We all love a good conspiracy theory, especially when it seems to make sense of the senseless. In the case of the Manson Family murders, the question is less ‘who’ as ‘why’ – why did these seemingly random killings take place, and how do we explain the odd coincidences and connections that connect the supposedly unrelated killers and victims? If we are to believe prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi – and plenty of people do, in disregard of the evidence – then these really were random killings, carried out by a White Album-influenced cult leader in order to start a race war. Bugliosi, of course, had a vested interest in keeping thongs as simple as possible – it was his job to convince a jury to convict Manson, even though Charlie didn’t actually kill anyone (or, more accurately – he didn’t kill anyone that he was on trial for killing). But although the Helter Skelter paranoia was true, the idea that this was the only motivation for the killings is rather ridiculous.
I’ve studied the Manson case from all angles for many years – from the grandest Illuminati and Satanic theories to the most basic. It seems to me that Manson – if we accept that he really did deliberately send his acolytes out to kill – did so under contract, probably as revenge for a drug burn. The killings also gave him the chance to try – unsuccessfully – to throw the authorities off the scent of Family member Bobby Beausoleil, at that time in prison awaiting trial for the killing of Family associate Gary Hinman – Beausoleil had attempted to shift the blame for his actions onto the Black Panthers, by daubing ‘Political Pig’ in blood on the wall and painting a paw print. The Tate-La Bianca killings are notable for similar bloody slogans.
This is, of course, a personal belief and not one I have any proof of – it just seems to be the theory that makes the most sense. Ed Sanders, in his second book about the murders (and make no mistake, this might be presented as a Sharon Tate biography, but the whole second part of it is more about Manson) has another theory.
Sanders’ The Family is probably the definitive Manson book. It’s certainly the most thorough and the most readable, infused with a counter culture madness that others don’t have. But it’s not necessarily the true story. Certainly Sanders gets hung up on ‘snuff movies’ (the whole idea of these non-existent films seeming to start in his book) and making a connection between Manson and The Process Church of the Final Judgment, the occult group formed in England in the late 1960s. These claims led to a legal action, and were removed from later US editions of the book.
In this new book, he seems to up the ante, though the Process Church is never named. Instead, he talks about “a mysterious English Satanic cult”, leaving the reader to guess who they might be. The suggestions here are pretty strong – that this cult not only paid Manson to kill Sharon Tate (no suggestion here that she was essentially ‘collateral damage’ in a killing aimed either at her friends or Terry Melcher, the former tenant of her house, as has often been claimed before) but also that they did so because she knew ‘something’ about the fact that they had brainwashed Sirhan Sirhan into murdering Senator Robert Kennedy.
This is pretty wild stuff. I will admit that I eat this sort of thing up. I’m a huge fan of Maury Terry’s The Ultimate Evil, a gargantuan and increasingly hysterical book linking the Son of Sam killings to a global Satanic murder cult. Terry’s theories about the actual Sam killings seem pretty convincing – the idea that David Berkowitz was not acting along seems almost irrefutable – but the book goes off the rails once it tries to expand on this into the Cotton Club murders and beyond. Similarly, the Manson case has enough weird connections, rumours and coincidences to make any grander conspiracy seem plausible, and in a perverse way, I wish it was true. The idea of a shadowy group of operating a global assassination ring through the manipulation of flaky cultists and confused Satanists, drawing in Manson, Berkowitz, and Henry Lee Lucas (who claimed to be killing for a Satanic groups called The Hand of Death), using the occult as a cover and mixing random killings with targeted assassinations…well, it’s pretty irresistible and not entirely implausible as an idea. Personally, I would throw The Zodiac in there too – his murders also seem to a mix of the random and the focused, and the similarities between him and The Son of Sam are remarkable. But whatever correlations you care to make, the idea behind this is a glorious mythology. Throw in stories of Hollywood decadence – kinky sex parties, amateur porn tapes, sex and drug orgies and enough names named to keep it juicy – and you have a story that seems salacious, scary and secretive. Perfect!
Of course, were I member of the Process Church, I might not find all this as entertaining, and I can see why a lot of people in the occult world are not at all amused by these claims. In truth, there is more evidence linking established, mainstream religions with organised murder than there is Satanists or other occult organisations, but it’s the occultists who suffer public and legal harassment. And as we have seen with Satanic Panics over the years, these stories often seem unbelievable because they are untrue.
I’ve diversified onto this because although the wildest connections are only made explicit in Sanders’ Afterword – though hinted at and primed throughout his book – they are probably the most interesting thing here. As a biography of Sharon Tate, this is a thin read – it might be subtitled A Life, but it’s mostly about her death. That’s probably inevitable – Tate didn’t do enough in her short life to really fill a book with. She had a comfortable, ordinary life as an army brat with doting parents, drifted into beauty contests and modeling, and then took the inevitable step into acting, with a few TV shows and movies to her name, mostly in supporting roles, before marrying Roman Polanski. There’s nothing wrong with that life – and she certainly did nothing to justify the awful thing that happened to her – but it doesn’t make for an especially enthralling read. So Sanders has to pad things out in the first part of the book (I’ll admit to being baffled by his long diversion into the Bobby Kennedy killing, for instance, until I reached the Afterword), with long and not particularly interested reviews of her films and assorted asides. Things only start to become interesting, sadly, with the build up to the killing.
The second part of the book is pretty much a reworking, boiled down, of The Family. This is a more gripping affair, though too much detail is lost in stripping the story down – Sanders references Family members and events without telling us who or what they are. You really need to be familiar with the story – possibly with Sanders’ other book – for this to really hang together. It is just possible that there will be people who buy what is ostensibly a movie star biography who are not especially clued in on the Manson story, and I suspect that they will find this both confusing and excessive. Things are not helped by the fact that the stripping down of the story seems to have been done rather sloppily – stories are repeated, sometimes almost word for word, and unnamed characters are suddenly identified, making the initial coyness rather odd – a ‘famous movie star’ is later outed as Steve McQueen, for instance, as if sanders has forgotten that he was previously anonymous – or hadn’t bothered to change the levels of anonymity from earlier The Family references, written when these people were still alive. Some readers probably won’t really care for the blow by blow descriptions of the killings either, though Sanders does give advance warning that more delicate readers might want to skip that section.
Sanders is a good writer and knows how to make a true crime story gripping. But this book seems to be neither one thing nor the other, inevitably bound to alienate both potential audiences and ultimately feeling like a chopped down, starter version of The Family. Manson completists will want to pick it up, but anyone looking for real insight into Sharon Tate’s life will be disappointed.