Why Are We Still So Obsessed With Charles Manson & His Victims?

All summer long, Refinery29 will be examining cults from every angle: pop culture, fashion, food, beauty, and their controversial origins. Let’s dig into the fascination behind this fervor with "Cult Fridays."
Dianne Lake met Charles Manson 1967, and at just 14 years old, she became the youngest member of his “Family.” And though she herself did not participate in the infamous 1969 murders of seven people in Southern California, she remained with the group until Manson was arrested. In 1970, she testified against him.
Lake kept her true identity secret from her friends and family until 2017, when she published a tell-all memoir called Member Of The Family. In an interview with Refinery29, she explained that most people have misconceptions when it comes to the early days of the Family.
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"People think that he started out the way he ended, that he had all of this in his mind to start, and was evil from the get go,” she said. “I don't. I think he evolved into that.” A landmark 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Manson in prison, written by David Felton and David Dalton, reads today as a strange mix of fascination, awe, and terror.
The vicious killings of movie star Sharon Tate, celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, her lover, Wojciech Frykowski, and teenager Steven Parent, followed quickly by the double murder of grocery store chain owners Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, had struck terror in the hearts of ordinary people across the country. But many others still viewed the man at the head of the infamous “Family” as the ultimate manifestation of the “outlaw” embraced by 1960s counterculture. The Los Angeles Free Press, an underground paper, even ran a weekly column written by Manson from jail. A rival publication declared him “Man of The Year.”
Nearly five decades after the brutal killing spree carried out by his followers, and a year and a half after his own death at age 83 in November 2017 from cardiac arrest resulting from respiratory failure and colon cancer, the Manson myth continues to loom large. But why? What is it about him that continues to inspire fear and fascination? Why do we care?
From the moment they first learned his name, Americans have been utterly fascinated with Charles Manson. Over the years, he has inspired television shows, songs, movies, and countless podcasts. Musicians like Guns ‘N’ Roses and Marilyn Manson, whose stage name is based off the cult leader’s, have recorded some of Manson’s own compositions. Panoply Media’s podcast You Must Remember This, hosted by Karina Longworth, now has its own cult following, but it really hit its stride in 2012, when she devoted 12 episodes to exploring Manson’s Hollywood ties.
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According to Irving Reiner, Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, there’s a pattern as to which figures pop culture tends to gravitate towards over and over again.
“Jack The Ripper comes to mind as someone who’s been in film a lot and played by various people. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has intrigued people over the years because it’s a good story — about the person who somehow transforms into a monster. In the case of Manson, what draws people to him is the drug culture. It was a period of mysticism and spiritual belief that was unconventional.”
The fact that the murders are themselves so tied to the popular culture of the time, symbolized by the lyrics from The Beatles’ White Album scrawled on in blood on the walls of the victims’ homes, only strengthens the association.
More than a dozen actors have played him on TV and in movies, most recently Evan Peters in FX’s American Horror Story: Cult, and Matt Smith in Charlie Says, which just premiered at the Venice Film Festival to mixed reviews. In 2015, NBC premiered the short-lived Aquarius, starring David Duchovny as a Los Angeles detective obsessed with a young Charles Manson in the early days of the Family. The show’s second, and final season, explored the events leading up to and after the Tate murders.
And then there are the more subtle allusions that dot popular culture. When Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) appeared in Mad Men’s sixth season (set in the late ‘60s) wearing a Sharon Tate-inspired T-shirt, a slew of conspiracy theories about her impending death at the hands of Charles Manson flooded the internet. That didn’t happen, but the fact that the audience was able to make that kind of instant connection points to the extent to which Manson’s crimes have entered the cultural imagination.
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Just last week, it was announced that Damon Harriman would be playing Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, and Dakota Fanning, among countless others. The movie tells the story of former Western actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt), trying to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. Little do they know that Sharon Tate, their neighbor, is about to get brutally murdered. Later this year, Ben Mellish will take on the part in The Haunting of Sharon Tate, with Hilary Duff as Sharon Tate.
It’s worth noting that the vast majority of depictions of Tate’s murder on screen have been released against the express wishes of her family, notably her sister Debra.
