Charlie Says, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, Mindhunter series two and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. All of these recent small and big screen releases - released within just twelve months of each other - have one thing in common…
Criminal, cult leader, twisted counterculture figurehead, evil puppet master, potential CIA tool, Manson was many things. None of them good. The man will always be mostly remembered for his part in a series of nine murders which took place at four locations in the Hollywood Hills across July and August 1969. Fifty years on, we’re all still obsessed by the shady figure of Charles Manson.
Just what is it about the case that continues to fascinate the world so much? Well, there’s no one simple answer. The truth is that there are several reasons why Charlie Manson and The Manson Family strike such a chord with us all. Answers that will no doubt see him as a prominent criminal and cultural presence for many years to come.
Let’s look into some of the reasons that we’re all still so obsessed with Charles Manson and the Manson murders...
The case is just so, so strange
Where to start here? The fact that one of the world’s most famous killers - who was sentenced to death for murder - never actually killed anyone? That he so tightly controlled more than a hundred other human beings? That, despite being a short, uneducated, angry and quite physically unattractive man, he was able to convince scores of people to worship him and butcher people at his command?
Start wherever you like, it really doesn’t matter. This is an utterly unique case.
Manson, as you no doubt know, ran a cult called The Family, which he would dominate and command. Primarily young men and women, he would feed them hallucinogenic drugs, use them sexually and, eventually, convince a small group of them to kill Gary Hinman, Donald Jerome ‘Shorty’ Shea, Sharon Tate (and her unborn child), Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Parent, Jay Sebring and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca across a short spell of terror.
Society finds serial and spree killers fascinating. The same goes with cults. The murderers and sects that really stick in the public’s consciousness are those with hooks. With distinctive signifiers and differentiators.
Gary Ridgway is fairly well known to true crime fans. Anyone with a special interest in serial killers can tell you that he was The Green River Killer. Proven to have butchered 49 women (having admitted to 71), some investigators argue that he was responsible for up to 100 murders. But he was quiet, an otherwise unremarkable man who killed Seattle sex workers across two decades. He could almost be called - if such a thing existed - a boring serial killer.
Ridgway certainly never captured the public’s imagination. Why? He just wasn’t weird enough. Charles Manson, however… Well, he was plenty weird enough.
Manson’s ability to manipulate people was incredible
Any cult leader’s ability to control a group of people is astounding. Be they Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite or David Koresh. There’s something especially interesting and disturbing about Manson and his brainwashing capability, though. He targeted kids. Young, often middle-class teenagers from affluent and stable backgrounds. Many were young women.
The idea of a bearded man with a guitar and beady eyes being able to talk four young women (Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinke, Leslie Van Houten) into murdering several people in the most brutal ways imaginable is just so bizarre, it can’t help be intrigue an enquiring mind.
There are serious rumours of CIA mind control experiments
Mention the idea of the CIA being involved in almost anything and there’s every chance you’ll be met with furrowed brows and accusations of tin foil hat wearing. But there are pretty strong indications that suggest that Charles Manson was ‘recruited’ for experimentation by US government-backed scientists.
The use of powerful hallucinogens such as LSD was at the forefront of research into mind control by many countries in the 1950’s and ‘60s, but the US led the way. The very real possibility that Manson learned some of his brainwashing skills and craft from the American government is a very enticing to anyone who likes a juicy story. Not just ‘conspiracy theorists’.
The ties with - and the killing of - Hollywood elites are shocking
Would The Manson Murders have remained so grimly fascinating to us all had Sharon Tate not been so famous? Perhaps not. Manson later claimed not to know that 10050 Cielo Drive would house a famous and extremely pregnant Hollywood actress. He had however visited the place before, when it was occupied by a music producer friend of his (and son of Doris Day), Terry Melcher. And knew the house was often full of famous faces.
The celebrity connections go deep with Manson. Angela Lansbury's daughter was in The Family. Charlie met plenty of big names in his time, including Michael Caine and Bryan Cranston even spent time on the notorious Spahn Ranch too.
Manson was a keen musician too, with lots of friends in high places within the musical world...
‘Helter Skelter’ and Manson’s connections to The Beatles
Whether he truly believed it or not, Manson developed a theory surrounding the end of civilisation that he called ‘Helter Skelter’, named after his favourite Beatles song. He apparently prophesied of an apocalyptic race war where he and The Family would be the only white survivors. Black people, he said, on winning, would be unable to organise themselves effectively and beg him to be their leader. Ergo, he would effectively rule the world. Or at least some of it.
A deluded man? Certainly. But he was no sad-sack music fan, sat playing records and pining over his favourite bands. Charles Manson was pretty well connected in the music industry, his own music very well thought of. A talented songwriter and a capable guitarist, he not only had Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys trying to get him signed to a major label but the likes of Neil Young too.
'A guy showed up, picked up my guitar and started playing a lot of songs on it,' Young wrote in his autobiography. 'His name was Charlie. Kind of like Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them, but the songs were fascinating. He was good.'
'I don’t know what I thought when the murders happened. I just think a lot of the things he says are true,' John Lennon once said about Manson. 'That he’s a child of the state, made by us. That he took their children in when nobody else would… But of course he’s cracked, all right… he’s barmy.'
In truth, the case of Charles Manson and his seemingly hypnotised followers captivates us all for endless reasons. Articles and books will continue to be written - and films and TV shows made - about him and his dark legacy for many, many years to come.
We’ll probably always be obsessed.