Charles Manson’s strangest pop culture connections as Leslie Van Houten is released from prison

Charles Manson in 1969  (AP)
Charles Manson in 1969 (AP)

Ex-Manson follower Leslie Van Houten was released from prison on Tuesday.

The 73-year-old had been incarcerated for 50 years after being convicted for her involvement in the 1969 murders of California residents Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Van Houten had originally been handed a death sentence for her crimes, but the conviction was swiftly commuted to life in prison. Capital punishment was abolished in California in April 1972, just a year after her trial.

Van Houten, the youngest member of cult leader Charles Manson’s troupe to be convicted of murder, has reportedly been a model inmate, gaining both a bachelor and master’s degree behind bars, as well tutoring fellow inmates and participating in mental health schemes.

But her involvement in the murders of a greengrocer and his wife meant that as many as 14 bids for her parole were turned down. Since 2016 the state’s parole board had deemed her “suitable” for release five separate times, but the Californian governor office had rejected these rulings. Van Houten was no bystander in the killings: she not only pinned down Rosemary LaBianca, Van Houten admitted, but she stabbed her in the abdomen around 14 times.

Now, a California appeals court has overruled California Governor Gavin Newsom’s most recent veto of Van Houten’s parole grant.

“The Governor is disappointed by the Court of Appeal’s decision to release Ms. Van Houten but will not pursue further action as efforts to further appeal are unlikely to succeed,” said a governor spokesperson.

Van Houten will now have three year parole term and will spend around a year in a half-way house as she acclimatises to modern day society.

“She’s gratified that people are recognizing that she’s completely reformed, because she really is,” said Van Houten’s lawyer, Nancy Tetreault, to The Guardian. “I’ve never had a client who has dedicated herself to reform like she has. She spent 40 years in therapy and 30 years in what they call rehabilitative programming.

“She fell under the influence of Charles Manson and participated in these horrible murders … and she worked really hard to get past that cult indoctrination and to understand it and take responsibility. And she had to confront her feelings of crushing guilt over what she did. She’s very remorseful.”

The news of Van Houten’s release has started trending online, showing that public intrigue is still sky-high around cult-leader Manson and the crimes of his followers.

Despite never killing anyone first hand, Manson has become one of the most familiar criminal figures in history. Thousands of people, including influential figures in pop culture, have remained grimly fascinated with Manson right up to his death in 2017 and beyond.

The fascination people continue to have for this manipulative criminal is striking. From a cult leader and heinous criminal, he has become shorthand for evil in the US, and the spectre his legacy has cast over society and pop culture is far bigger than he ever was as an individual.

Here are some of his strangest pop culture connections.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s last movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, presents an alternate take on the story of the Manson Family, but he’s hardly the first filmmaker to turn the lens on the cult leader. Films like Helter Skelter (1976), The Book of Manson (1976), The Manson Family (2003), The House of Manson (2014), Manson Family Vacation (2015) and Wolves at the Door (2016) all focus explicitly on the murders and the characters involved. Countless others take inspiration from the events of 1968. Hollywood is, and has always been, mildly obsessed with the Manson Family.

Tarantino’s 2019 film, it seems, is just the latest in a long line of projects to focus on the Manson Family murders, showing how his strange influence on western society still persists to this day. The music industry, too, has been preoccupied with Manson for decades, with his influence running alarmingly deep.

From rock star friends to best-selling books and musicals, these are Charles Manson’s strangest pop culture connections.

The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson

The Beach Boys in 1964 (Getty Images)
The Beach Boys in 1964 (Getty Images)

The sun-kissed, carefree harmonies of the Beach Boys seem to stand in stark contrast to the violent Manson cult, but the two share a surprising connection.

The band’s drummer came into contact with Manson by chance, after picking up two hitchhikers in the summer of 1968. As it turned out, the two women were residents of Manson’s Spahn Ranch, where members of the cult lived and worked between 1968 and 1969. Their encounter eventually led to Manson and Wilson meeting, and they began working on music with each other soon afterwards. The Beach Boys even reworked one of Manson’s songs, Cease to Exist, which became Never Learn Not To Love and went on to feature on the band’s 1969 album 20/20.

Manson wasn’t happy with the way the song had been changed, and felt unfairly treated. The group gave him a motorcycle and a one-off payment in exchange for the song, which he interpreted as “theft”. The cult leader left a bullet on Wilson’s bed as a threat, eerily foreshadowing the murders that would follow shortly afterwards. According to some unconfirmed reports, the move prompted Wilson to beat Manson up in front of a group of onlookers. Wilson eventually turned his back on Manson entirely after learning of the cult’s murderous ways.

Neil Young

Neil Young performing in 2018 (AFP/Getty Images)
Neil Young performing in 2018 (AFP/Getty Images)

As well as Wilson, Manson could allegedly count Neil Young among his fans in the mid Sixties. The pair were introduced by Wilson and met a couple of times in LA. Young was one of the few musicians in Hollywood to take him seriously as an artist, and he even recommended him to the president of Warner Bros. Young, inspired by Manson and the 1968 killings, later wrote Revolution Blues, which featured on 1974 album On The Beach. The track features the disturbing lyrics: “I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars."

Speaking about Manson’s musicianship during an interview with Bill Flanagan in 1986, Young still seemed strangely enthralled by Manson, even 15 years after his imprisonment.

