On the night of August 9, 1969, at 10050 Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills, an eight-months pregnant Sharon Tate, the model and actor married to cinema auteur Roman Polanski, was famously butchered along with hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee-fortune heiress Abigail Folger, Folger’s lover Wojciech Frykowski, and Steve Parent, an 18-year-old electronics whiz-kid who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The man behind the murders, a wild-haired doomsayer named Charles Manson, has since become ingrained in popular culture, with books, websites, documentary films, songs, a musical, an opera, and even a South Park episode devoted to his mass slayings.
Everyone from Guns N’ Roses to Crispin Glover has covered songs that were originally written by Manson, who spent his early life as a working songwriter and musician. Now known as Marilyn Manson, Brian Hugh Warner even changed his name in honor of the convicted murderer. Trent Reznor, the lead singer of Nine Inch Nails, not only recorded an album at the house at 10050 Cielo Drive, but also lived in it.
In late 1970, while on trial for masterminding the Tate murders, as they’ve since become known, Manson, who’s waiting out a death sentence in California’s Corcoran State Prison and was denied parole again last April, summoned actor Dennis Hopper to prison for the purpose of discussing a planned (but eventually shelved) biopic. In the weeks following their reported visit, Hopper grew his hair and beard full-on Manson style, and let a documentary camera film him at his fortified compound in Taos, New Mexico, where he spent his time in self-exile following the meteoric success of Easy Rider. When Hopper died, Charles Manson tweeted (well, at least according to the Daily Mail), “Dennis Hopper was my brother, my main man, he knew I was not a hippie guru, just an outlaw a scapegoat for the sins of americas [sic] parents.”
But there’s perhaps no bigger Manson buff than infamous East Village beatnik Ed Sanders, founder of the rock group the Fugs and the 72-year-old keeper of the Mayhem Room, one of the many freestanding barns on his property in Woodstock, New York, where he lords over the largest collection of Manson archival material in the world—even more, allegedly, than the sum of the Los Angeles Police Department’s storehouses.
I didn’t sleep well the night before my visit to the Manson Mayhem Room. Growing up, I was too scared to even crack the spine of Helter Skelter, the terrifying true-crime book about the Manson Family murders that haunted the bookshelf of my best friend, a funeral-home scion and a devout fan of the Faces of Death film series. But the morning turns out to be unseasonably sunny, and the prospect of escaping New York City to take a pleasant road trip upstate via the Taconic Parkway seems ideal, even if the destination is an altar to evil, smack-dab in the middle of the famed hippie hollow of Woodstock.
Dark, ominous clouds only start to form as I drive closer toward the Sanders compound. Miriam, Sanders’ wife of almost 50 years—sweet, exuberant, and friendly to the deer that dot the grounds of their cozy hobbit hole—greets me at the front door. Standing right behind her is Sanders, who’s wearing black slippers and has a red pencil cradled behind his ear. He carries the air of the counterculture guru well. He’s still got the unkempt, corkscrew hair he sported back in his punk-poet days, but it’s white now, like an overexposed version of his younger self on the cover of his book Tales of Beatnik Glory. He leans back on his couch and, finding the perfect groove, launches into his story, which is punctuated by the chirping of caged birds and the drizzle of rain.