I woke up to the news a couple of days ago that Charles Manson had died. My gut feeling was one of loss.
Yes thats not the acceptable thing to say when a serial killer dies. And not just any serial killer but the capo of serial killers. A serial killer so conniving that he even brainwashed and groomed others to do the majority of the killing for him. Nice try, Charlie.
He was the person who caused the loss of many innocent lives, even the lives of victims not born yet (Sharon Tate was seven months pregnant when she was slaughtered). He also figuratively ended the lives of the members of his Family who still languish in prison after committing the crimes after being plied with LSD and coerced into committing these atrocities. Just as he set up an alibi for himself for the murders whereby he could demonstrate he didn’t kill anyone, he also tried to conclusively incriminate the Family members who actually did kill on the two nights of massacres.
And yet whilst he was utterly vile in action and deed, I experienced a strange sense of loss because he was and is so very interesting. His actions and deeds are now ingrained in American history and he is seen as ‘The Man Who Killed The 60’s.’ Yes, murder is abhorrent but with such a moniker, as Quentin Crisp observed about the serial killer Gilles de Rais, ‘its hard not to be impressed’. History is balance and Manson seemed to be a one man Yang to the flowers, peace and love of late 60’s America’s Ying.
His image on the cover of Life magazine was possibly the first time that the general public were given a glimpse of the man who had caused all of the carnage they had read about. It didn’t disappoint and perfectly captured who he was, what he had done and what he symbolised in American society. He was The Boogeyman and his iconic picture was enough to induce countless nightmares just like Myra Hindley’s infamous mugshot had a few years earlier over the pond.
The reactions to Manson’s death in the media and social media only heightened my sense of loss regarding it. Lots of people were crawling out from under their rocks to type ‘R.I.P’ but taking the time to exclaim to everyone that this in fact meant ‘Rot In Pieces’. And then there were those (and there were many) who took great delight in saying what they’d like to have done to Manson. One sticks in my mind more than others- a Facebook user said that he’d like to ‘bring Manson back to life so that I can beat him to death again with my bare hands’. Nothing sinister or dark there whatsoever.
Within a film group that I’m a member of the news of his death was reported with the group’s admin asking ‘Who should play him in a film?’ Someone responded ‘NO ONE! Why would anyone want to see a film about that psycho nutjob? Why try to romanticise his life?’ In other words this person was wildly trying to virtue signal and say ‘Look everyone, I have higher morals than a serial killer! I’m going to demonstrate them now! When do I get my prize?’ Thankfully not everyone agrees with this dullard.
My initial pang of loss was due to the fact that Manson permeated and overlapped with so much popular culture that I have loved since my teens. Yes he was a serial killer, yes he was interesting in the societal and historical framework of America but also he was really good value for money!
There are numerous great documentaries on Manson and his followers but the one that had the biggest impact on me was one called Charles Manson: Then and Now which I bought on VHS in 1992. It can be found here. Note the presentation- an audio track that is so high that it’s distorted, references to Manson’s influence on exploitation/drive-in films and alternative music (note the picture of Genesis P Orridge from his/her Throbbing Gristle days), sinister horror film incidental music. This is the stuff of mondo culture and I lapped it up as a teen and continue to.
After devouring this documentary I also picked up a copy of the excellent book Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi who was the prosecutor at the Manson trial. Thorough, exhaustive and amazingly researched. Also worth investigating is the book The Family by Ed Sanders (lead singer of the Fugs).
On a lighter note, a book that I picked up much later was this- yes, Columbo takes on the Manson Family. I’m still waiting for the Dirty Harry-Son of Sam crossover novel but it hasn’t materialised yet.
Whilst there were many Manson inspired B- movies that were hurriedly made around the time of Manson’s trial (documented well in the above linked documentary), the best film is Helter Skelter which is more a biopic of Manson and his Family’s life. This was actually a TV movie back in the day and earned massive ratings as viewers couldn’t wait to watch the grisly events unfurl. And the Moral Minority still take the moral high ground and get all Mary Whitehouse about such productions even though they are massively popular.
