by BJW Nashe

Superstar Murderer. The scope of Charles Manson’s fame is an odd phenomenon in the history of American culture. Manson was a violent criminal convicted of mass murder in 1970. The fact that he has been turned into something much more — a mythological figure responsible for the “end of the Sixties,” a symbol of “pure evil” in the world, an Antichrist with demonic powers — tells us more about the culture we live in than it does about Charles Manson himself, or the horrible crimes he committed. Manson is more than just a case of our celebrity dream machine run amok. He also serves as a convenient scapegoat for our society’s collective guilt and shame following the turbulent 1960s era.


Manson Media Frenzy. The barrage of books, films, TV shows, and magazine stories about Manson may have slowed down a bit since the heyday of the 1970s, 03p/03/arod/15393/P2799368but still continues to this day. There’s an old adage from the newspaper business that says, “If it bleeds, it leads.” The Manson saga bleeds like a stuck pig — with hemophilia. From the moment he made headlines and kicked off the evening news, Manson was a big-time story. To put it bluntly, Manson moved product. Manson sold papers and magazines. Manson got good ratings. He and his cult of followers called the Family weren’t just ripe for exploitation. They were tailor-made for sensationalized media coverage. We have to wonder at this point when the Charles Manson Superstar phenomenon will finally reach its nadir.


A New Book About Manson. Nadir? Well, not quite yet. Manson remains a huge presence on the internet. And another book about Manson is scheduled to hit the stores on August 6, two days before the 44th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders which made Manson a household name. The new book, written by investigative journalist Jeff Guinn, is called Manson: The Life and Times of Charlie Manson. It seeks to provide a detailed account of Manson’s troubled youth, his early life of crime and imprisonment, and his frustrated attempt to gain fame and fortune as a folk-rock musician in Los Angeles. Hopefully the book will help to de-mythologize the man by focusing on the facts of his troubled life. Guinn supposedly emphasizes the failed rock star angle, stressing the fact that the Tate murders occurred at the former house of record producer Terry Melcher, who had snubbed Manson by refusing to give him a record deal. Strange to think that all the carnage might have been averted simply by signing Manson to a record contract. Plenty of lame acts were getting deals back then. Consider Herman’s Hermits, and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. Perhaps Melcher should have just given Charlie a chance. But how was he to know that rejecting Manson’s music would lead to such atrocities? Besides, even if Charlie had been given a record deal, we have no reason to assume he wouldn’t have gone on to commit murder and mayhem anyway. He seemed to be headed in that direction, deal or no deal.


Monstrous Fame. Manson became far more famous as a criminal than he ever would have as a musician. His music is nothing much to speak of — an oddly manny2ineffectual, half-baked hybrid of Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart. Manson’s crimes, however, are the stuff of legend. Anyone convicted of the random brutal slayings of seven people — one of whom is a beautiful actress — is guaranteed a certain amount of notoriety. Manson, however, achieved a level of fame typically reserved for rock musicians and movie stars. His wild-eyed stare, best captured in the notorious Life Magazine cover photo that appeared soon after his arrest, has become as instantly recognizable as the corporate logos for Coca-Cola and Apple, or the features of Bob Marley and Che Guevara. Manson is now a cultural icon of sorts, similar to other legendary figures such as Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and John Lennon. Now that nearly forty-five years has passed since his conviction, it behooves us to question the dubious nature of the Manson iconography.


Obsessed with Manson. It’s easy to grow obsessed with Charles Manson. I remember reading Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter back in the mid-Seventies, when I was a teenager living in Southern California, just a thirty-minute drive from the scene of Manson’s crimes. Like many, I found the story to be a thrilling antidote to the safe suburban life of middle class America. Helter Skelter had it all, a grab bag of every weird counterculture trend one could think of: an apocalyptic death cult, drug trips, sex orgies, satanism, rock music, outlaw bikers, movie stars, and savage murders. No wonder Bugiosi’s book, based on his investigative work as the prosecutor in Manson’s trial, remains a top bestseller in the history of the True Crime genre. I also devoured Ed Sanders’s book, The Family, which takes us even deeper inside the twisted world of Manson and his cult. It was even darker and stranger than Helter Skelter. And those two books were just the beginning. There seemed to be no end to Manson mania, and it was hard to turn away when Manson’s name turned up in the TV guide listings, or when his face showed up on the cover of yet another book or magazine. Now on the internet we see a vast proliferation of Manson-related materials. Charlie’s own website, maintained by some of his “fans,” is perhaps the most obvious indication of the man’s enduring status. Google “Charles Manson,” and you can spend days, weeks, and even months reading articles (like this one), viewing photos and artwork, watching videos, and listening to music. It’s hard to believe that it all stems from two terrible nights in Los Angeles in the late summer of 1969.


