Charles Manson has died. What you think you know about him might not be the truth – but the legend is bigger than mere facts could ever hope to be.
The death of Charles Manson, aged 83, has inevitably opened the floodgates of ignorant journalism and internet commentary as people who don’t even know the basic established ‘facts’ of the case feel the need to pass comments on what they think he did and the Biblical punishments that await him. No matter that the Manson story is a complex, convoluted and often contradictory one, or that the general perception of the whole story is based almost entirely on the theories of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who skillfully built up the image of Manson as Svengali cult leader, sending his brainwashed, murderous hippy followers out to kill at random in order to bring about the racial genocide known as Helter Skelter (after the track on The Beatles’ White Album). This is so ingrained in our cultural history that questioning even the smallest part of the story is pointless. Like Christians with the Bible, people are determined to believe it all, even the bits that contradict the other bits.
Of course, Charlie hardly helped himself – his behaviour in court might have been because he immediately recognised the trial as the circus that it was and probably knew that a fair trial was never on the cards, but to the outside world, he was every bit the demented madman that they had been hoping for. Most murderers are inherently dull people when caught – Manson however played his role perfectly and would continue to do so throughout his life.
But the truth of what happened remains nebulous and unknown, filtered through the desire for a reason, the need for a monster to fear and assorted self-serving claims and counterclaims. Only a handful of people ever knew the truth about what happened and why – and none of them were reliable witnesses, each having their own agendas.
But the truth hardly mattered. Manson was the psycho killer that America had been crying out for: the hippy cult leader who lived up to the fears of an older generation and a country torn apart by Vietnam – along with Altamont, Manson has been blamed for killing the Sixties hippy dream, and the communal living of The Family was immediately picked up on by the media as evidence of the dangers of ‘love and terror cults’. For parents worried by their kids growing their hair, dropping out and listening to strange music, Manson was the embodiment of their fears – never mind the murders, it was the lifestyle that The Family adopted that was the real terror that gripped middle America.
Of course, the Manson murders (and yes, we’ll call them that for convenience, even as we point out with tiresome regularity that there is no evidence to show that Charlie actually killed anyone) were also the first pop culture murders and hooked into fears about the growing immorality of Hollywood – where images, words and ideas that would have been forbidden just five years earlier were now commonplace – and the music industry. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and Hollywood Babylon were woven throughout the case – from Manson’s musical ambitions that saw him hanging out with rock stars and writing a song for the Beach Boys, to the killing of actress Sharon Tate, who had not only starred in occult horror film Eye of the Devil but was also married to Roman Polanski, director of Rosemary’s Baby. In a world where the newly formed Church of Satan was grabbing headlines, all this seemed to blur into a proto-Satanic Panic. No matter that Manson wasn’t a Satanist, either of the LaVey persuasion or more generally – the whole case seemed somehow drenched in occultism and demonic madness. At least, that’s how it was perceived in popular culture. The alternative idea – that the murders were all connected, however loosely, to bad drug deals – is nowhere near as exciting.
Even as the Hollywood establishment locked their mansion doors, upped their security and cowered in dread – and even before there had been any convictions for the killings – filmmakers were lining up to cash in on the case. A trailer for biker film Satan’s Sadists attempted to fool people into thinking that it was somehow the story of the murders (it wasn’t), and within a few years, low-budget horror films like The Love Thrill Murders and Slaughter (later retooled and finding its own legendary, willfully misunderstood status as Snuff) were inspired by the killings.
One of the first films to retell the story was shot while the trial was still underway. The Other Side of Madness, directed by Frank Howard, is a bizarre retelling of the story – taken from newspaper reports – and manages to tread a fine line between art and exploitation. Shot in black and white (apart from one brief scene), the film is both fascinating and frustrating, managing to capture the vibe of the times perfectly. It might be the best of the Manson movies – it certainly has the best soundtrack, including Charlie’s own recording Mechanical Man.