Debra Tate only recently gave her endorsement to Tarantino’s film after speaking out against it multiple times. She’s now co-producing a Sharon Tate biopic called Tate, directed by Michael Polish and starring Kate Bosworth as Sharon, which will focus on the actress’ life, rather than her violent death.
“It is my honor to play Sharon Tate in our next film TATE,” Bosworth wrote in an Instagram caption announcing the film. “This movie will only celebrate her life. We will not violate her or exploit her death. For too long this beautiful woman made of light has had to endure tragedy. It is time to take away the microphone from the maniac. It's her time.”
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Still, the fact is that the name Sharon Tate is intrinsically linked to the cult that ended her life, and its leader.
For Simon Andreae, executive producer of The Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes, a new documentary that will air on Fox on September 17, part of what makes Manson so interesting is that he embodies excess and taboo.
“[Manson] overstepped the mark into extremity in so many different realms of behavior,” Andreae told Refinery29. “He was extremely dominant in the way that, for example, Adolf Hitler was, who also holds a grip on the public imagination. He was extremely sexual in a way that people find fascinating beyond the bounds of what most of us experience. He would have sex with men, with women, with minors and so on, in groups and individual combos, and he was exceptionally cruel. He found a way to perform one of the most violent profound acts of desecration against American culture. He went to the very heart of America's sacred space, Hollywood, and he had his Family murder a young actress. And he didn't just kill her, he slaughtered her.”
Part of what fuels the Manson enigma is the question of how one man managed to brainwash so many young people into doing his violent bidding. (Although only a handful of them would actually go on to kill for their leader; the Family counted approximately 100 members at its apex.)
Manson had been in and out of jail almost half of his life, and when he was released for the last time in March of 1967, he headed to Berkeley. In San Francisco, at the height of the Summer of Love, he started preaching on street corners, attracting young, disaffected teenagers, many of whom had run away from home in pursuit of the promise of freedom through counterculture. Instead, they found Manson.
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Initially, the Family was similar in nature to the countless other communes espousing free love and liberal drug use that were springing up across the country in the late 1960s. That changed when Manson started preaching to his followers that he was, in essence, the second coming of Jesus Christ, and that it was their destiny to help him fulfill his dream of becoming a rockstar, so that his music could spread the good word to the world.
The burgeoning cult-leader fed his followers a hodge-podge of ideologies that he picked from, buffet style, in order to create his own brand of philosophy. He pulled from everything from Scientology to Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People, and was an expert manipulator. He was also extremely racist, and convinced the Family that a race war, which he called “Helter Skelter,” after the Beatles’ song, was inevitable. If they followed his lead, he told them, he would teach them how to survive. (During his trial, he carved an ‘X’ on his forehead, later changed to a swastika and permanently tattooed.)

One formula for enduring fame seems to be beautiful women who die from violence while they are still young...It would be hard for anyone to compete with [Sharon Tate’s] beauty and her backstory.

Nikki Meredith
Family member Dianne Lake recalled feeling an almost supernatural connection to Manson upon their first encounter. Unbeknownst to her, before the teenager even met Manson, her own parents, members of another commune, had asked him to look out for her. “My mother had given him a picture because they were going to be going to San Francisco, and that was the last place she knew I was,” Lake explained. “So, when I walked in the door he already knew me. And I knew nothing about that, so I was totally entranced with the fact that they loved and adored me and had been looking for me. They pulled me in mostly because I found a place that I felt like I was wanted and belonged.”
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“He was very charismatic,” Andreae, who convinced Lake to appear in his documentary, said. “You get a sense from the people who speak in our film that he had an aura and a magnetism about him. Even though he was a small man in stature — he was only five foot two, he had a huge personality.”
According to Lake, one of the ways Manson exercised control over his followers was to have them engage in group sex, as he watched, and gave them directions.
“Part of Charlie's philosophy was to let your inhibitions go,” she said. “The culture at that time was free love. It wasn't a taboo to have sex before marriage in this new society, And so he intentionally helped us break down those inhibitions, and we did have, for the lack of a better term, an orgy. It was kind of like a team bonding experience. And Charlie was the conductor.”
