Innocent song using the symbol of a playground slide as a metaphor, or subliminal lyrics inciting a race war and murder? Ask Paul McCartney what he was thinking when he wrote the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” and it’s the former. But, according to Charles Manson, the “White Album” single helped serve as inspiration for a spree that ended in nine murders in the summer of 1969.
“I was using the symbol of a helter skelter (a playground slide) as a ride from the top to the bottom—the rise and fall of the Roman Empire,” McCartney says in Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now. “This was the demise, the going down. You could have thought of it as a rather cute title but it’s since taken on all sorts of ominous overtones because Manson picked it up as an anthem.”
The Manson Family Murders
Members of Manson’s cult, known as the Manson Family, carried out a string of brutal murders of actress Sharon Tate and four others, including coffee heiress Abigail Folgers, on Aug. 8, 1969, and of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca two days later. Musician Gary Hinman and horse wrangler Donald Shea were also murdered in separate instances. The words “Death to pigs” and “Rise” were written in Leno LaBianca’s blood on his living room walls, while “Healter (sic) Skelter” was scrawled in blood on the refrigerator door.
Manson’s explanation for the murders was simple—and bizarre.
“It’s the Beatles, the music they’re putting out,” Manson, who, sentenced to death row, died at age 83 in 2017, said at trial. “These kids listen to this music and pick up the message. It’s subliminal … It is not my music. I hear what it relates. It says ‘Rise.’ It says ‘Kill.’ Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music.”
Manson as a Frustrated Musician
Lis Wiehl, a former federal prosecutor, legal analyst and author of Hunting Charles Manson, says Manson’s primary way of preaching to his followers was by playing his guitar and singing lyrics—by both himself and the Beatles. He convinced his cult members that Beatles’ music, and particularly the song, “Helter Skelter” contained subliminal messaging to commit violence.
“In the Beatles, I think Manson saw things he desperately wanted: worldwide respect, stardom and, of course, money,” she says. “Manson, a struggling artist, to put it nicely, had none of the above and was desperate to make a name for himself in the music industry in L.A. in the late ’60s.“
The 'White Album' Inspires Manson's Dark Fantasy
But, Wiehl adds, as his musical aspirations continued to be dashed in Hollywood, Manson’s anger grew and he turned to the lyrics in the “White Album” to bolster “the scheme that was forming inside his warped mind, a scheme that would involve the entire L.A. area involved in a race war.”
“The race war would end with L.A. in shambles and only he, Charles Manson, and his followers, who would be waiting in the desert for the exact right time to appear, would come in and save the city,” she says. “Manson would be the leader of L.A. after the 'Blacks' had 'risen up'—Helter Skelter—and all would be nirvana.”
Bryanna Fox, assistant criminology professor at the University of South Florida and associate editor of the Journal of Criminal Psychology, says Manson quickly became fascinated with the “White Album” following its late-1968 release. Specifically, Fox notes, the written and (in his mind) unwritten lyrics of “Helter Skelter.”
“While he previously was most interested in his own music career—and engaging in group sex with his ‘Family’ members—his attention now turned to the lyrics of Beatles’ songs to guide his Family and the purpose for their future,” she says.
Manson Family Trial's Bizarre Testimony
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During the Manson Family trial, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi had a difficult task, according to Wiehl.
“He had to prove conspiracy to murder, even though Manson had never even held a weapon in the murders, let along plunged a knife in to any of the victims' throats,” she says. “And when Manson took the stand in his defense he said ‘the children’ were listening to the music and it told them what to do.”
Wiehl says Bugliosi effectively argued that Manson had taught his followers that the music was filled with subliminal messages and symbols, and that they all pointed to one goal: the uprising and Helter Skelter.
“When the uprising didn't come fast enough for Manson, he had to move it along and ‘do something witchy,’ which is what he told Tex Watson and the ‘girls’ to do those infamous August nights of 1969,” she says. “Manson twisted the lyrics in the Beatles songs to fit his own warped view of what he wanted to happen.”
The Beatles as 'Spokesmen'
Fox says it’s important to note that it wasn’t uncommon to read into song lyrics in those times, noting that the “White Album” is also famous for creating the “Paul is dead” conspiracy theory.
“The fact that Manson was feeling rejected and isolated from society, that lyric interpretations were popular at the time, and that Manson needed a new ‘project’ to keep the followers in his Family occupied and on his side, likely led to his fascination with the Beatles’ lyrics and the use of ‘Helter Skelter’ to motivate the murders committed by his Family,” she says.
According to Greg Jaksobson, a witness for the prosecution who gave a 1970 interview under the pseudonym Lance Fairweather to Rolling Stone, Manson believed the Beatles were spokesmen.
“‘Helter Skelter’ became a symbol,” he told the magazine. “He believed they were singing about the same thing he already knew about. He believed they were all tuned in together. He thought he would meet the Beatles, he even sent some telegrams.”
And, Wiehl adds, the cult leader’s followers believed Manson alone could translate the lyrics’ meanings to them.
“And that meaning had directives implanted,” she says. “Rise up, do something and kill. And kill they did indeed.”