There were plenty of people willing to cash in on Manson. Fugs leader Ed Sanders wrote The Family, which managed to be exhaustive and thorough, wildly hysterical and inaccurate. It’s a great read if you approach it with a certain amount of cynicism. Bugliosi cashed in on the case with his book Helter Skelter, establishing his dubious suppositions as fact for all time. The book was filmed twice – as a TV movie in 1976 and again in 2004. There have been plenty of books about Manson since. Nikolas Schreck‘s The Manson File is worth reading for a thorough and debunking examination of the facts; others tend to simply rehash what we already (think we) know.
The most interesting film to deal explicitly with the Manson case during the 1970s was the documentary Manson, made in 1972 by Lawrence Merrick, in association with producer Robert Hendrickson. As well as featuring footage taken during the court case, the film is notable for having extensive access to Family members who were still at liberty. It’s a mistake to believe that all Manson Family members were convicted of the murders – most were not involved, and remained free to hold vigils outside the court and lodge pointless protests to anyone who would listen.
Merrick’s film is at its most unsettling when interviewing Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Sandra Good, two Mansonites who maintained their fervent belief in their leader even after he was imprisoned and the Family effectively broken up. These thoroughly wholesome, sweet looking girls tote assault rifles throughout their interviews. Squeaky would later prove that she didn’t just talk the talk, by pulling a gun on President Gerald Ford in the mid-Seventies and thus becoming the last Family member to secure a life sentence.
More recently – time being a great healer etc – there have been several Manson films. John Aes-Nihil’s Manson Family Movies was an 8mm attempt to show what home movies may have been shot using a van full of TV equipment that the Family had stolen. It certainly manages to recreate the sort of home movies that you’d imagine a bunch of stoned hippies filming. Manson was a British docudrama that was essentially a self-serving mouthpiece for Family turncoat Linda Kasabian, Bugliosi’s star witness and the other person directly responsible for what we think we know about the crimes (Kasabian was at both the Tate and La Bianca killings, but in exchange for testifying, got off scot-free). Jim Van Bebber’s Charlie’s Family was in production for over a decade and is an ambitious attempt to cover the entire story (or at least, again, the Bugliosi version) that is somewhat scuppered by Van Bebber’s gorehound tendencies and the need to crowbar modern-day murderous Manson groupies into the story. In the last decade, we’ve had Manson Girl and Manson Girls, and the ambitious House of Manson. And then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s ham-fisted reinterpretation… add to this the numerous documentaries and interviews with Manson (who would always effectively be the Charlie Manson that the interviewer wanted to see) and this might be the most heavily documented series of crimes since Jack the Ripper – an interesting comparison, given how Ripper films also tend to be awash with made-up nonsense.
Manson’s original demo recordings were released on the LP Lie by his associate Phil Kaufman while he awaited trial. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a terrible record by any means, Manson having a decent voice and the songs being solid folky, hippy numbers. In a different world, Look at Your Game, Girl might have been a hit single and Manson’s life might have been very different. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, a steady stream of prison recordings – both musical and spoken word – have been issued in various formats. Once, I received the LP Son of Man in the post with no explanation – it’s a fascinating package with one side of poorly recorded songs and one side of etched vinyl, plus inserts and liner notes. It remains a treasured possession.
Outside of Manson recordings, John Moran’s The Manson Family – An Opera is worth a listen if you can track down the CD. Iggy Pop plays Bugliosi.
Manson’s pop culture status has spread far and wide – you can (or could) get a wide variety of T-shirts (I had one with glowing eyes, for extra creepy-crawliness), coffee mugs, badges and other merchandise, official or otherwise that cemented Manson’s position as a de facto rock star (no one really used the phrase at the time, but surely in the 1970s, murder became the new rock ‘n’ roll). He also continued to be one of the great 20th Century bogeymen (outstripped in public fear stakes in the new century by the likes of Osama Bin Laden) – a household name even among people who have no idea about what he (allegedly) did. Along the way, he has been transformed into a figure of mythical status – labelled a serial killer, a mass murderer, a Satanic cult leader and more, with neither the facts nor the actual meaning of words apparently mattering to the writers, publishers, broadcasters and news outlets that have used him to make money for decades. Whether his death will diminish the Manson legend or simply see him transcend into a mythical, supernatural monster remains to be seen. What does seem certain is that we will continue to be subjected to a tsunami of ignorance, misinformation and self-righteousness across news sites, books, films and social media for years to come.
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