“Musically I thought he was very unique,” Young said. “I thought he really had something crazy, something great. He was like a living poet. It was always coming out. He had a lot of girls around at the time and I thought, ‘Well, this guy has a lot of girlfriends.’ He was very intense.”

The Beatles

The Beatles at a recording session in London (PA)
The Beatles at a recording session in London (PA)

Manson was a Beatles fanatic, and would pore over the White Album on the Family’s Spahn Ranch. He became obsessed with the idea that the album was full of coded messages, which he took as a cue to start a race war. He interpreted the song Helter Skelter as a call to incite violence, while he took Piggies as an invitation to give “a damn good whacking” to the upper classes, supposedly referenced as the “bigger piggies in their starched white shirts” in the song.

Manson was so heavily influenced by the supposed hidden messages in the Beatles’ songs, that members of the cult wrote the misspelled words ‘Healter Skelter’ on Leno and Rosemary LaBianca’s fridge after murdering them.

John Lennon was asked about Manson by Rolling Stone in 1970, to which he replied: “I don’t know what I thought when it happened. I just think a lot of the things he says are true.

“That he’s a child of the state, made by us. That he took their children in when nobody else would… But of course he’s cracked, all right… he’s barmy.”

Paul Revere and the Raiders

Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is full of hidden references to Manson – including one scene involving Sixties group Paul Revere and the Raiders. In the film, Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) can be seen listening to the band’s music at 10050 Cielo Drive. It seems like a throwaway moment in the film, but it does refer to a deeper Manson connection. Producer Terry Melcher worked on most of Paul Revere and the Raiders’s music, and also happened to be good friends with Tate’s partner and film director Roman Polanski. He also lived at 10050 Cielo Drive before them.

Melcher met Manson through Dennis Wilson on numerous occasions, with Manson eventually becoming angry with Melcher for choosing not to offer him a record deal. It has also been claimed that Manson visited 10050 Cielo Drive more than once asking for him prior to the murders.

Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter – the name Manson gave to the apocalyptic race war he was anticipating – was also the name of the hugely successful true crime book of 1974. The book was written by author Curt Gentry and Vincent Bugliosi, who was the prosecutor of the 1970 Manson trial, and documents the investigation and arrest of Manson and his followers. The book became the highest selling true crime book of all time when it was released in 1974, selling over seven million copies. It is regarded as one of the most influential works in the genre, alongside Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The book is also cited as one of the major influences behind the 2008 film The Strangers, starring Liv Tyler.

Musical tributes

After he learned guitar during an early stint in prison, Manson recorded songs throughout the late Sixties. The album Lie: The Love and Terror Cult was recorded in 1967 and released in 1970. It featured some surprisingly well written and performed songs, notably the folk ballad Look at Your Game, Girl. The track was later covered by Guns N’ Roses on their 1993 album The Spaghetti Incident? Other songs, such as Home Is Where You’re Happy, were also covered by The Lemonheads and Devendra Banhart, while Arkansas was covered by The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Manson went on to record around twenty albums in his lifetime, all of increasingly unhinged and deranged quality.

What’s in a name?

While plenty of people have been drawn to Manson’s back catalogue, many more have written songs influenced by him, and even named themselves after him. Marilyn Manson (real name Brian Hugh Warner) took his moniker from the cult leader, while the rock band Kasabian named themselves after Manson Family member Linda Kasabian. Linda Kasabian drove the Manson Family members Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel to 10050 Cielo Drive. She was also the key witness at the Manson trial a few years later, with her testimony crucial to convicting Manson and his followers.

Name checks and samples

Sonic Youth’s Death Valley 69, Alkaline Trio’s Sadie, Ozzy Osbourne’s Bloodbath in Paradise and Marilyn Manson’s Beautiful People are just some of the songs that directly make reference to the murders and characters in the Manson family. N.W.A also refer to him in the track Straight Outta Compton, with Ice Cube rapping: “Here’s a murder rap to keep you dancin’/With a crime record like Charles Manson”. Death Grips are one of the bands to sample Manson too, using excerpts from a Manson interview on their 2011 track Beware.

Nine Inch Nails

US singer Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails (AFP via Getty Images)
US singer Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails (AFP via Getty Images)

While the song doesn’t specifically mention it, Nine Inch Nails recorded the video for Gave Up at 10050 Cielo Drive, where the Tate murders took place. The Nine Inch Nails connection also goes deeper, with frontman Trent Reznor moving into the house for a time. Speaking with Rolling Stone in 1997, Reznor spoke about being confronted by Sharon Tate’s sister Debra Tate during his time living there, and reevaluating his interest in the case.

“She said: ‘Are you exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?’ For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face,” Reznor revealed.

“I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don’t want to support. When she was talking to me, I realised for the first time, 'What if it was my sister?' I thought, ‘F*** Charlie Manson.’ I don’t want to be looked at as a guy who supports serial-killer bulls***."

Manson on TV

There’s been an upturn in TV series referencing Manson and the cult since his death in 2017. NBC series Aquarius focused on David Duchovny’s Sixties LA cop, who leads an investigation into Manson, while the Cult series of American Horror Story, Cult, saw Evan Peters play a version of Manson himself. Mad Men also became notorious for making allusions to the murders in its later series, with Donald Draper’s wife Megan Calvet sharing many similarities with Sharon Tate.

Stephen Sondheim

Assassins, a musical written by Stephen Sondheim, makes repeated reference to Manson, and features the character of Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, who later attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. The musical was written in 1990, with the Broadway production going on to win five Tony Awards in 2004.