One of the visual conceits of Phoenix Rising—a new two-part HBO documentary about the actor Evan Rachel Wood’s allegations of abuse at the hands of the rock musician Marilyn Manson—is a series of animated sequences that portray Wood as a cherubic, Alice-like doll and Manson as a macabre monster whose darkness infects and imprisons her. It’s a curiously heavy-handed choice, as though Wood’s raw testimony weren’t enough. In reality, her recounting of the things she says Manson did to her is profoundly, indelibly disturbing.
Over the course of an on-and-off, almost-five-year relationship that started in 2006, Wood says, Manson whipped her with a Nazi whip; shocked her wounds using an electric sex toy; had sex with her while she was passed out; and forced her to drink his blood while he drank hers. She suspects he drugged her repeatedly. Wood describes alleged abuse so traumatic that, at one point, “I felt my brain change. I felt it almost calcify. And the world is never the same.”
Manson denies all of Wood’s allegations, and has responded by suing her for defamation. Invoking lawyers has been his crisis response since the late 1990s, when he was widely and wrongly vilified for inspiring the school shooting in Columbine, Colorado. Manson’s lawyer has stated he “vehemently denies any and all claims of sexual assault or abuse of anyone,” and in his lawsuit he accuses Wood of recruiting other accusers and working to coordinate their stories. But if we believe Wood—and more than a dozen other women who have accused Manson of abuse—then a strange twist is that the aftermath of Columbine seems to have enabled Manson to become what Wood’s brother describes in the documentary as “a wolf in wolf’s clothing.” The hysterical, invented accusations leveled at Manson then—that he molested children onstage, killed animals, had his security guards drug underage fans with “liquid ecstasy”—minimized other things that might have been happening in plain sight. But they also allowed Manson to detach his artistic persona from himself, and allowed others to infer that anything offensive he did was just performance art: winking commentary on America’s hypocritical and immoral core.
“The comments in Spin where Manson had a fantasy about using a sledgehammer on Evan and he cut himself 158 times was obviously a theatrical rock star interview promoting a new record and not a factual account” is how Manson’s publicist responded to questions from a journalist in 2020. “I thought [it] was ironic” is how Wood herself describes Manson’s preoccupation with Nazi imagery and paraphernalia, including her allegation that he called Hitler “the first rock star.” There comes a point, though, where irony hits its limit: No one can couch what Wood describes as rape in edgy quotation marks. Acts of alleged nonconsensual sexual sadism can’t be excused as theater, especially when there isn’t an audience. And Manson himself has long attested that his own lines between life and performance are hard to draw. “I will never admit this to anyone but I’ll write it here,” he says in his 1998 autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, billed by its publisher as a “shocking and candid memoir.” “The reason I haven’t copped out in an interview and said, ‘Yeah, it’s just a character, this is just a concept album,’ is because to me it is so much more … I mean, my whole life is an act. But that’s my art.”
The challenge of dealing with Manson even as a secondary subject is that his persona is designed to dwarf everyone and everything else around him. His art form is attention. Phoenix Rising was intended to be a film about Wood’s activist efforts to pass the Phoenix Act, a law that increased the statute of limitations for domestic-violence felonies in California from three to five years. But it also needed to include the stories of other women who have come forward since Wood first spoke publicly, in 2016, about her allegations of abuse at the hands of a then-unnamed ex. The resulting focus of the documentary points to a common paradox of stories about alleged abuse: It’s almost impossible not to flatten subjects into portraits of victimization. Manson’s spectral presence—too outlandish to sideline—only compounds the problem. How do you tell Wood’s story without getting distracted by the alienesque, knife-wielding elephant in the room?
The director, Amy Berg (An Open Secret, The Case Against Adnan Syed), addresses this conundrum early on by analyzing Wood’s life and career before she met Manson, at the age of 18. (He was 37.) Born into a family of actors, she had minor roles in a number of TV shows and movies before starring in Thirteen, a controversial but critically acclaimed film about one girl’s experience of sex, drugs, and self-harm. The movie’s success, Wood notes, “set a tone” for her typecasting as a troubled and sexually precocious teenager. She never explicitly connects the dots between the problematic entertainment-industry archetype she was folded into and her subsequent relationship with Manson, but it’s discernible all the same.
When Wood met Manson, in 2006 at a party at Chateau Marmont, the musician was established in the public consciousness as a provocateur who self-mutilated onstage, incorporated swastikas into his act, and boasted in his autobiography about smashing his mother in the face with a cologne bottle, but who also presented himself in interviews as the thoughtful, intentional antithesis of the politicians and commentators who condemned him. “I liked him and what he stood for,” Wood wrote in her journal, describing him in the documentary as “the hero, the spokesperson” of misfits. He began pursuing her with behavior she likens, in retrospect, to grooming: She says he began a platonic friendship, discussed movies and art with her, asked her to collaborate on a film he was writing about the work of Lewis Carroll. “He had gathered enough information about me in the beginning … and then once it had crossed into romantic territory, he had all the ammo,” she says. (After Wood went public with her accusations, Manson stated, “My intimate relationships have always been entirely consensual with like-minded partners.”)
