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Manson is dead. Why should we care?

Charles Manson died on November 19, 2017, at the age of 83.

Manson is often referred to as a serial killer, but this is technically incorrect, since it was never proven he physically participated in the murders committed by his followers. Even so, he was committed to life in prison after being convicted of nine first-degree murder charges.

If anything, he’s best described as a cult leader who brainwashed, drugged, and orchestrated his young followers to carry out some of the most brutal murders in U.S. history.

The 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate, Abigail Ann Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Steven Earl Parent, and Jay Sebring were rumoured to be a tragic case of mistaken identity, since the Tate home had once belonged to a record producer Manson had a grudge against. But if that were true, the equally horrific murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the next day made no sense at all, as the ill-fated couple had no connection to the cult leader.

Charles Manson is dead. Why should we care?

Actress Sharon Tate

Manson’s motive, if you can call it that, was what he called “Helter Skelter” after the Beatles song. He thought the murders would start a race war, in which Caucasians would believe blacks were responsible, and the resulting violence would lead to Caucasians being wiped out…until Manson’s “family” of cult members emerged to rule the blacks.

How on earth anyone fell for that nonsense will always be a mystery, but somehow–by his choice of young, aimless, vulnerable people as followers, and his use of drugs, sex, and his own charisma to control them–his followers swallowed this twisted fantasy whole. Manson’s terrifying influence led to several young people destroying not only their own lives, but the lives of many innocent people.

The murders continue to be talked about to this day, not only for their extraordinary cruelty and violence–Tate, who was eight and a half months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s child, was stabbed sixteen times–but for the fact that they brought an end to the innocence of the ’60s Flower Power era. Nothing was the same after Manson unleashed his craziness upon the earth.

But now, Manson is dead, and most of the surviving followers who participated in the murders are destined to die in prison as well. Susan Atkins died in prison of brain cancer in 2009, after her application for compassionate release was denied. Leslie Van Houten was recently granted parole, but this decision still has to be approved.

Charles Manson is dead. Why should we care?

Why should we care about Manson’s demise?

For one, the families of his victims will hopefully have some closure now, some measure of peace they could never achieve with Manson regularly popping up on TV, in books, and in articles and blogs. Manson was a talker, and it was hard for him to resist an opportunity to spread his insanity. Tate’s mom Doris was tormented by the prospect of her daughter’s killers ever seeing the light of day, and consistently campaigned against their parole until her own death in 1992.

One of the scariest things about Manson was that he still influenced people, even from behind bars. I remember reading an interview with him when I was a child that gave me nightmares. It could have been false bravado, but Manson threatened that his followers on the outside, both old and new, would eventually rise up and carry out his vision. The fact that Manson Family member Squeaky Fromme attempted to assassinate President Ford in 1975, a few years after Manson’s conviction, lent that claim some power. Who knows how many horrible people he influenced?

While I’m not about to dance on anyone’s grave, the fact that this evil megalomaniac is gone can’t be viewed as anything other than positive. But Manson’s story is also a profound cautionary tale. Born to a sixteen-year-old who Manson claimed was both a prostitute and an alcoholic, “Charlie” was used and abused and even sold in exchange for a pitcher of beer. He was first arrested at the age of thirteen. There were numerous opportunities for someone to intervene and put him on the right path, but no one did.

Most of his followers were extremely young when they committed the horrific murders–many in their teens and early twenties. Some, including Atkins and Van Houten, have expressed remorse, something Manson himself never did. What if someone had intervened in their lives before they met Manson, or before they fell so deeply under his spell they couldn’t find their way back?

Charles Manson is dead. Why should we care?

Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten

People like Manson prey on the vulnerable. While most cult leaders only endanger their own followers, in this case, Manson turned his outrage into a ridiculous fantasy of power and control, which ended up destroying countless lives.

The scariest part of the story may be how many like him are still out there, waiting.

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34 Comments

  1. we have to wonder how early parenting influenced these dark characters. There by the grace of G.d go you or I is something I remind myself of every now and then. Had I been regarded as a piece of rubbish from my early years or at any stage in my life, I too may have sought ‘revenge’ on the world …

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly. I doubt Manson ordered them to stab the victims sixteen or more times. There was a level of rage exhibited that had to come from somewhere. It was a perfect storm, and it could very well happen again if we don’t learn from our mistakes.

