The terrible charisma of Charles Manson

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News

  • Published
Charles MansonImage source, Reuters

Charles Manson has died, aged 83. But what is it about the murderous cult leader, who committed his crimes almost 50 years ago, that continues to fascinate?

The brown eyes. The beard. The swastika tattooed between his eyes. It was impossible not to look at Charles Manson, however much you wanted to turn away.

During his years in prison, photographs of Manson were issued only periodically, so he seemed to age in chunks, unable to appear before the public but always remaining at the back of its consciousness.

More than 30 books about his life and crimes have been published. One, by the prosecuting attorney at his trial, Vincent Bugliosi, has sold more than seven million copies.

Netflix has made a comedy film - Manson Family Vacation - showing how his macabre crimes affect a modern middle-class American family, and two documentaries on his life and crimes have come out this year alone.

In life, everything Manson did was news, the most recent example being the media frenzy in 2014 when it was announced he had been granted a licence to marry 26-year-old Afton Elaine Burton.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Actress Sharon Tate, the most high-profile victim of the "Manson Family"

From behind bars, Manson courted publicity, setting himself up as a counter-cultural icon. He once told the American public: "My father is your system... I am only what you made me. I am only a reflection of you."

It's 48 years since Manson sent a group of his indoctrinated followers - known as the Family - to the home of heavily pregnant Hollywood actress Sharon Tate to "totally destroy everyone in it". They stabbed Tate and four others to death.

False clues were left to dress the scene as an attack by the Black Panthers, a militant African-American group which used violence in its battle against white racism.

Manson's hope was that these murders, and the killing of two shop owners the next night, would start an apocalyptic race war, after which he would emerge as America's ruler.

Manson was found guilty of conspiracy to murder in 1971 and given a life sentence.

Yet something in his life story resonated. Born in Ohio, he had an impoverished and troubled childhood, moving between reform schools. When he was five his mother and uncle went to prison for holding up a service station. By the age of 13, Manson was robbing casinos and shops at gunpoint.

He had "a tendency towards moodiness and a persecution complex", according to a psychologist who described him as "aggressively anti-social", partly due to "an unfavourable family life, if it can be called family life at all".

When he couldn't afford bills or support his pregnant wife, he became a thief. After six years in prison, he was released in 1967, the year of the so-called "summer of love".

Manson developed a fixation with the Beatles song Helter Skelter. Ostensibly about the difficulties of a love life told through a metaphor of a fairground ride, he instead thought it predicted a race war after which he and his followers, taking refuge in an underground city in California's Death Valley, would be the only white survivors.

Black people, he thought, would be unable to organise themselves and then beg him to be their leader.

Helter Skelter

  • A track from The Beatles' 1968 White Album - one of several songs that Manson told his followers prophesied an apocalyptic race war; the words were scrawled in blood on the refrigerator at the home of two of the murder victims
  • The association between Manson and the song persisted after his conviction - it provided the title of a 1974 memoir by the prosecutor in Manson's trial, Vincent Bugliosi
  • U2 covered the song on the live album Rattle and Hum. Singer Bono introduces it with the words: "This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We're stealing it back"

Manson set up a commune at the Spahn ranch in the Californian desert, surrounded by disused sets from 1950s Westerns.

He recruited followers, mainly middle-class and female, with whom he took LSD and participated in orgies.

"He managed to exploit the hippy subculture brilliantly," Daniel Kane, professor of American literature and culture at Sussex University, says. "Hippies, after all, proposed themselves as disaffiliated from the political and social mainstream, committed to creating their own independent utopias marked by sex, drugs and rock and roll.

"Manson took on all those signs - LSD, music, free love, communal lifestyles - and reframed them as tools for apocalyptic mass murder. Totally bizarre, totally evil, and very, very seductive."

With his long brown hair and beard, Manson's followers likened his appearance to that of Jesus.

Image source, California Department of Corrections
Image caption,
The appearance of Charles Manson, shown here in 1969, was likened by his followers to that of Jesus

"There are thousands of evil, polished conmen out there, and we've had more brutal murders than the Manson murders," Mr Bugliosi, the prosecuting attorney at Manson's trial, told Rolling Stone magazine in 2012, "so why are we still talking about Charles Manson?

"He had a quality about him that one thousandth of 1% of people have. An aura. 'Vibes,' the kids called it in the '60s. Wherever he went, kids gravitated toward him."

Psychopaths are "incredibly charming and persuasive", David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, told the BBC in 2014, when Manson's intention to marry was announced. "To get you under control, to court you, they appear to give their complete and utter attention."

The Manson case involved drugs, orgies and cults, three concerns shared by parents of children growing up in the "free love" atmosphere of the late 1960s. It also came at a time divisions in the US over civil rights, race and the Vietnam War.

"He is iconic because he was the person who brought the swinging sixties to an end," Prof Wilson says. "His strange and bizarre thinking appeared perfectly in tune with the damaged side of drug culture. It wasn't flower power any more. Youth culture was far darker and more disturbing than people had previously thought."

In death, Manson is leading TV and radio bulletins and news websites.

"There's another feeding frenzy around him since he passed on," says Prof Kane. "The aura around Charles Manson is continuing and it shows no sign of dying off."

Additional reporting by Luke Jones