Tate Murders. On the night of August 8, 1969 (the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), four of Manson’s followers drove to 10050 Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Linda Kasabian broke into the large mansion and attacked the residents. Terry shar2Melcher had moved out several months ago. Now the home was being rented by film director Roman Polanski and his actress wife, Sharon Tate. Polanski was in London working on a film project. Inside the house with Tate on that night was hair stylist Jay Sebring, aspiring screenwriter Woycek Frykowski, and Abigail Folger — an heiress to the coffee company fortune. Tex Watson initially shot a young man, Steve Parent, who was driving up to the property’s guest house. The intruders entered the home and attacked the four people inside with brutal savagery, chasing them with knives and stabbing them as many as fifty times. Sharon Tate, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time, reportedly begged her attackers to save the life of her unborn child. Watson and Atkins stabbed her to death. Atkins dipped a finger in Tate’s blood and scrawled the word “PIG” on the front door of the house.


LaBianca Murders. The next night, August 9, the same four attackers, along with two additional cult members named Steve Grogan and Leslie Van Houten, drove to the home of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, co-owner of a dress shop. The house was located at 3301 Waverly Drive in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles. The attackers broke into the residence, then tied up and killed the LaBianca couple in the same savage manner as the night before. Tex Watson stabbed Leno LaBianca multiple times with a bayonet, and carved the word “WAR” into the man’s chest. Krenwinkle left a steak knife buried in Leno’s neck, and stabbed him several times with a two-tined carving fork, which she left jammed into his stomach. The female attackers took turns killing Rosemary, who received over forty total stab wounds during the frenzy. In Leno’s blood, Krenwinkle wrote the words “DEATH TO THE PIGS,” “RISE,” and “HELTER SKELTER” on the refrigerator door.


Apprehension. Due to a convoluted series of events, Manson was not apprehended for the Tate-LaBianca murders until December 1969. This was only texaccomplished due to an earlier, seemingly unrelated murder of a man named Gary Hinman. Hinman was killed by Manson Family associate Bobby Beausoleil in an attempt to reclaim money following a bogus drug deal. Following the Tate-LaBianca murders, Beausoleil was arrested for the Hinman killing, along with Susan Atkins, who had participated in the crime. While in jail, Atkins bragged about the Tate-LaBianca murders to a fellow inmate, who then told the authorities what she had heard. Many of the Manson Family, including Charlies himself, had recently been arrested on suspicion of auto theft, only to be released due to lack of evidence. Police had no idea that they had the Tate-LaBianca killers briefly in custody. When Manson, Watson, Krenwinkle, Kasabian, and Van Houten were finally charged with the crimes in December, the story exploded, and a dark star was born.


The Trial. The Manson murder trial was a freakish extravaganza that dragged on from June to November, 1970. A group of Manson’s female followers — barred from the courtroom — gathered in front of the courthouse each day, sitting on the sidewalk and chanting slogans. When Manson carved an “X” onto his forehead, the girls outside followed suit. At one point during the trial proceedings, Manson leaped across the defendant’s table and tried to attack Judge William Keene. President Richard Nixon foolishly told a reporter that he thought Manson was guilty. The next day in court, Manson grinned and held up a newspaper so everyone could see the front page headline: “Nixon Says Manson is Guilty.” The first degree murder charges the prosecution insisted on bringing against Manson were considered controversial to some, since the state had no evidence that placed Manson at either crime scene. In fact, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi made no claim that Manson himself had killed anyone. Rather, Bugliosi’s case consisted of proving to the jury that Manson had ordered the killings, and was ultimately responsible. Bugliosi set out to show how Manson exercised total control over the members of his cult. Manson was in charge of everything his followers did. This included their sexual behavior, the food they ate, the drugs they took, and the crimes they committed. Proving this in court involved hours of lurid testimony from various witnesses. When Manson insisted on making a statement to the court, Bugliosi had the jury removed, because he was wary of exposing them to Manson’s “hypnotic powers.” Manson delivered a deranged speech, during which he said, among other things, “You can’t kill me. I’m already dead.”


