There is no good way to say this so let’s just take the direct route.
When I was a kid, Charles Manson scared the shit out of me.
I wasn’t alone, of course, Manson and the “family” of dead-end kids manipulated by his twisted logic and exploited to commit heinous murders at his bidding, terrified the country in the summer of 1969 and years thereafter. They were young, they had long hair — as many did back in those days, they exemplified the counter-culture and the perceived dangers it seemingly posed, they lived a communal existence roving from one abandoned place to another and they were the poster children for every single alarming film adults showed middle school-age kids about the inherent dangers associated with drug use. I was 10 years old. I remember it well.
The grotesque murders of actress Sharon Tate — whose film career was just beginning — her unborn child, and her jet-setting house guests constituted a major news story by itself. What unraveled from there following the grisly murders of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca a few days later shocked the nation in its relentless and mindless brutality.
The murders, authored by Manson as what was learned later to be part of a deranged plot to create a race war in the United States –a war to end all wars that would leave only Manson and his vagabond family in charge when they emerged from his so-called “bottomless pit” in the desert — terrified the public. The acts were seemingly random — and they were. Manson a lifetime criminal, con man and cult leader in the making selected the victims not because of who they were but what they represented — prosperity, wealth and some version of the American dream. Tate’s house, in fact, was once owned by the son of Doris Day who was a record producer who met Manson through Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys. Manson knew that piece of history about the house, but not the people who lived there on the night of his mandated spree of bloody murder.
Manson himself didn’t know Sharon Tate, or her husband, film director Roman Polanski, who wasn’t home at the time of the brutal slayings. He didn’t know Abigail Folger or Jay Sebring or Voytek Frykowski or Steven Parent. Manson only met the LaBiancas because he’s the one who broke into their home, tied them up then directed his family to murder them in the most horrifying fashion possible — and leave a sign — words splattered in blood on the walls like “helter skelter,” a term Manson used to describe the war he was trying to create. It was actually misspelled at the crime scene as “healter skelter.”
All of these facts unfolded over time during a bizarre murder investigation that played out slowly but very publicly in a relatively new media-saturated world dominated by television — and in California, the capital of television. The Tate-LaBianca murders closed a violent decade marked by the televised war in Vietnam and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even to Americans scarred by these earth-shattering events and public executions of important figures, the killing spree conducted by the Manson family was unnerving, riveting and revolting. An accurate total for the number of people possibly slain by the family during this period is not really known.
Most of all, the events were horrifying and unthinkable — from the chain of killings and other criminal acts committed by Manson and his family to their actions in court. The trial in 1971 was often a new kind of grande guignol theater marked by alternately odd, erratic and repugnant actions by the defendants — Manson, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel. Unforgettable images included all shaving their heads or carving jailhouse swastikas or X’s onto their foreheads. It was impossible to determine what was the most disturbing — the wild-eyed Manson or the coldly robotic actions of the young girls who stabbed the victims repeatedly in an orgy of blood. They even took orders from Manson during the trial. A fourth defendant, Tex Watson, was tried later.
It all combined to make establishment America more leery than ever of youth protesters or counter-culture hippies — many of whom were simply peace-loving people trying to find troublesome answers in an increasingly complicated world. In my rural hometown in the North Carolina foothills a group of post-college twenty-somethings purchased farmland off a dirt road. They weren’t from the South, had long hair and beards. They lived together in a commune, smoked weed and enjoyed the earth. They were unfailingly friendly and even put a team in our area’s softball league. They won the sportsmanship trophy every year they had a team.
Yet they scared a lot of people in that remote area of Stokes County. I credit Manson and the media saturation of the case.
It’s impossible to overestimate the impact Manson had on life in the United States, especially popular culture. No discussion of mass or serial killings in this country fails to include Manson. Vincent Bugliosi, the deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County who successfully prosecuted the case and won death penalty convictions, co-authored “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders,” which ultimately became the top-selling true crime book of all time — more than 7 million copies. I remember reading it in paperback in around 1975 and being unable to put the book down. I probably finished the more than 700 pages in three or four days, tops. It’s still the most compelling true crime book I can recall.
In 1976 CBS produced a made-for-TV movie based on Bugliosi’s book, “Helter Skelter.” It was an astonishing production for those pre-cable TV days. I haven’t seen it in years but I remember being about as horrified by it as I was by “The Exorcist.” It begins with screams echoing in the Southern California hills punctuated by gunshots. The sounds haunted then and now. The film, aired over multiple nights, featured a fascinating performance by a young actor named Steve Railsback. It’s perhaps the most memorable acting performance in TV history. This monologue is an example.
Manson was sentenced in 1971 by a Los Angeles jury to be executed but because the death penalty was made illegal for a period of time and never restored in California, he was re-sentenced to life in prison. There he outlived Bugliosi, who died in 2015 at age 80. He remained a cult-like figure to many as he aged in prison, the swastika tattoo on his forehead still visible. He occasionally came up for parole. He had no chance of receiving it.
Manson lived to be 83. He died of natural causes in prison on Sunday night, which was far better than he deserved. There wasn’t a wet eye in the house. Those who mourn him are themselves lost souls. By any measurement he was the embodiment of evil incarnate. Unrepentant to the end, I doubt he ever thought again about his victims as the years moved forward. He never felt a touch of remorse. Never felt the weight of any guilt associated with the survivors or those whose lives he took.
Manson himself stopped scaring the shit out of me years ago. Tucked away in prison where he belonged, he didn’t pose much of a threat anymore. And ultimately more Americans came to understand that people with long hair and different ideas might not be so bad after all.
But the idea of Manson remains a frightening thought. He offered a raw and rare long-term glimpse into what human beings are capable of — and that’s the ugliest sight of all.