      I’ve seen interviews with Leslie Van Houten, and admit feeling a bit sorry for her. She was devastated by the crimes she committed in her youth–it was like she woke up from a trance with blood on her hands and wondered how she got there. She’s a very different person now, as most of us are different from who we were as teenagers. Her life was destroyed as well.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for this post. I asked myself ‘Who cares?’ when I read of his death yesterday and said ‘Good riddance’. For his followers, he was their messiah. And that kind of crazy leadership exists to this day in the world. That time the consequences happened on our soil and I remember it well.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, yes it does. That’s the scariest part of this story.

      Reply
  3. I hope the families of the victims find closure in his death.

    Young people are vulnerable, especially when they haven’t had a really positive upbringing. While it’s hard to imagine someone going to the extreme his followers did, there are millions of young people out there following negative people and sources.

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, Diane. The level of rage and overkill in these crimes tells me these young people had a ton of repressed anger. While I’m not blaming their parents for their crimes, their upbringing definitely helped mold them into the perfect follower for Manson. It’s worth looking into if we want to have a hope of preventing a similar situation.

      Reply
  4. Read the book Helter Skelter, then saw the movie…the original, with Steve Railsback as Manson. His portrayal was truly scary. One of the better movie adaptations of a book. It’s true that Manson himself was not a serial killer but a cult leader…try explaining that to people and you’ll just confuse some of them. Manson was scary because of the control he had over those young lost souls. He perverted them, he abused them until they knew nothing else but him and his sickness. He never faltered in his deranged ramblings, even into death. You’re right…there are more out there.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome, Sheila. I agree. The book and movie are both very well done. Helter Skelter is one of my all-time favourite true crime books, and I’ve read thousands of them.

      I find Manson’s influence was scarier than if he’d committed the murders himself. Any time someone can corrupt “ordinary” people and lead them to commit acts of ultimate evil, it’s terrifying.

      Reply
  5. A truly chilling cult leader. His actions and control over people are terrifying. Those events put fear in many parents’ hearts, especially as they sent their young people off to college, or into the world.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, it definitely showed there was a dark side to the so-called “Summer of Love.”

      Reply
  6. I’d seen several people on social media seemingly “mourning” his death and I just… I don’t understand the idolization of serial killers and cult leaders. I understand the fascination, absolutely. But to admire someone that ruins lives in that way, I will never understand. I often avoid commenting on things on Facebook anymore just because someone always wants to argue and start a debate, but when people were defending him by saying he didn’t actually kill anyone himself, all I could think of was Hitler. Did Hitler actually do any killing himself? Did he have any blood on his hands ever? Or did he just convince practically an entire nation to murder in the name of his vision? That’s almost, in some way, worse. The type of person that is so power hungry and yet such a coward that they won’t act themselves but use others as pawns to carry out their thoughts… very scary stuff.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s pretty chilling, Nikki. I haven’t seen anyone mourning his death or celebrating/defending him, but I can’t say I’m surprised. There are still people who think Hitler was a great guy too.

      I once met a writer at a HorrorCon who’d had a long correspondence with Manson. Since I’d bought the other authors’ books to show support, I also picked up his, thinking I’d find it interesting. But the way Manson obviously manipulated this man–who was a mental health nurse and therefore should have known better–was so disturbing I couldn’t finish it. There was an element of hero worship to the story that made me feel ill. Manson’s ramblings came across as just that–the deranged ramblings of an insane man–but the author acted like he was some insightful guru.

      I honestly don’t know why anyone gave that guy the time of day.

      Reply
  7. The Manson murders dominated the news and with each story, the horror increased. I’m never one to say I’m glad someone’s dead, but in this case, I am. Let’s put this deranged human out of our lives and into the past.

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, Lee. I’m sure by the end of the year, the furor will have died down again.

      Reply
  8. Would I be horrible for admitting I thought Manson had already been dead for a while?

    Reply
    • JH

      Not at all.

      Reply
  9. I have much of the same thoughts as everyone else here. I am glad that this evil is gone, and that he can’t sway other fragile minds in this already broken world. The murders were horrible, to say the least. Sadly, his name and what he did and made others do will continue to be known and a part of history.