Helter Skelter. During the trial, and the ensuing media circus, the American public were introduced to the wild and wacky world of Manson and his Family. They met the runaway girls who were snatched up by Manson and turned into willing sex slaves. They heard all about the LSD trips and the dumpster diving for food and the orgies. They learned about the Family hideouts at Spahn Ranch girls2outside of Los Angeles, and at Barker Ranch in Death Valley. They were lectured on the coming race war that Manson preached would soon break out between blacks and whites. Incredibly, Manson claimed that this was encoded within the songs on the Beatles White Album. The Tate-LaBianca murders were supposedly Manson’s way of showing black people how to start the final conflict — which he called “Helter Skelter.” Manson predicted that blacks would win the race war, while the Family would ride out the crisis in some “bottomless pit” in the desert. Then, the Family would emerge as the chosen ones who would rule over the new society. One would have to be on LSD for this to make any sort of sense. The American public also got a sneak preview at what would soon become a growing American “survivalist” trend, as they heard about the Family stockpiling arms and supplies in the desert, and stealing cars to assemble a battalion of makeshift dune buggies painted in garish psychedelic colors and equipped with gun mounts. The whole thing was quite a mind-bending story, unlike anything else ever heard in an American courtroom. Manson ended up convicted of first degree murder, and sentenced to die in the gas chamber.


Creepy Connections. The Manson story included a staggering series of cultural connections. In prison during the early Sixties, Manson received impromptu guitar lessons from Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, a member of the Ma Barker Gang of bank robbers. After his release from prison, Manson befriended Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. For a while, the Manson Family was camped out at Wilson’s rented home. He had to flee the premises, leaving the landlord to evict them. The Beach Boys recorded a version of Manson’s song, “Cease to Exist,” which they re-titled, “Cease to Resist.” Manson Family associate Bobby Beausoleil was close to underground filmmaker and occult magus Kenneth Anger. Anger wrote the infamous Hollywood Babylon books, detailing Tinseltown’s most scandalous events, in order to raise money to finance his film projects. Anger had mingled with the Rolling Stones during their “Sympathy for the Devil” days. Anger also worked with Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, who was supposed to do the soundtrack for Anger’s film Lucifer Rising. Page, an avid occultist, lived in Aleister Crowley’s old castle in Scotland. Susan Atkins had worked as a stripper in the Bay Area. During that time, she was hired as a “model” for Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan in San Francisco. Atkins appeared nude in various Satanic rituals and black masses at the church. Jayne Mansfield was also linked to the Church of Satan, prior to her fatal automobile accident. On the night of the Tate sharmurders, Anton LaVey supposedly held a black magic ceremony devoted to the death of the hippie movement. Sharon Tate, who had starred in several B-grade vampire and horror movies, was involved in “white magic” activities related to Wicca. Roman Polanski had directed the film Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow starred as a woman who gives birth to the devil. Polanski, who was shattered by Sharon’s murder, was eventually forced to flee the U.S. in the face of statutory rape charges for sodomizing a 13 year-old girl in Jack Nicholson’s bathtub. Terry Melcher, the record producer who snubbed Manson after meeting him, was married to actress Candace Bergen. Manson had fairly close ties to the outlaw biker gang called Satan’s Slaves. Lynne “Squeaky” Fromme, a gung-ho Manson Family member, was eventually arrested for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford. It goes on and on, like the ourobouros, the snake endlessly devouring its own tail.


Blowing Up the Zeitgeist. In American culture at the end of the Sixties, Manson did more than just strike a nerve or set off sparks; he blew up like a ton of dynamite. He cornered what is perhaps best understood as the “reverse market” of positive hippie icons such as John Lennon. Manson filled the role of the evil Beatle. His Family was the dark double of Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters. He turned the Summer of Love into the Summer of Death. Manson took Timothy Leary’s LSD slogan, “tune in, turn on, drop out,” and tacked on the words “commit murder.” Hippies were no longer just about peace and love. Now they were associated with Satanism, perversion, and murder. For straight-laced Americans who were shocked at the sight of a half-million hippies wallowing in the mud at Woodstock, Manson became a symbol of everything wrong with American youth. Manson was the dark side of the Sixties’ overriding philosophy of liberation. When Manson’s followers claimed he was Jesus, for many Americans this only confirmed that he was Satan, or the Antichrist. He was the new “face of pure evil.” To counter this, some counterculture types miscalculated, and actually chose to view Manson was an admirable figure. Rolling Stone put him on the cover as their “Man of the Year.” Bernardine Dohrn, one of the leaders of the Weather Underground, called him a “groovy revolutionary.” Some of the Weatherman group spoke of “the year of the fork,” referring to the implement stuck in Leno LaBianca’s stomach. Instead of a sober, clear-headed analysis of Manson and his crimes, public discourse tended to be swept away into an apocalyptic fantasia. Later on, Manson would be celebrated as a dark pop icon, and a source of black humor for various culture jammers. His “murderabilia” was sold at special auctions. Genesis P. Orridge of the band Psychic TV collected material on Manson and made a pilgrimage to Spahn Ranch. Sonic Youth wrote a song called “Death Valley 69,” which they performed with Lydia Lunch, while controversial death-trip filmmaker and pornographer Richard Kern was enlisted to shoot the video. Axl Rose of Guns and Roses sometimes took the stage wearing a Manson t-shirt. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails went to live in the Tate murder house for awhile, setting up a home studio there to record his Downward Spiral album.


