Back in 2018 I took my first tour with Scott Michaels’ Dearly Departed Tours. Michaels, the long-time owner of the Find a Death website and one of the best (seriously, BEST) tour guides around, recently closed up his artifact museum which is a shame considering it was a haven for those seeking the macabre and Old Hollywood ephemera. But, he’s still doing tours and if you’re like me and have already taken his Tragical History Tour and his look at Harlow’s Hollywood then it’s time to tackle Michaels’ four-hour Helter Skelter tour.
The Helter Skelter Tour is not for the faint of heart. Michaels and his team work in an interesting space when it comes to Old Hollywood and death; they are respectful and caring towards the victims and the deceased while simultaneously acknowledging that our interest in them, partly, has to do with their demise. This comes through the clearest with the Helter Skelter tour which looks at practically every location in Los Angeles associated with 1969 and the events associated with Charles Manson and the murderers. (Due to distance the tour doesn’t go to the now vacant Spahn Movie Ranch.)
Michaels’ tour is a multimedia presentation consisting of audio and video clips. Throughout the four-hour drive you’ll hear from Manson and his acolytes, the LAPD, and Roman Polanski as they discuss the investigation, crimes, and trial in detail. Because of geography the tour starts by looking at the home of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, before moving into where the LaBianca’s daughter lived as well as various Manson hangers-ons. Michaels leads this tour and makes no bones about his various thoughts and feelings on the case. Case in point, when you find out how close Manson member Tex Watson lived to the LaBiancas, it’s hard not to wonder if there was more of a connection there.
After a stop at the Farmers Market to grab a snack the tour goes into the Hollywood Hills to visit Benedict Canyon. You can’t see the house where Sharon Tate lived the night of her demise; the house is now owned by Full House creator Jeff Franklin who completely rebuilt it, but you do get to drive up into the hills across from it and get a bird’s eye view. This location is nothing short of exquisite, not just for the rare view of Los Angeles you’ll see but also to witness pristine, non-developed parts of L.A. It’s also eerie to realize how much sound (and silence) reverberate here. As Michaels explains, numerous people called 911 the night of the Tate murder hearing screams and gunshots, but no one could pinpoint them because of the way sound traveled in the area. He also touches on little known locations, such as the house Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski lived in Laurel Canyon.
Michaels traces the paths of not just the victims – there are stops at the restaurant where Tate presumably ate her last meal, the El Coyote – but also the killers. Throughout the tour he’ll regularly remind you that you’re driving the route the killers took, and from there he showcases areas where the Family changed clothes, dumped their weapons, and eventually returned home. What’s eerie is not necessarily seeing the locations, or the crime scene photos, or even hearing Susan Atkins and Leslie Van Houten talk. Oftentimes what’s haunting is just driving down the streets of L.A. as Michaels plays popular songs from that era, sometimes even the number one song in the country that day. It’s a living time capsule that puts you in a space you neve expected to be in. Speaking of music, Michaels also points out prominent Laurel Canyon landmarks like Frank Zappa’s former house. There are also a few references to the Quentin Tarantino feature Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.
And for those with accessibility issues, as I’ve pointed out before, Michaels and his gang are as accommodating as possible and always willing to help someone experience their tours. I can’t speak towards tours for the deaf/hard of hearing or visually impaired, but if you have mobility issues or use a wheelchair they are more than willing to discuss access. My wheelchair doesn’t fold and the fellow tour participants were more than happy to hold my chair in the back. Unlike other tours this one only has one stop and if you bring your own snacks or don’t have to use the bathroom you can stay in the van.
As I’ve probably said two time already, taking a Dearly Departed tour is a MUST if you’re in Los Angeles. You won’t meet a group as dedicated and as knowledgeable as Michaels and his crew. They’re worth every penny.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.