Charles Manson in Pop Culture: A Guide to the Best Books and Movies


Last week, NBC premiered Aquarius (and then posted the full season online), a gritty 1960s crime thriller in which a homicide detective (David Duchovny) finds himself involved in a missing persons case that will ultimately lead him to Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony). The series isn’t great; it’s a mixed bag of procedural antics with Manson looming vaguely in the background. If you’re disappointed by the series and longing for a more realistic and intelligent look into the chilling life and crimes of Charles Manson — perhaps as a complement to the new, Manson-focused season of the film podcast You Must Remember This — here are the best books and movies to check out.

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry

Widely considered the best and most thorough record of the Manson murders and trial, Helter Skelter provides an exhaustive account of one of the nation’s highest-profile criminal cases. In the true crime book, Bugliosi — the prosecutor in the Manson trial — provides a firsthand account of the case, from investigation to prosecution. Equally informative and chilling (the details are harrowing), Helter Skelter became a bestseller and a must-read.

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

A New York Times bestseller, this book tackles what you might call the origin story of a notorious villain. While Helter Skelter provides the basis of his later, murderous years, Manson details the background information of Manson’s childhood and the cultural happenings in 1960s to provide even more context.

Helter Skelter (2004 TV movie) and Helter Skelter (1976)

Unsurprisingly, Charles Manson has inspired plenty of movies (including television and direct-to-video movies), with most based on Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. It’s tough to call any of them especially good, but both of these are worth a watch. While the 1976 CBS TV movie is slightly better (and had the added benefit of premiering so close to the murders, making it extra-chilling for viewers of the two-night event), there’s also something to be said for the cast and performances of 2004’s Helter Skelter, in which Jeremy Davies (Lost) gives arguably the best onscreen portrayal of Manson. (He’s certainly better than his Aquarius counterpart.) The rest of the cast includes Clea DuVall, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Rick Gomez, and Eric Dane.

Manson (1973)

If you want a more accurate — and a little less sensational — movie approach, then try Manson, a 1973 documentary that relies on interviews with Vincent Bugliosi, Manson “family members” like Lynette Fromme (aka “Squeaky,” who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford), and Sandra Good.

Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

Truly the weirdest of all Manson-related media (including that South Park Christmas episode), Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is a stop-motion musical dark comedy produced by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong. Set in 3069, the film begins when a nomad finds a copy of Helter Skelter and believes it to be the Bible, as we flash back to 1969. Billie Joe Armstrong, Kelly Osbourne, Davey Havok, and the Madden brothers all contribute.