Why People Are Still Obsessed with the Manson Murders
On August 9, 1969, police discovered the bodies of five people who Charles Manson's followers had brutally murdered. Forty-seven years later, we asked psychologists and Manson biographers why they still hold such a cultural fascination.
Photo by Sahm Doherty via Getty
Two nights. Seven deaths. 169 stab wounds. Seven .22-calibre gunshots. "Pig" and "Helter Skelter" written in victims' blood inside their homes. That's the legacy of Charles Manson—one that continues to impact our culture 47 years later.
On this date in 1969, the bodies of 8-month pregnant actress Sharon Tate, writer Wojciech Frykowski, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, celebrity hair stylist Jay Sebring, and friend Steve Parent were found in the home Tate shared with her husband, director Roman Polanski. Manson had ordered the killings as a way to ignite an apocalyptic race war he dubbed "Helter Skelter," after the Beatles' song. His loyal followers, "Tex" Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie van Houten, and Steve "Clem" Grogan, carried out the murders. Linda Kasabian served as lookout.
"Leslie van Houten said she's always asked, 'How could anybody who is not crazy follow Charles Manson?'" says Jeff Guinn, author of the best-selling 2013 biography The Life and Times of Charles Manson. "She said, 'The Charlie Manson the public knows wasn't the one we saw all the time.'"
Mental health professionals say it's not unusual for young, impressionable people to fall under the spell of a sociopath who effortlessly changes personalities to best manipulate—and the strength of Manson's sociopathic capabilities transfixes many.
"I would say Manson still holds a fascination because it's often hard for those of us who are not sociopaths to fathom that level of evil behavior," says Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornel School of Medicine. "It is human nature to have a fascination with the dark."
Another reason for the continuing cultural obsession with Manson is the fact that his brutal attacks came at a crucial time in America: As the 1960s ended, the US was in turmoil from the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon's presidency, and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Nightly news brought images of violence into everyday American's homes.
Leslie van Houten said she's always asked, 'How could anybody who is not crazy follow Charles Manson?'
Those factors led some to consider Manson's violence another "rallying cry" for the counterculture, according to criminologist Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University."[Manson's] violence struck at a fixtures of American society that people weren't necessarily familiar with," he explains. "It was counterculture gone awry, race war, violence as a means of political expression but not targeting traditional symbols (such as a president) which then fed into this whole concept of society spinning out of control."
"Even back in 1969, [Manson] appeared to be different things to different groups of people," notes Guinn. "Young people rebelling against the government saw him as Che Guevara. Different elements of the population see him as someone who had a difficult childhood and is further punished by the prison system."
Another reason Manson continues to hold fascination for so many people is that he escaped the death penalty imposed upon sociopathic killers like Aileen Wuornos. A 1972 ruling by the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty and automatically commuted Manson's death sentence to life in prison. Manson has used his extra time to fuel his mystique through carefully timed outbursts or antics, such as his recent short-lived engagement to a young follower, who allegedly wanted to display his body in a glass coffin after his death as a tourist attraction.
Author Daniel Simone, who has recorded hundreds of hours of conversation with Manson for his upcoming book The Retrial of Charles Manson, says that Manson fully understands how to further impact culture even from his cell at California State Prison, Corcoran. "We always spoke in a casual way," explains Simone. "But turn a camera or microphone on him and all of a sudden a different person comes out. That is what got him convicted. He loves attention, and he loves to perform."
Manson is celebrated. And he should be in the dustbin of history.
Manson's impact on pop culture is extensive, evidenced by everything from the artist known as Marilyn Manson, to the Guns n' Roses recording of Manson's song "Look at Your Game Girl," to various films and books exploring or reimagining him and his followers.
"That's not really about him. It is about the individual who is responding to him, their personal psyche," says psychiatrist Gayani DeSilva, MD. "Sociopaths are very, very good at bringing people in."
Everyone spoken to for this report remarked at the number of young adults they know who find Manson and his followers beguiling. Guinn decided to write about Manson after his students flocked around Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, author of the book Helter Skelter, when he was a guest speaker at the school where Guinn taught.
Actor Ryan Kiser played Charles Manson in the 2009 short film Lie and in the 2014 film House of Manson. The roles brought him attention, but the idea of hero-worshipping Manson sickens him. "It's disheartening to me that kids look up to Manson," he says "If there was one thing I would tell them about him, it's that he is a broken person. There is nothing to admire about him."
Atkins, who was found responsible for killing Sharon Tate and mocking the actress when she pled for her child's life, spent the final years of her life trying to dissuade Manson fans from worshipping him, and several years ago, Brian Levin received an unsolicited letter from her. "She was interested in starting an anti-hate program at the prison," recalls Levin. "I did not respond. There is something morally or psychologically in my make-up that made me stay clear. She was not a bystander—she did the most horrible crime in the set of Manson crimes.
"We have developed a very dysfunctional and perverse segment of culture, which focuses on violence and the unstable evil fools who undertake it," continues Levin. "Manson is celebrated. And he should be in the dustbin of history."
Although many compare Manson to Adolph Hitler or modern-day terrorists, experts say he never had the intellect or the persuasive power to truly recruit the numbers needed to tilt culture. "Charlie could never make an entire nation follow him," says Guinn. "But he sure could make an entire nation aware of him. That's a major difference."