Helter Skelter is available on DVD and well worth obtaining. It stars Steve Railsbeck who was in Turkey Shoot. If this doesn’t act as a high enough recommendation then I don’t know what will. He is Charles Manson.
Manson also cast a shadow over the work of John Waters which I started watching when I was 13. In the film Multiple Maniacs, Lady Divine holds Mr David in check by continually reminding about that night in the Hollywood Hills and the people they supposedly killed- a reference to the Tate-LaBianca murders that at that time hadn’t been solved or attributed to Manson yet. Waters would later attend the Manson trials.
Also in the film Pink Flamingos Divine walks past a wall that is spraypainted with the moniker ‘Love Tex Watson xx’ Waters’ next film Female Trouble is even dedicated to Charles Watson. The story regards a criminal and eventual murderer, Dawn Davenport who equates crime with beauty and fame. She is encouraged to be even more extreme in her actions whilst keeping them in line with her beliefs after being groomed and brainwashed by Donald and Donna Dasher. This brainwashing is very reminiscent of Manson- in Female Trouble liquid eyeliner takes the place of LSD as a mind-altering lubricant for this grooming and puppetry. Also within this film there are the scenes in which Davenport disrupts court proceedings just like Manson did by screaming the word ‘Liar!’ at certain points. She also makes statements as to her own magnitude and her sense of self-worth.
But Female Trouble’s most perceptive observations are regarding fame and crime. Theres really not much difference between Elizabeth Taylor being filmed and photographed by the press in an airport terminal and Charles Manson receiving the same treatment on his way to court. Yes, Manson was responsible for the murder of several people. Some people would say Elizabeth Taylor’s later celluloid forays were the artistic equivalent.
Waters later said that he regretted his flippancy regarding Manson and his Family in his films as he got to know Leslie Van Houten who hes now friends with and believes is now ready for parole. I’ve never seen Waters more serious in his interviews except when speaking of Van Houten who he says was just a pawn in Manon’s overall scheme- a disillusioned middle class girl who wanted to rebel and came into contact with Satan himself. Shes now free from the magnetic hold of Manson but serving life in prison for her involvement whilst briefly under the influence of a master manipulator. An account of Waters’ friendship with Leslie is a chapter in Waters’ book, Role Models (an amazing book. Highly recommended).
Another aspect of Manson and his legacy that I found intriguing was his position as a countercultural icon. Once Manson’s face and crimes were well known his image would appear on all manner of merchandise to be lapped up by the darker components of the counterculture and those who wanted to stick two fingers up at authority. You’re an angry teenager who wants to shock all those around you and give Mom and Dad a coronary? Buy a Charles Manson t-shirt. This action was akin to the first London punks wearing a swastika. They might not have been Nazis but they wanted to shock and outrage. The older generation who had used the ‘I fought the war for your kind!’ line would be apoplectic with rage at a fashion accessory like a swastika armband. Job done.
But there were also those in the counterculture who looked to Charlie as some kind of religious leader just like his Family members did. A major source of his twisted philosophy were his lyrics. Yes, Charlie was a singer, musician and lyricist. His songs are actually pretty good. But I’ve never subscribed to this ‘Charles Manson, philosopher’ schtick. Hes too much of a fucking nutjob for that.
So, Charles Manson has died. The end of the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970’s. Altamont, Nixon, Vietnam…Charlie’s place in this dark period of American historical events is assured.
Please don’t take the moral high ground by suggesting that reading and watching about Manson and his dark, warped place in American history is bad. Through examination and analysis maybe there are clues to the prevention of such a bloodsoaked chain of events ever occurring again. And if there aren’t signs as to this and you’re not a moralistic twat on Facebook then you’ll realise that its still just a really interesting topic, no matter how grisly.
It seems to me that its the people who try to suppress and prevent others from investigating the darker incidents from history that have more to hide and conceal themselves. After all, Fred West’s favourite movies were exclusively made by Disney as he didn’t approve of violence in films. And we all know how fucked up he was.