of fallen blacks… by preparation for the Battle of Armageddon which they believed would be the final struggle between good and evil, black and white.’

The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing, published June 2019 from Swann Publications (including citations from Catherine Share from the documentary “Manson” ©2009 The History Channel, and Zebra: The True Account of 179 Days of Terror in San Francisco by Clark Howard ©1979 Richard Marek Publications)

After his initial ‘vision’ Charlie continued to listen to the album and find those hidden messages within their lyrics. And his vision began to expand.

He told his followers that a race war was coming very soon and it would begin there in Los Angeles. This was in part due to the presence of the militant Black Panthers, and to rising crime rates that he believed black people were responsible for.

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Members of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary socialist political organization founded by Marxist college students in 1966 in Oakland, California.

Charlie told his Family that Helter Skelter would begin with a single event and escalate quickly into hand-to-hand conflict in the streets of Los Angeles. The city would soon be in flames, and the war would then spread to other U.S. cities, and other nations. Eventually the world would be engulfed in war.

The way he explained it was that he listened to The White Album and had a vision of a global war, and it was expected soon. Black people would attack white people and then white people would retaliate on a mass scale. But because black people had been ‘down’ for so long, it was now their turn to ‘rise’. All white people on the planet would either be slaughtered or subjugated into slavery, but Charlie and his followers would escape the conflict by hiding in a cavern below Death Valley. The cavern was crusted with crystals, and there were flowing streams of fresh water, and pockets of clean air, and places to grow food. He also told them that he had a vision of his group growing to 144,000 thousand in number, and they would be safe and free. But after a few years, the black people in power would realize they didn’t have the skills to lead the world, and they would come to the cavern and beg Charlie to take over rule of the planet.

Charlie and his followers would then become sovereign leaders, and would rule the world peacefully for the rest of their days.

He warned them that while the conclusion of his vision was rosy, the process would most assuredly not be. It would be mayhem, he warned, with bloody battles on city streets, neighborhoods in flames, fierce hand-to-hand combat and bodies piled from one shore to the next. It was important, he emphasized, that they remain strong and resolute. They would see horrendous things and be at risk of death themselves, unless they inured themselves to the violence and calmly retreated to the desert.

— The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing, published June 2019 from Swann Publications

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A recreation of Spahn Ranch circa 1969, courtesy of the film ‘Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood’

As late 1968 rolled into early 1969, and Manson’s chances for a record deal grew slimmer and slimmer, the talk of Helter Skelter began to increase. By the summer of 1969, the Manson Family had returned to Spahn Ranch (basically, they’d burnt every bridge ever extended to them by friends and supporters) and Charlie was becoming unhinged. There are reports that he was using hard narcotics, which he usually forbade others to partake in. The Family was also dead broke, hungry, and under increasing pressure from law enforcement who were watching their moves including auto theft.

On July 1st, one Family member (Charles ‘Tex’ Watson) robbed a black drug dealer of $2500 and fled the scene. The drug dealer called Spahn Ranch and spoke to Manson, threatening to come there and slit everyone’s throat if the money wasn’t returned. Charlie agreed to meet the man, and when the dealer couldn’t be appeased, Charlie shot the man point-blank in the chest, and then ran back to Spahn Ranch.

He believed the man was dead and even more importantly, he believed that the drug dealer was a member of the Black Panthers. He was certain that the Panthers were coming for him and would kill him. Or, police would arrest him and charge him with murder.

He needed to escape Spahn Ranch and flee back to Death Valley but didn’t have the funds to get there. Basically, it became a situation where he needed Helter Skelter to actually happen, in order to save his chickenshit ass. So he decided to start Helter Skelter himself, and told his followers that it was beginning that they needed to start the war, to show black people how it was done.

While not all of his followers actually believed in Helter Skelter (Tex Watson, for one, didn’t believe it), the women that Manson selected (Susan Atkins, Patricia Kasabian and Leslie Van Houten) had been coached for months on the inevitability of Helter Skelter, of surviving the war, of steeling themselves from the gruesome things they would see in the city, and of course, the constant challenge of proving themselves to him, Charles Manson:

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Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, two of the women later convicted of murder along with Charles Manson, for the Tate/LaBianca 1969 killing spree

We started to have a lot more guns at the ranch and knives and people were on lookouts. We were pretty much all running on definite fear and he asked us, constantly… ‘Will you die for me?’

— Patricia Krenwinkel from the program “Turning Point” ©1994 American Broadcast Company (ABC)

I totally believed Charlie,. I believed that the cities were going to burn. I believed my only safety was to stay with the Family.

— Catherine Share quoted in “Manson: An Oral History” by Steve Oney ©July 2009 Los Angeles magazine

He began to say that we were going to have to be the ones to begin the revolution. And in the evening sessions, he would talk about violence. He would create ghoulish scenarios that if we were going to be able to go in and out of the city during the wars that we would have to get used to seeing violence and gruesomeness. And he would talk about would we die for him… would we be able to kill ourselves in another body.

— Leslie Van Houten, from her 2016 parole hearing

Desperate for fame, money, success and power, Charles Manson tried to start Helter Skelter by having his followers kill white people in affluent neighborhoods and pinning it on black people. And although Helter Skelter was not exactly the real motive for the crimes (there was a lot more to the story, Helter Skelter was just the surface story that was presented to the women), it plays an important role in the murders that sent Manson and several of his followers to prison for the rest of their lives.

So, if there’s an abject lesson here, kids, it’s probably this:

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Mom always did know best.

This article originally appeared at MansonFamily.net.

You can read more about the trial of the Manson Family here:

And more about Charlie’s belief systems here:

Written by

Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series. https://www.mansonfamily.net/

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