Fiction vs. Reality. Despite the intriguing nature of the Manson Family’s connections and associates, and the occult fad that permeated late Sixties culture, much of the Manson-as-hippie-devil hoopla was ridiculously overblown, a media-constructed fantasy that flew in the face of the facts. In reality, Charles Manson manny4was not a hippie or a flower child. He had very little to do with Sixties culture. Born in 1934 to an unwed, alcoholic mother in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was a child of the Depression, not a flower-child of the Sixties. And his childhood was no doubt highly troubled, spent primarily in boy’s homes and juvenile halls, since his mother was unwilling or incapable of caring for him. Early on, Manson was committing crimes such as burglaries, armed robberies, forged checks, and pimping. When he was released from prison in 1967, after completing a ten year sentence, Manson was 32 years old. He had spent most of his life behind bars, where he had most likely experienced routine physical and sexual abuse, as well as lengthy stints in solitary confinement. Prison had not broken him, however. It seems to have only strengthened his will and his sense of resolve. He developed delusions of grandeur, fueled by extreme bitterness and resentment. When he emerged from prison in 1967, he was not merely as an ex-con; he was an ex-con with a mission. He was still just a thief and a con man and pimp, but he had a purpose. He had decided to wage war against a society he felt was rotten to the core.


A Hippie Pimp. The Summer of Love and the hippie movement just happened to provide Manson with the context in which to seek his revenge against those he felt had wronged him. He had no real connection to any youth movement in America. He wanted to infiltrate the popular culture, become a rich and famous musician, and use his fame to preach his gospel of revenge. He wanted to form a doomsday cult that would bring society to its knees. He grew his hair and beard long, adopting the “hippie Jesus” look that was popular at the time. Then he preyed on society’s vulnerable young women, utilizing his pimp charisma to coerce them into submission. Using the women as sexual bait, he was then able to lure men into his orbit, including other criminals, bikers, drug dealers, and rock musicians. Young hippies back then used to say, “Never trust anyone over thirty.” They should have kept that in mind with Manson in L.A. He was a 34 year-old man in 1969, manipulating teenage girls to help him carry out his crazy plans. Those plans, of course, were no more realistic that Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Frustrated by this fact, Manson ended up lashing out, directing his followers to commit random murder. I fail to discern any metaphysical or spiritual significance to any of this. I doubt whether there is any need, or justification, for large symbolic meanings. I could be wrong, but I find that the only thing remotely “demonic” about Manson is his strange celebrity status. This was achieved through a kind of occult process, namely, the media’s exploitation of Manson, which was so ruthless and extensive that he was transformed from a deranged criminal into an evil icon.


Paranoia Fulfilled. It’s difficult to resist the lure of delusional, paranoid thought processes in regard to Manson. Even a writer as clear-headed and dryly understated as Joan Didion can’t resist indulging in pure, irrational fear, and even tossing in some B-movie horror effects, when it comes to discussing Manson. Consider the following passage from Didion’s landmark essay, “The White Album.” I love the passage; the writing is just plain fun, and spooky, far better than anything I will ever write. Yet, at the end of the day, we have to admit that the thought process is sensationalistic and overblown. Clear analysis is thrown out the window. Maybe that’s the best way to write about Manson, but I’m not sure. Here’s Didion:

“I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going on around town. There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was imaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’ — this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far,’ and that many people were doing it — was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed. I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and I wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised… Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”


The End of Nothing. In fact, Charles Manson was not the end of anything. The Sixties decade was full of calamities and disasters and scandals. The whole era did not hinge on any one event. It’s a mistake to assign that much importance to seven admittedly tragic murders in L.A. in 1969. For many, the Tate-LaBianca murders were surprising. The crimes were an aberration, not some inevitable fulfillment. Dogs did not in fact bark at the full moon every single night, even in Manson’s backyard. Yet people like to speak this way about Manson. It’s part of the Manson mystique. What if, however, there is no greater significance to Charles Manson? Let’s suppose he symbolizes nothing. He means nothing more than the brute facts of his life of crime. A madman and an ex-con, he formed a rag-tag cult of misfits. He was convicted of killing seven people. He received the death penalty. He narrowly escaped the gas chamber because the California Supreme Court just happened to overturn the death penalty while he sat on Death Row. He now sits in Corcoran State Prison, a bent, graying old man with a swastika carved into his forehead. When de-mythologized, Manson is just a sad story of yet another American criminal.


