Published on August 8th, 2019 | by Neelanjana Banerjee0
Cease to Exist: Exploring the Manson Horrors While Pregnant
(Contains spoilers for Rosemary’s Baby, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, Charlie Says, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)
I like to consume horror movies about pregnancy when I’m pregnant because it’s another one of those things that pregnant women are not “supposed” to do. Along with all the restrictions—not drinking coffee, or smoking weed, or eating cold cuts or sushi, or of course consuming alcohol—pregnancy comes with this unreasonable forced cheerfulness that I find oppressive. It goes from cutesy emails comparing your unborn fetus to fruits and vegetables to the idea that you should avoid all scary birth stories and surround yourself only with positivity. It’s somewhere between rebellious and cathartic to seek out the darkest narratives concerning pregnant women possible.
During my first pregnancy in 2014, I couldn’t stop thinking about the 1968 Roman Polanski film Rosemary’s Baby. One of the greatest horror movies of all time, I’d always found it beautiful, especially the focus on Mia Farrow’s increasingly gaunt face, and her husband’s (John Cassavettes) subtle betrayal of her. I spent those nauseous, underwater months of my first trimester laying on the futon of the downstairs room of my apartment in Silverlake—where clay tiles on the floor gave it a modicum of coolness—watching the original Rosemary’s Baby on my laptop, and then the terrible made-for-TV miniseries with Zoe Saldana as Rosemary, set in Paris. (Not worth it, though only update I appreciated was that the husband was a writer, instead of an actor, who sells his wife to the devil worshippers to help finish his novel. Believable.)
This summer, pregnant again, it felt like a special ritual to re-watch the film, but this year I couldn’t help but think about Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate. Just like her, I am eight months pregnant in the sweltering late Los Angeles summer. On August 9th, it will have been 50 years since she was murdered—along with five other people—at her home on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills by Charles Manson “Family” members Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one thinking about Tate this year—so I spent weeks reading up on Charles Manson, watching three new films about the Manson family murders, and, of course, re-watching Rosemary’s Baby.
Novelist Ira Levin wrote that he was “struck one day by the thought … that a fetus could be an effective horror” which led him to writing Rosemary’s Baby. In it, soon after moving into the perfect New York City apartment with her struggling actor husband Guy, a drugged Rosemary is raped by the devil. After having a terrible, isolated, painful pregnancy, she believes that her baby has died, only to realize that he is alive and not quite human, and in the final scene, she steps in to become mother to the child.
It’s a terrible misogynistic story, really, and poor Rosemary has absolutely no agency throughout the film, and is gaslit by literally everyone around her: her husband (the real devil in the film), her creepy older neighbors, and the famous OBGYN that she ends up transferring to, Dr. Sapperstein. But the horror of the movie turns on that idea: that Rosemary knows the truth all along in her body and is led astray by those around her. It’s an apt metaphor for pregnancy, when people around me tell me how I should feel, though I am the only one who is going through the process. Especially those first four months, when I have been struck down by intense nausea and vomiting and fatigue and also, like all older pregnant women, worry that any moment I could wake up and the thing inside me that I’ve been trying to grow, will be gone.
The most horrifying scene in the movie for me is at its climax, when Rosemary has finally gotten out of the grip of her nosy neighbors and her husband and gets a seemingly sympathetic Charles Grodin, her previous doctor, to listen to her about how her neighbors are devil worshippers who want her baby, only to have him call her husband and the evil Dr. Sapperstein. It is the ultimate moment of powerlessness. Mia Farrow goes with them, as docile as a little girl—her ‘60s mini dress adding to the sense that she is a pliable child—and not a woman in control. So when she steps in and takes over as the mother of her child, I’ve always felt such a surge of empowerment, though the film sets it up as Rosemary coming into her “maternal instinct.” The news is out that maternal instinct is a myth now, but even in the film, there is such a rush of relief, because she was right in her body all along—something was terribly wrong, but she survived it, and she can now really take control.
It’s always been a quick jump in my mind, and maybe everyone’s, from Rosemary’s Baby to the murder of Sharon Tate. One year after Polanski’s film about the devil, Tex Watson says to one of the victims: “I’m the devil and I’ve come to do the devil’s work.”
The beautiful, blonde Sharon Tate—a movie starlet married to an up-and-coming auteur—has become a symbol of beauty and horror. The long torturous night of violence on August 9th is one of the most sensational murders in American history, because of Charles Manson’s directions, because of the faith of those that carried it out, and because the pregnant Tate is said to have begged for her life and that of her unborn child, before they stabbed her in the stomach anyway.
I grew up the children of Indian immigrants who came to the Midwest in the early 1970s, missing all of the Summer of Love and 1960s, so they didn’t even register the Manson Murders. As a teenager in the 1990s, I remember the black and white t-shirts and posters featuring Manson’s bearded face and dilated eyes staring down from way too many college dorm room walls and being worn by “alternative” kids. I never read prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s best-selling true crime book Helter Skelter, and only had the fuzziest outline of what Manson was all about when I began my deep dive into him earlier this year.
