The Real-Life Cult Killing That Inspired the Brutal 'American Horror Story' Murder

sarah paulson american horror story cult
This story contains spoilers for Season 7 of American Horror Story: Cult. 

In Season 7, American Horror Story is finally tackling cults, a subject fans have anticipated since the show’s inception. Cults are quintessential horror, a hive-mind thought process both eerie and intoxicating. They’re also at the core of so many American tragedies, from the disaster at David Koresh's Waco compound to the Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate mass suicides.

But no American cult is as famous and notorious as the Manson Family, a communal Californian band of misfits that sprung up in the 1960s following the indoctrination tactics of leader Charles Manson. Manson preyed on young hippies, most of them female, eager to trade the nuclear safety of white suburbia for a free-spirited, free love tranquility that defied societal expectation.

For a while, the group achieved a certain nirvana, living on an abandoned movie ranch in Topanga Canyon, dumpster-diving for sustenance, sleeping and lovemaking under the stars. But Manson was a maniac who eventually -- with the help of acid and other mind-altering narcotics -- convinced his followers that an apocalyptic race war was on the horizon and that violence was the only method of survival. He named the race war “Helter Skelter,” believing The Beatles’ The White Album had predicted the events.

Showrunner Ryan Murphy has confirmed that Evan Peters will play Manson -- as well as other notable American cult leaders -- in a flashback this season, and shades of Manson already exist in Peters’ main character Kai Anderson, who we met in the season premiere. Scraggly haired, chaos-obsessed, provocative, mind-controlling: check.

But another major Manson Family allusion happened in the premiere, right near the end. The murder of the Changs recalls one of the Family’s most infamous crimes, one that also involves home invasion and a mysterious bloody “signature.”

charles manson coming out of court
Charles Manson leaving court | Bettman/Getty Images

The Tate and LaBianca murders

The Family and its associates were involved in several crimes and homicides throughout their time together, but none so infamous as the Tate-LaBianca murders, which occurred on two consecutive August nights in 1969. The first and most famous was the murder of pregnant film actress Sharon Tate in her Los Angeles home on Cielo Drive. Tate, along with friends Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger (heiress to the coffee brand), and Wojciech Frykowski, and 18-year-old Steven Parent -- who was visiting the property’s caretaker -- were all stabbed or shot to death by several members of the Family, on Manson’s orders. Tate was married to filmmaker Roman Polanski, and their combined fame made the crime an instant sensation, sending a ripple of fear through Hollywood and abruptly shattering the peace-and-love facade of the hippie movement.

The night after the Tate murders, the Family once again drove around Los Angeles looking for more people to kill. Unlike the previous night, Manson himself traveled with the group, but had his followers to do the messiest work. They settled on a home in the Los Feliz neighborhood, next door to a house where the Family had attended a party the previous year. Manson snuck in and tied up Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, a married couple who owned a supermarket chain. He then sent his cronies inside, where they stabbed the LaBiancas to death in grisly fashion.

This is extremely similar to the death of the Changs at the hands of the clown cult, who invade their home, tie them up, and stab husband and wife to death in their stomachs and backs – the same way the LaBiancas were killed. Did Murphy and co-writer Brad Falchuk draw on these murders when crafting the scene? It seems likely, especially considering another similarity between the real-life crime scene and the fictional one.

The bloody tags

The clown cult “signs” their murder work with an eerie dripping-nosed smiley face, using blood from their victims as their “paint.” The Manson Family did the exact same thing at their murder sites, writing words and symbols on the walls after a kill. The most famous of these was the word “pig,” written on the front door of the Cielo Drive house in Sharon Tate’s blood. “Rise” and “death to piggies” were other phrases found at Manson Family murder scenes, along with “Helter Skelter” (misspelled “Healter Skelter” by Family member Patricia Krenwinkel) on the LaBiancas' refrigerator.

All of these phrases are Beatles references, though there's some debate about the true purpose of leaving them behind. Some, including the prosecutor in the subsequent trial, claimed that Manson wanted to peg the crimes on the Black Panthers -- the revolutionist black nationalist party -- so he chose the anti-police slang word “pig” to set them up. Others say it was to tease their own revolution, as it was relayed to them by The White Album.

Was the AHS version really a murder-suicide?

On AHS, Detective Samuels tells Ally and Ivy Mayfair-Richards that the Changs' deaths were an apparent murder-suicide. Winter, Kai’s sister and the Mayfair-Richards’ duplicitous nanny, also strikes down their son Oz’s recollection of the bloody events, which he saw by peering in a window. We already know Winter is working with Kai to infiltrate the Mayfair-Richards home, and Det. Samuels seems mighty suspicious, so there’s a good bet they’re the ones lying, not Oz, and that the clown cult is truly responsible.

What does this mean? That even more home invasions and smiley-tagged murders are probably on the way. With the police force potentially on their side, the clown cult looks poised for a notoriety that would make Manson himself salivate with envy. And as Kai’s post-election fervor grows, we can almost definitely expect more Manson-esque behavior and copycat crimes. How could Murphy resist?

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Lindsey Romain is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She covers politics for Teen Vogue and has also appeared in Vulture, Birth.Movies.Death, and more. Follow her on Twitter @lindseyromain.