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.