Though she still refers to him as “Charlie,” a sort of vestige of the hold he once had over her, Lake said she felt “a tremendous amount of relief “ when she heard of his death. But even in death, Lake deals with constant reminders of Manson. His ubiquity in pop culture has caused some awkward moments for her. When she signed up for online dating after her husband’s death, her first date was with a man who had just been to look at an apartment. “He said, ‘It was just trashed. It was like Charlie Manson had been there,’” she recalled. “It just comes out of the blue.”
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There’s also something to be said about the rising popularity of true crime: podcasts like Serial and Dirty John, docu-series like Making a Murderer and The Staircase, fictional re-imaginings like Mindhunter, and American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, and books like Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, credited with helping to apprehend the Golden State Killer. We’ve become obsessed with some of humanity's’ most grisly and gruesome acts, and Manson provides that and more. In fact, Helter Skelter, the 1974 account of the investigation that led to Manson’s eventual trial and conviction written by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, has sold over 7 million copies, making it the best-selling true crime book of all time.
The Hollywood setting for Manson and his crimes provides that extra touch of glamour that just adds to the myth. Manson himself was loosely associated with a number of celebrities, including Beach Boys’ drummer Dennis Wilson and Easy Rider director Dennis Hopper. Sharon Tate was murdered in the house she was renting from Doris Day’s son, Terry Melcher, a big-time music producer from whom Manson was trying to get a record deal; Melcher’s girlfriend was budding movie and TV star Candice Bergen. And at the time of the Tate-LaBianca murders, the Family was living out on Spahn Ranch, a former movie set used in low-budget westerns.
But for the plethora of pop culture portrayals of the Manson crimes, what’s most striking is which elements the public chooses to remember. Manson, of course, is usually front and center.
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Journalist Nikki Meredith, author of The Manson Women and Me: Monsters, Morality and Murder spent years interviewing convicted murderers and former Family members Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel in prison. She believes that part of the reason Manson still casts such a large shadow is that he’s a “more succinct symbol of evil.”
But that’s also why she wasn’t drawn to him as a figure of study. “For me, it wasn’t Charles Manson, an old-fashioned psychopath with a New Age angel, who I found compelling,” Meredith wrote in an email to Refinery29. “Because he looked deranged, he was somehow easier for me to dismiss. It was the women. Their seeming normality coupled with the barbarity of the crimes, their insult-to-injury behavior during the trial, their mocking disdain for the grief of the victims’ families— 10 families in all— that mystified me.”
Both of the Manson-focused films mentioned above focus almost exclusively on the events leading up and adjacent to the Tate murders. As a middle-aged couple living in Los Feliz, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca don’t appear to have the same cachet.
“One formula for enduring fame seems to be beautiful women who die from violence while they are still young,” Meredith wrote. “With it comes symbols, it would be hard for anyone to compete with [Sharon Tate’s] beauty and her backstory…She was pregnant with a respected filmmaker who she loved [Roman Polanski]. The cruelty of this (along with Susan Atkins bragging to the grand jury that she tasted Sharon Tate’s blood) is one of the enduring scenarios that’s is so heartbreaking.”
Because of the vicious nature of their crimes, Manson, and followers Atkins, Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Tex Watson, were initially given a death sentence upon conviction. That was commuted to life in prison when the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s death penalty statutes 1972. Far from putting an end to the Manson mania, his continued existence in prison seemed to fuel it. He continued to give interviews up until his death. Women wrote to him for years — one of them, Afton “Star” Burton, who started writing to Manson when she was 16, was even briefly engaged to him in 2014, when she was 25 and he was 80. Manson reportedly broke off the engagement before his death, believing that Burton wanted to exploit his corpse for personal financial gain.
The egotistical presumption that people would pay money to visit his grave after his death appears consistent with Manson’s outsized sense of self. But he wasn’t wrong. We’ve proved over and over again that we’re hungry for any kind of detail, no matter how salacious or gruesome, about Manson, the Family, and the crimes they committed. And in the process, we’ve lost sight of the grim reality. The title of Tarantino’s film alludes to the introduction that prefaces every fairy tale. It speaks of myth. But at the heart of that story lie the bodies of eight real people, murdered in unfathomably horrifying ways — and we keep coming back for more.
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