The Real Cult of Charles Manson

The mass murderer, who died on Sunday at 83, turned one following into another.

Charles Manson in handcuffs in 1970

“All of us are excited by what we most deplore,” Martin Amis wrote in the London Review of Books in 1980, reviewing Joan Didion’s The White Album. In the title piece in that collection, Didion’s second, the essayist recalls sitting in her sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills on August 9, 1969, when the phone rang. The friend on the line had heard that across town there had been a spate of murders at a house rented by the director Roman Polanski, on Cielo Drive. Early reports were frenzied, shocking, lurid, and incorrect. “I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly,” Didion writes, “and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.

The killings orchestrated that summer by Charles Manson, who died on Sunday at the age of 83, after spending the past 48 years in prison, occupy a unique space in the American cultural psyche. All of the elements of the Tate–LaBianca murders, as they came to be known, seemed designed for maximum tabloid impact. There was the actor Sharon Tate, luminously beautiful and eight months pregnant, who was stabbed to death with four others at a rental home in Hollywood. There were the killers—young women, Manson acolytes corrupted by a sinister cult figure. There were the drugs, abundant both on the Manson Family ranch and at the house on Cielo Drive. There was the nebulous chatter about satanism and witchcraft and race wars ready to erupt. And, as Didion captured, there was a sense that something was rotten from the Hollywood Hills to Haight-Ashbury—that the Summer of Love had long since curdled into paranoia and depravity.

All of us are excited by what we most deplore. How else to explain how Manson, a diminutive grifter, had so much power? Not over the girls, who were mostly lonely teenagers from broken homes when they joined Manson, looking, as the convicted murderer Patricia Krenwinkel once explained, “for the first time, to feel safe … to feel like someone was gonna care for me.” Manson’s real power, it turned out, was over popular culture. He inspired books and songs and operas and TV series and Diane Sawyer specials and clothing lines and the name of an American band that itself became synonymous with fears of societal breakdown. He’s the subject of Quentin Tarantino’s next film. He inspired one of the breakout literary hits of 2016, a novel that won its unknown 25-year-old author a $2 million advance. The most recent season of the FX show American Horror Story, titled Cult, was billed as being about the 2016 election, but really it was about Manson, and about how a charismatic psychopath can compel others to commit murder.

What Manson knew, on some level, was how to capture the national imagination. The separate elements in the Tate–LaBianca murders—celebrity, corrupted innocence, sex, drugs, brutality, and, most of all, fear—were by themselves enough to sell newspapers for months, but together they made Manson immortal, one of the most famous monsters in history, and were a window into a culture that could not get over him. “Clearly Charles Manson already stands as the villain of our time, the symbol of animalism and evil,” David Felton and David Dalton wrote in a June 1970 cover story for Rolling Stone. But “I am just a mirror,” Manson told them, again and again. “Anything you see in me is you.”

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As much as Manson the murderer became culture, he was also formed by it. If you consider his autobiography now, what stands out (beyond the neglect and the transience and the repeated institutionalizations) are the constant references to cultural touchstones. A young Charlie reportedly learned how to manipulate his followers by reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The gangster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis taught him to play guitar in prison, which is also where Manson was introduced to Scientology. In 1968, after Manson and the earliest Family members had moved to Los Angeles, he got involved with the music scene, befriending Dennis Wilson, a Beach Boy, and briefly interacting with Neil Young. As Young wrote in his 2012 autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace:

After a while, a guy showed up, picked up my guitar, and started playing a lot of songs on it. His name was Charlie. He was a friend of the girls and now of Dennis. His songs were off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row. Kind of like Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them, but the songs were fascinating. He was quite good.

Manson was a peripheral figure on the Los Angeles rock scene at best, a frustrated musician who was infuriated when the producer Terry Melcher declined to give him a record deal. Melcher was the only child of the actor Doris Day, a friend of Wilson’s, and the owner of the house on Cielo Drive, where he’d lived with the actor Candice Bergen before he rented it to Polanski and Tate. All of these coincidences, all of these tenuous links to Hollywood royalty, contributed to the tabloid frenzy after the murders, as well as a sense of escalating panic. As Manson’s prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, reported in his 1974 book, Helter Skelter, there were media reports that Frank Sinatra was in hiding, and that Mia Farrow, the star of Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby, believed she was “next.” A Beverly Hills sporting-goods store, Bugliosi wrote, reported 100-fold increases in gun sales.

