Charles Manson is one of the most recognizable names in criminal history. Just in the past few weeks I’ve heard several references in pop culture to Charles Manson or his ideology or his followers. All of the references were used for a laugh, and I think that is why Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter is so important.
In all of the craziness that is Charles Manson, it’s easy to forget that he actually organized the murders of upwards of nine people, AT LEAST. (He has claimed, at times, to be responsible for thirty-five deaths, and the number of suspicious deaths connected to him and his followers leads a lot of people to believe that number.) It’s easy to forget that the short man (he is only 5’2”) with the swastika carved in his forehead, spending his entire life in prison, once controlled twenty to thirty young adults. He asked them to commit murder and they didn’t even bat an eye. As much as the world tries to deny it, Charles Manson is a criminal genius. Honestly, I think we’re all a little scared of him. So, like most things we’re scared of, we make a joke out of it. We turn him into a crazy boogeyman with an almost mythical background. Well, Vincent Bugliosi doesn’t let Charles Manson be a joke.
Helter Skelter hits the reader with all the facts and very little fluff. Through seven detailed sections—the murders, the killers, the investigation, the search for the motive, the pre-trial preparation, the prosecution, and the defense—and an epilogue, he tells the Manson story exactly how it happened, with every gruesome detail in tact.
Now, before I go on, I feel I need to say something. Helter Skelter is THE #1 True Crime bestseller of all time. That being the case, I don’t see how my review can be anything other than a rave. Who am I to argue with over forty years of success? So, rather than a traditional review, I’m going to focus more on my experience reading the novel.
Something you should know about me: I grew up on a steady diet of true crime television—Forensic Files, Power Privilege and Justice, Cold Case Files, The First 48, Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Most Wanted, and many more. Not to mention, I have a healthy interest in horror movies and slasher flicks. I’m talking Scream (1,2,3, &4), Prom Night, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine, Psycho, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Candyman….you get the idea. I ingest a decent amount of violence in my day to day life and I’m fine with it. Why? Because I know it’s fake. There is a formula to slasher flicks that is very easy to follow and makes it very easy to detect who the next victim will be. There are few surprises, so I’m left with few nightmares.
Reading Helter Skelter, however, left me with more than my fair share of nightmares. I had one every single night while reading this book. The story just entered my brain and sat there, not allowing me even the respite of sleep. Now, I don’t think that is any reason to not read the book. In fact, I think it’s a huge compliment to Bugliosi’s story telling. A story I’ve heard countless times on documentaries and read a ton about for the research paper I wrote in middle school (I mentioned I’m really weird, right?) managed to surprise me. In fact, it downright scared me. Like I said before, there is a good reason Helter Skelter is a #1 bestseller.
The only real bummer about Helter Skelter was how long it took me to read it. I fancy myself a pretty fast reader, but it took me a week and a half to make it through this book. (I should mention I spent at least 2-3 hours reading everyday, some days I spent longer.) The font is small, the pages are thin, and there are a lot of them (nearly 700). However, anyone who is anyone will tell you that length should never be a deterrent in choosing a book. So, please promise me you won’t shy away from this read just because I said it took me awhile to finish. Trust me, its well worth your time.
All in all, I learned a lot of information (some I wanted to know and some I wish I could forget) and I left seeing Charles Manson not as a punch line, but for the monster he is.