Phoenix Rising takes time to define the terms it uses to describe Manson’s alleged manipulation of Wood: not just grooming, but “love bombing” (calling her his soul mate and muse in copious letters) and isolating her from her family and friends, so that when his behavior allegedly became physically and sexually violent, she had no one to turn to for help. Berg also highlights parts of Manson’s autobiography (co-written with Neil Strauss, a former New York Times music critic and the author of The Game) that seem to back up Wood’s account. According to the memoir, he’s studied “philosophy, hypnosis, criminal psychology, and mass psychology” for his “character”—a man who “does everything he can to trick people into liking him. And then, once he wins their confidence, he uses it to destroy them.” (In an interview about the book in 1998, Manson said he felt “detached” from the events he’d written about, adding, “I’m sure in a month or so I’ll deny things I’ve said and attribute them to drug use or coercion by Neil.”)
Throughout the documentary, Berg stays tightly anchored to Wood, focusing on her fear of naming Manson publicly, her shame and self-hatred at the behavior she says he compelled in her, and her profound relief when a member of Manson’s inner circle started to confirm portions of her account. (The documentary shows Wood and her mother looking at a long Twitter thread from Dan Cleary, a former assistant of Manson’s, who said, in part, that over the course of one year, he believed Manson “broke” Wood.) But Berg also captures Wood meeting with other women who say they experienced similar abuse at Manson’s hands. “I have fat carved on my thigh,” one says. “I have MM on my inner thigh.” (Manson hasn’t commented on individual allegations in the documentary, but his lawyers have condemned accusers who “weaponized otherwise mundane details of his personal life and their consensual relationships into fabricated horror stories.”) Wood recalls how Manson painted portraits of her throughout their relationship, documenting her physical and emotional decline. “It made me feel like the abuse was art to him.”
Manson has conducted so many transgressions in public that it’s hard to see them clearly. (During a performance with the then-18-year-old musician and actor Taylor Momsen in 2012, he groped her breast, appeared to hold her by the throat, and rubbed her head in his crotch; Momsen hasn’t condemned the performance and has merely said she “had a lot of fun” touring with Manson.) It’s more palatable to believe his persona is an act for the media to devour, even when he’s not onstage. “The most fascinating thing about Marilyn Manson is wondering to what degree he manipulates his life for the future benefit of his interviewers,” Steven Hyden wrote in Grantland in 2015. One reporter documented Manson joking with his then-girlfriend, Lindsay Usich, about needing ice for her vagina. (He’d just boasted that they engage in at least five acts of “sexual congress” a day.) Another journalist even said that Manson flicked him in the testicles after being asked if he was different from his persona. “Marilyn Manson is whatever you need him to be, even now, even after all this time,” Hyden concluded. For Manson’s record label, for a large proportion of his fans, for parents who need to sleep at night, that suggests someone who is deceptively intellectual about his persona, rather than an icon whose gruesome antics are genuinely cruel.
There are things Berg’s documentary doesn’t include. One is the testimony of the actor Esmé Bianco, who sued Manson in 2021, claiming that he lashed her with a whip and used an electric sex toy on her wounds (just as Wood alleges he did to her). Bianco told The Cut she was “terrified” but thought to herself, “It’s just Manson being theatrical. We are going to make great art.” Nowhere else is the twisted brilliance of Manson’s “‘shock rock’ stage persona”—the description his lawyers used to defend him against Bianco’s accusations—quite so apparent. (Though Manson’s lawyers have denied all of Bianco’s allegations and sought to dismiss her case, a judge denied their motion, and the lawsuit is still ongoing.) Manson’s habitual defense—that he’s an artist who deliberately pushes boundaries and provokes to make people think—seems to have been so thoroughly internalized by his fans and partners that one even employed it while he was allegedly assaulting her.
Two weeks before Phoenix Rising was released, Manson sued Wood and the activist Illma Gore, who also appears in the film, for defamation, accusing them of inventing and disseminating allegations against him, providing other women with checklists of specific accounts of abuse to bring up, and falsifying a criminal investigation, among other claims. In interviews to promote Phoenix Rising, Berg and Wood have declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, citing ongoing litigation. Without knowing more, there are nonetheless a few salient points to consider. Manson’s standard response to trouble he can’t manage seems to be legal action. After Columbine, he says he sent cease-and-desist letters to media outlets that associated him with the perpetrators, citing trademark infringement; he’s countersued music editors and former bandmates for breach of contract and defamation. There’s very little that Manson has been accused of that is more egregious or damaging than events he’s recounted himself. Even if his autobiography is exaggerated, or invented wholesale in parts, his willingness to put certain things on the record deserves attention. After violently wounding one woman, he writes in one chapter, “in altercations that followed, I hit her, spit on her, and tried to choke her. She never retaliated. She just cried, and I never felt sorry for her.” The woman wasn’t a girlfriend. She was his mother.