I began with Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The Girls, which transplants the Manson narratives to Northern California, and tells the story from the point of view of Evie Boyd, a woman thinking back to the summer when she was 14 years old and fell in with a group of girls who bring her to a commune led by a charismatic leader named Russell.
I had begun the year vowing to finish my own novel, which I have been working on for years, and felt the exciting charge that the end of the first draft was imminent, when the overwhelming intensity of the first trimester took me out. I spent most of February listless and watching cooking shows, which didn’t help my nausea. I had been going down a darker and darker path all month, along with my sickness and my anxiety, and Cline’s novel pulled me into a world of well-crafted monstrosity, and I’m grateful.
The novel revolves around Evie’s infatuation with Suzanne, based on Susan Atkins—or Sadie May—one of Manson’s key “girls,” who brings Evie into the group and offers her up to Russell, but then also cuts her loose before the final night of damning violence. This time, instead of a pregnant woman, they kill a woman and her five-year-old son. There was still the idea of a mother protecting her child, and the callousness of the killers who had no sympathy for the sacred innocence and bond.
Cline’s novel piqued my interest and sent me scrambling to find out the truth of Manson and his real girls. I watched the seminal 1973 documentary Manson on YouTube—mostly on my phone in bed right before going to sleep. It was shot on the Spahn movie ranch in Chatsworth in 1969, before the arrests for the killings. Filmmakers Robert Henderson and Laurence Merrick got footage of Family members, especially the women, shooting guns and spouting off Manson’s rules and rhetoric. My husband, not a fan of my dark pregnancy obsessions, would watch alongside for a few moments before turning away and shaking his head at the craziness.
During this time, I was shocked to discover in this 2017 Newsweek article, that at his core, beyond the anti-establishment talk, Manson was deeply racist. The idea of his “Helter Skelter” grew from his own deep-seated fear of the Black Power movement. He had encountered Black Muslims during stints in prison earlier in his life, and the actual rise of the Black Panthers seemed to be some kind of prophecy fulfilled for him. It was why he had the Tate killers write “Die Pigs” in blood on the door of the Cielo Avenue home, so police would think the murders were committed by the Black Power Movement and it would spark a race war, which would incapacitate society and then he would rise as a leader.
I thought back to all those people rocking the Manson t-shirts and posters in college. That image showed a youthful bearded Manson, not the Manson with a swastika carved into his forehead. Trent Reznor even lived and set up a studio in the Cielo Drive house that Tate was murdered in, dubbing it “Le Pig” for the writing that was left on the walls in blood, until he apparently came to his senses and got out of there. In 2019, the idea that the overwhelming story of this counterculture figure buried the lede so deep feels too close to home, as white supremacy and terrorism are everyday occurances. My discovery tainted my journey, but also brought it to a new kind of light for me. The Manson Family and murders are a baffling, sensationalistic story, but one that is based, like so many things, in white privilege and fear. I realized, like so many others, I was interested in the narrative of Manson as a failed artist, a rebellious thinker—but once I realized that he was driven by abject fear of black people and racism, the whole thing took on a much sadder and sicker tint.
When I learned about Manson as a white supremacist, and his Family members being indoctrinated into his beliefs, I also began to think about the reason that this crime or set of crimes is so famous. All of the victims and assailants were white. I began to think more and more about Tate, and whether she and I had anything in common at all.
There is a horrifying precedent of pregnant women being targeted and attacked during communal violence in India and South Asia, reaching back to Partition in 1947. Even as recently at the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujurat, there were stories of pregnant Muslim women being attacked and having their unborn babies ripped from their wombs. These women were mostly poor, those caught out on the streets during these times of violence. And that’s part of it, the way that a pregnant woman is marked by her belly, that we are visible targets of praise and questions, and even violence.
There is also an unspoken bond between pregnant women, I can’t deny it. Now that I’m showing, I notice other pregnant women, or more often, women with newborn babies. And, of course, people notice me, ask me when I’m due and whether I know the gender of my baby. I know that at eight months along, this thing inside of me has become something alive. The murmurs and kicks and hiccups have become to have shades of personality, though it is still anonymous and veiled and not human. It still lives in a realm of otherworldliness, but if something were to happen, I would be devastated.
The idea that Tate begged the strangers in her home to take mercy on her child is always the most horrific part of the story for me. That she watched her other friends being murdered and then still, there was no escape. That they held her down and stabbed her specifically in her stomach. That she died trying to protect something that she didn’t know anything about yet, that is the part that I’ve been thinking of the most. That the murderers came for her in the hottest month of the year, during the time when she was just starting to feel uncomfortable, and transitioning into the final phase, before she birthed a child.
Once I gathered all the information I could about Manson and the Tate murders, often interrupting my work colleagues or dinners with friends to give mini TED Talks on all the eerie details of the case, I began consuming the new films that came out this summer.