Manson as Scapegoat. But we all sense that Manson is bigger than the mere facts. Because we have made him bigger than that. And I think the reason for this lies in the fact that in 1969, America desperately needed a scapegoat for everything that seemed to be so wrong in the world. Maybe we always seek out girkslarger-than-life villains or demonic figures on whom we can pin the guilt and shame of our troubled, violent society. If we have a recognizable “face of pure evil,” we can then deflect all blame onto that symbol. We can load that symbol up with all of the evil baggage in our world. Rather than analyzing the complex events in our shared history, we can simply point to Hitler’s face, or Osama Bin Laden’s face, or Charles Manson’s face. In any case, America in 1969 seemed especially ripe for scapegoating. The events of the decade, which included assassinations and race riots, were simply too much for many Americans to accept or come to terms with. The Vietnam War, in particular, must be seen as the larger context for Manson’s dubious rise to fame. Let’s face it: there was plenty of evil in American life far worse in size and scope than the evil of Manson or any other acid-crazed hippie. Consider the fact that the 1968 Mai Lai Massacre, during which U.S. soldiers raped and slaughtered nearly 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians, was revealed to the public at the same time as Manson was charged for the Tate-LaBianca murders. Second Lieutenant William Calley, who led the massacre (as platoon leader in what was called, oddly enough, “Charlie Company”), was not considered to be the Antichrist, or the new “face of pure evil.” His “demonic stare” attwas never plastered across the covers of magazines and newspapers across the nation. Was the Mai Lai Massacre no less of an atrocity than the Manson Family murders? In fact, one can argue that Mai Lai was much worse. And Mai Lai was emblematic of the vast amount of death and destruction America was responsible for in Vietnam. Yet it was Manson who was the “face of evil” in 1969. Rather than take a clear look at what was going on in America, it was easier to focus on Manson as a scapegoat. This reinforced the desire to view the counterculture in general as the real source of America’s problems. Lieutenant Calley was held accountable for his crimes, to some extent. He was convicted in a military court of premeditated murder, for which he served a total of three and one half years under house arrest at Fort Benning. Manson got the death penalty, and then life in prison. Manson became a symbol of everything wrong in American during the Sixties. Who even remembers Lieutenant Calley anymore?


Manson Fatigue. We are nearing the end of the line with Manson. Soon he will turn 80 years old in Corcoran State Prison. Even Charlie can’t live forever. When he dies, there will be the inevitable “tributes” and “retrospectives.” Perhaps then 03p/03/arod/15393/P2799368we can turn away from Manson for good, and let his troubled soul rest in peace. I recently watched Nicholas Schreck’s 1989 documentary film, Charles Manson Superstar, which makes some worthwhile points about the problematic myth of Charlie, but ultimately gets bogged down in lengthy prison interviews with Manson, who at the time was wasting away in San Quentin. Charlie likes to hear himself talk, but his act grows old pretty quickly. He comes across like an old-school snake-oil con man with mental problems — like a character out of Naked Lunch. Watching him carrying on, it was hard to imagine anyone letting him even change the breaks on their car, let alone control their life as part of a death cult. In the penitentiary, the gap between the Manson myth and the Manson couldn’t be more glaring.



2 Responses to Charles Manson: Murderer, Scapegoat, Superstar

  1. Liberty says:

    I was nowhere near California when these murders hit the news yet Manson was able to scare the bejesus out of me. I can smile about it now but at the time I thought as sure if Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father then Manson and Hitler share a high pedestal at the right hand of Satan. It was mesmerizing to watch the horrid details of the crime unfold. I had a mental picture of him casting evil brain washing spells over perfectly “normal” people, snaring them to do his evil works. In the 70’s, one word mentioned about the Manson murders around the campfire would send teary eyed teenagers running home to Momma. I hate to credit Manson with anything but his crime did indirectly affect me, things like: loss of sleep lured me into reading true crime books and following criminal cases and trials.

    I remember reading Helter Skelter in college when I should have been studying for a Chemistry exam. The paperback was ridiculously thick and hard to hide, I’d receive raised eyebrows when I could put it down and got caught reading it in public. So I don’t know if old con man Charlie is nothing, for me he just an old turd that’s lost his evil stench.

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