    Reply
    • JH

      Well, you know what they say…those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

      Reply
  10. While I had heard of Charles Manson – who hasn’t – I was not too familiar with all the circumstances. Thank you for this post and clarifying a few things. Good thing he is dead, and I do hope the family of his victims can find some closure. I have no doubt that there are quite a few people like him roaming about this globe and I sure hope they will not reach as much power and influence as “Charlie”. But, it is a crazy world and who knows what can and will happen? Now, does Lelie Van Houten deserve a second chance? This question reminds me of one of your previous posts about the child murderers…

    Reply
    • JH

      To me, going by what I’ve seen of Leslie and how young and drug-addled she was when the crimes took place, I’d say yes without hesitation. But I’m not related to the people she helped kill. I suspect they feel differently.

      If you have some reading time, I highly recommend “Helter Skelter.” It’s the best book ever written about the Manson family murders, IMO.

      Reply
  11. It’s so horrifying to think how people can be influenced by a monster like Manson and in turn do such monstrous things. And as you say, who knows how many other monsters like Manson are out there.

    Reply
    • JH

      It is. If it weren’t for him, I suspect Leslie Van Houten and Susan Atkins would have grown up to be regular housewives and mothers. We never would have heard of them.

      Reply
  12. When I heard this evil S.O.B. Finally died, I felt relief even though I don’t know anyone from this horrible cult or the victim’s families. This is why I feel that Capital Punishment should be around and should be swift but, of course, only when the cops literally find the bodies. Anyhoo, I think, when they cremate this monster, they should dump his ashes down a toilet. He had the ability to control people which is frightening. Thankfully, he never got into power like Stalin and Hitler did

    Reply
    • JH

      One thing about Manson…he wasn’t the best at covering his crimes. Thankfully he was caught before more people died.

      Reply
  13. See, the part that bugs me is that his death now should just be a minor footnote. Everyone should be saying “I didn’t know he was still alive” because he shouldn’t have been in the news for the last 40 years. The cult of personality and celebrity that has grown up around him is a disgusting and terrible sign of how humans are fascinated by and obsessed with death and suffering. He gave interviews throughout the 80s, still had regular visitors and even nearly got married a couple of years ago, all of which kept him in the news. He should have been thrown in a hole and forgotten about, least not to increase his mystique and celebrity reputation.

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, CD, although I believe one of the things that kept interest in Manson alive is our desire to understand. How does a man–which most of us would immediately peg as insane–inspire such horrible crimes? It was chilling to see these sweet, clean-cut young girls with the Xs carved into their foreheads, singing as they walked to trial. There will always be ghouls, of course, but my own interest was about what made Manson tick, what made him so successful.

      But I agree he never should have had a forum the way he did. And for that reason, I’m very glad he’s gone.

      Reply
  14. I was thinking something similar to what Ellen said above.

    Have you seen/heard about the show Mindhunter on Netflix? Intriguing stuff. The episodes are really slow but the concept is solid.

    Reply
    • JH

      I haven’t seen Mindhunter yet, but I’ve read the book it’s based on. John Douglas, who wrote the book and helped found the FBI’s Behaviour Services Unit, which profiled serial killers, is a writer friend.

      I actually recently asked him to help me with a Marilyn Monroe post, but he’s too busy. As long as there’s a new book on the horizon from him–sounds like there is–I’m happy. He’s one of my all-time favourite writers.

      Reply
  15. I don’t read a lot of true crime, but I read Helter Skelter when I was a teenager. I remember thinking throughout that I didn’t understand why these young people followed him. But, looking at it as an adult, I think you’re right–that it was about who they were, their own histories, and Manson’s ability to spot people he could manipulate for his own ends.

    Reply
  16. Cult leaders are scary because of how they twist other people into doing whatever they want. To those of us not under the spell it seems weird.

    Reply
  17. I think the key there is that had he been reared in a loving, stable environment, he probably would have turned his charismatic influence to business or something productive. There are too may who are traumatized at an early age and are unable to find the stability they need. Those formative years definitely play havoc on the soul.

    Reply
  18. Many of the awful figures in history have moments when their lives could have been altered, and another path offered, if only someone had intervened or cared. It makes me wonder how many other tragedies, atrocities have been avoided because someone did step in and make a difference.

    Reply
  19. I find it remarkable how individuals who go through and experience very similar upbringings and tragedies can turn out so different. If and how much early intervention in Manson’s life would have changed who he became, we will never know.

    For those he brought under his sway, it is sad and a perverse truth that in looking for their freedom and their “selves”, they gave themselves over and became completely enslaved.

    You are always welcome in Caneyhead!

    Reply
    • JH

      That is a sad irony, isn’t it?

      Thanks for your comment, Barbara.

      Reply

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