First, I watched, or tried to watch, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, starring none other than Hillary Duff as Tate. This trashy movie played up the false rumors that Tate had premonitions of something terrible happening to her, and then gives us a few alternate visions of her fighting back against the killers, only to end in the gruesome truth. Terrible dialogue and period costuming really drove home the idea of what exploitation feels like.
Next, I watched, Charlie Says, staring Hannah Murray (Gilly from Game of Thrones) as Leslie Van Houten, one of the killers of the La Bianca murders, which took place in Los Feliz the night after the Tate murders. Made by feminist director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho), this movie focuses on Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenewinkel and their relationship with activist Karlene Faith, who encountered them through the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project in the early 1970s, after they had been sentenced to life in prison. As Faith says in the trailer, she wants to remind the women of “who they were before they even met Charles Manson.” Written by Guinevere Turner, who grew up in a different cult, I found this film to be deeply affecting, and the hero of it for me was Faith, who advocated for these women and other women in prison for her entire life.
The narrative arc of this film is how Faith, through prison education and care, helped the Manson “girls” break free of their brainwashing by Manson and come to see themselves as both victims and as empowered to live beyond their crimes. But it doesn’t spare us the details of the violence that the women must face in order to move past it.
And then, of course, I went to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Supposedly, Tarantino, at the bequest of Tate’s sister, wanted to reclaim her, give her back her life. And so he puts her as one of the players in this movie about the Hollywood scene in 1969, focused mostly on two middle-aged men: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading television cowboy, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his stuntman, best friend, and gopher. Rick happens to live on Cielo Drive.
We see Tate in February and March of 1969, when she should have been in her first trimester, but the movie plays her as though she is unaware of the pregnancy, or as if the audience is unaware that she is pregnant. She rides in convertibles with Polanski, dances freely at the Playboy Mansion, and spends a day running errands and watching herself in a film. At none of these moments does she—say—have to throw up in a parking garage, as I did in February of this year. Or cancel plans to go out because of how ill she was feeling. Maybe Tate didn’t have morning sickness, or maybe we are only supposed to see her as the main characters of the movie saw her, distant and beautiful, glowing and happy.
I kept wondering if there would be some hint to her pregnancy in these early months, but we only get it later, when suddenly it is the day of the murders and she is pregnant and finally uncomfortable, huge and hot, at dinner at El Coyote on Beverly.
From there, Tarantino makes a really interesting turn at fantasy and revisionist history and has the killers go to Tate’s neighbor’s home instead—where they are dispatched with gory, goofy, bumbling glee by the film’s heroes. At the very end, we hear Tate’s voice over an intercom inviting Leonardo DiCaprio’s character to the house for a drink.
My husband had been sighing in tense anticipation as soon as we got to this third act, and it felt good to watch the killers get murdered and I laughed along with the audience through most of it. I agree with other criticism that Tate didn’t get much development. She remains a cipher, the glamorous victim that she always is.
There was part of me that was hoping that Tarantino would give us a Kill Bill-esque scene with Tate, eight months pregnant and saving herself. But also part of me that wanted to be closer to her than any of these films or narratives, to follow her from the banality and magic of late pregnancy into abject fear, terror, and finally surrender.
Pregnancy is a time filled with terror and anxiety, with mystery and isolation, and of course, power and magic and joy. Those things are undeniable. And I think it is also a time where I am overcome with empathy, for other pregnant women, for the creature eeking out a life in my uterus, and that’s why it’s powerful to seek out not only positive affirmations, but also examine the darkest parts of life. But even my macabre-leaning empathy has its limits.
What I’ve come to understand is that part of the catharsis of this dark exploration was that Tate’s murder felt like unearthing a 50-year-old time capsule, full of unbelievable coincidences and period costumes, Beach Boys tunes turned dark, and yes, deeply buried racism, too. In a way, that’s how Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood works, because the Tate murder is so sensationalistic, it fits in with the bad TV plots that DiCaprio plays in, and then the movie turns that around so it’s all exploitation and ridiculousness.
I can pretend to empathize with Sharon Tate and Rosemary Woodehouse, these blonde pregnant icons, deceived and destroyed; I can callously imagine myself into their horrors and feel a sort of dark glee. But when it comes to hearing a story on the radio about the young mother who shielded her two-month old baby from AK-47 bullets at an El Paso Walmart on August 3rd of this year, shot by a white supremacist armed with more than far-fetched ideas about a race war, on the way to pick my 4-year-old son up from school, the empathy feels like a tight coil in my chest and belly–a surge of cortisol that I know is bad for me and for the child inside of me. And I turn off the radio and sit in silence, embarrassed at the tears streaming down my face.
Suddenly the Manson killers, armed with knives and rope and pistols seem so quaint, murder in slow motion, when compared to the dozens of lives taken in a matter of minutes during any incident of gun violence over the past few weekends of July 2019. It makes the devil seem like a good choice.