Bugliosi’s book was named after a song that had particular significance for Manson. The sixth track on side three of the Beatles’ 1968 record, The White Album, “Helter Skelter” was written by Paul McCartney to explore feelings of rise and fall, like a fairground roller coaster. “Do you, don’t you want me to love you?,” McCartney sings. “I’m coming down fast but I’m miles above you.” The song seemed to contain references to drug trips, although McCartney claimed that it symbolized the decline of the Roman empire.

Manson saw it differently. The song, he believed, and told his followers, contained coded references to the race war that he believed he was about to ignite, where black Americans would rise up and defeat their white oppressors, after which Manson would rule over a decimated society. He thought that every song on The White Album, in fact, contained some kind of message to initiate the end of the world. “This music is bringing on the revolution, the unorganized overthrow of the Establishment,” he told Rolling Stone after his arrest. “The Beatles know in the sense that the subconscious knows.” When Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered by Manson Family members, on August 10, 1969, one of the perpetrators daubed “Healter (sic) Skelter” on the refrigerator in the victims’ blood: a grisly motif for the killings sprung from a pop song.

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This confluence of factors made the Manson Family murders one of the biggest crime stories in American history. At the time, Manson was seen as emblematic of the counterculture, living on a hippie commune with his followers, writing music, and dropping acid. The underground press, rather than denouncing Manson, tried to claim him as a hero. The paper Tuesday’s Child named him Man of the Year, and portrayed him as a Jesus-like figure on the cross. As Joe Hagan recounts in his new biography of Jann Wenner, Wenner was eager to run a headline on the cover of Rolling Stone that read, “Charles Manson Is Innocent!” At the time, Manson was “an object of media obsession,” Hagan writes, adding that “while the straight world viewed him as a monster, much of Wenner’s audience saw him, at least hypothetically, as one of their own.”

Manson’s being a musician, a celebrity hanger-on, and a hippie icon ensured his dominance over the news cycle. But his prominence as a cultural figure, even five decades later, arguably has less to do with him than with his followers. It wasn’t that a psychopathic ex-con would mastermind random murders to further his own bizarre agenda. It was that he would manipulate girls into doing it for him. The idea of wide-eyed innocents from middle-class homes being spoon-fed hallucinogens and indoctrinated into sexual and moral deviance was a story few could resist. Even after Manson was arrested, his cult endured. When he carved a cross into his forehead (it later became a swastika), so did his followers. They shaved their heads and held sit-ins outside the courthouse. A photograph of Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten from 1970, wearing matching blue dresses and smiling vacantly at onlookers, has become as indelible over time as the images of Manson himself.

Associated Press

The girls. In a 1988 interview with Manson, Geraldo Rivera described him as “the stuff of a nation’s nightmares.” The girls signify innocence corrupted, or worse, a fundamental misunderstanding of what girls are capable of. As my colleague Julie Beck wrote in 2016, “The most fascinating part of the Manson story has always been the girls. … The ones willing and vulnerable enough to be gathered.” Only Manson himself could have truly known whether he believed in the “philosophy” of Helter Skelter, Beck argued. But that wasn’t the point. “The girls believed.”

And this is how the real cult of Charles Manson started: not the group at the Spahn Ranch, with its bedraggled flower children and days-old food and butchered animals and acid-spiked sermons, but, rather, the cult that follows Manson still, captivated by his aura and his awfulness and his ability to change ordinary young women into murderers. Without them, Manson was a nothing, a failed musician and a petty criminal, but his grip on the girls, and his embodiment of the dangers inherent in freedom, turned him into a terrible legend. Helter Skelter and Charlie Rose and South Park and The Girls and Aquarius and Kasabian and Family Guy and Nine Inch Nails and American Girls and Marilyn Manson and The Ben Stiller Show transformed a murderer into an icon of everything that was dark in the American psyche. “We wanted to do a crime that would shock the world, that the world would have to stand up and take notice,” Susan Atkins told her cell mate in jail. The world did just that. And it hasn’t been able to look away since.

There have been other murderers since, of course—more violent in their methods, more brutal, more obscene. But none who’ve so persistently captivated us by channeling all of our fears at once. As the social scientist David R. Williams writes in Searching for God in the Sixties, “We, as a collective culture, looked into Manson’s eyes and saw in those dark caves what we most feared within ourselves, the paranoia of what might happen if you go too far.”