The Case of the Missing Swastika

Any self-respecting TV viewer has got to wonder why CBS, the former champagne network, would air “Helter Skelter,” based on the true story of the Manson Family murders at this particular time (May 16) in American history. Did the network programmers really have to fill the vacuum left in the wake of the three-hour finale of “Survivor All-Stars”? Did CBS really need, of all themes, to dredge up this highly publicized 1969 murder non-mystery lest they lose precious Sunday primetime advertising revenues? Only a couple of weeks earlier the very same network disclosed on its award-winning “60 Minutes” newsmagazine a brand new sordid affair when it showed the shocking photographs of Iraqi prisoner abuse for the first time. Which begs the question why was CBS inclined to reprise the Charles Manson terror as though it was breaking news? Couldn’t they have waited for the Lynndie R. England story to be filmed in time, or are they saving that screen-gem for the Fall sweeps?

I don’t have any answers. But I do have a question?

CBS was obviously banking on Manson’s disturbing legend to seduce audience share (perhaps away from the “Sopranos”), as evidenced by the unremitting promos aired during the week leading up to the “World Premiere,” as well as the “where are they (the Family, that is) now” related news features, in addition to some costly full-page newspaper advertisements, notably one published in The New York Times main news section opposite the jump of a front-page story about Lynndie R. England and her MP colleagues who are charged with the Iraqi abuses. My question is not about the efficacy of showing or even advertising this TV movie in the wake of a real-life scandal; the question is why is it that in the newspaper advertisement the portrait photograph of the actor playing Manson is scarred with an X mark on his forehead rather than the backwards Swastika that the real Manson carved into his skin a few years after he was incarcerated?

Is it acceptable on primetime to show killer Charles Manson turning a group of sexy hippie chicks into cult-enslaved, cold-blooded killers but offensive to recreate the graphic symbol he is seen wearing in many news photographs and videos. The hooks of the Hakenkreuz (or hooked cross of the Swastika) are removed leaving what amounts to the logo for X Box. Could there be a subliminal tie-in here? I doubt it, but could it be that the advertising standards and practices department made the decision that promoting a tale of horrible ritual murder is fine, but Nazi iconography steps over the line? Actually, the Swastika Manson painfully tattooed onto his brow was not an evocation of Nazism but rooted in the ancient history of the symbol as a sign of good fortune that dates back perhaps thousands of years to Hindu and numerous other early cultures. If such a highly publicized tattoo is removed from the virtual Manson, doesn’t it make one question the voracity of all TV docu-dramas and advertising in general? Okay, it doesn’t really make one question what is accepted as “faction,” but it is nonetheless curious that the network would go to all this trouble to falsify something so well-known, while only a few weeks before it opened up a Pandora’s box of real scandal and incrimination.

Incidentally, this new television movie is based on the true story of the infamous Tate/LaBianca murders, as chronicled in the bestselling book Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the Manson case. Various books, including Ed Sanders’ disturbing “The Family,” were published about Manson, who also appeared on the covers of Life, Rolling Stone and other magazines in the late 60s and early 70s as the veritable cover boy of hippy-drug-rock-music-inspired depravity. Manson's followers, at his instruction, brutally massacred seven people over two consecutive nights in Los Angeles, and scrawled bloody messages on the walls of the crime scenes, including the title of the Beatles' White Album song “Helter Skelter.”

Six years after the horrific event CBS broadcast the mini-series “Helter Skelter,” based on the Bugliosi book, which was the highest rated two-part made for television movie. It focused on the investigation of the gruesome slayings and the trial of Charles Manson. In this era of revivals, the new “Helter Skelter” focuses, states CBS’ publicity, “on who Manson was, why he did what he did and how this morally corrupt ex-con persuaded the members of his Family to commit such horrifying acts.”

Thirty-five years and an untold number of horrible murders later, some people may still be interested in knowing how this particular megalomaniac convinced others to do his evil bidding. But any semblance that “Helter Skelter” offers more than a voyeuristic peek at madness is underscored by the falsification of the mark on Manson’s face. There is nothing worse than an exploitative, sensationalistic show that also lies in its advertisements.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more.