Few characters have gripped the eye of the American public as successfully as Charles Manson, and even fewer have ever been as effective as Manson in creating a cult following of eager disciples. As one of the single most well-known examples of doomsday-orientated apocalyptic underground groups, Manson and his “Family” is the crowning achievement of a conservative America, rife with religious passion, that merged with the heavy use of addictive drugs such as cocaine and LSD in order to synthesize a cult based on a skewed worldview. I argue that Manson, labeled as a social deviant from a young age, embraced this formal classification and successfully created a message that appealed to dysfunctional and otherwise outcast American youth.
Manson and his Family originated in the turbulence of the 1960s, in which violence based on racial lines struck many American cities. Primarily focusing on the conflict between whites and blacks, the outbreak of racial violence in the latter part of the decade convinced Manson that an apocalyptic war between the two races was inevitable. Moreover, Manson believed that the war would end with the whites being defeated temporarily, though he and his Family would arise from their secure base of operations out of Spahn Movie Ranch to reclaim the land from the inferior blacks. Leading twenty followers to the Ranch, most of whom were female, Manson was a charismatic and appealing figure to the drug-driven and racist whites that dominated his cult of personality. Manson himself had “spent most of his 32 years in reformatories and jails by the spring of 1967, when he washed up in San Francisco and began styling himself as a hippie guru, plunking on a guitar and spouting bits of Scientology” acquired from his time in prison (Gillis 31). Born out a lifetime of petty crimes, Manson's newfound racial obsession and pursuit of apocalyptic themes in his orations are responsible for his popularity amongst the drug and hippie culture of the 1960s.
As a figurehead and cult leader, Charles Manson stands alone as a murderer that did not actively partake in the killings he ordered although is still considered a serial killer, Highly intelligent, he appealed directly to “those on the fringes”, never killing people himself but merely ordering others to do it for him while he “pull[ed] the strings” (Atchison and Heide 773). Thus, Manson is a man who, as his later defense trial would show, fully cognizant and aware of the need to maintain a level of separation from the illegality of his follower's actions and the extent to which he himself was responsible for ordering the crimes be done. Concerned with “having and maintaining power”, Manson “saw the murders as a way to maintain control over his followers [and] that Manson's interest in power extended far beyond the Family” (Bugliosi and Gentry). The inevitability of the coming race war meant that Manson held a unique role in the world, a calling that demanded him to be able to preserve and secure the white race after its annihilation at the hands of the violent blacks. The Family itself “followed Manson like a cult would a leader”, taking his “statements as gospel and […] his orders without hesitation” (Atchison and Heide 778). Manson, therefore, exhibited strong charismatic appeal to his fringe followers, who were supremely convinced of the truth of his mission. By utilizing his natural passionate personality and embracing radical rhetoric, the cult leader did exactly what was needed to attract particular members of society to his cause.
By the time the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. occurred in the spring of 1968, Manson had become convinced the coming war race war was nearly at and that, following the end of a white civil war between racist and non-racist whites, blacks would come to dominate the world. Despite their assurance the war was coming, the cult's obsessive doomsday scenario failed to materialize and Manson “decided history required a nudge” (Gillis 32). This nudge took the shape of a massacre against eight Californian residents, in which the blood of one of the victims was used to write “PIG” on the wall, as well as “Healter Skelter” [sic]” “smeared in blood on his refrigerator door;” (Gillis 33). Helter Skelter, the name of the apocalyptic philosophy espoused by the Manson Family and named after the famous Beatle's song, appeared to predict a coming race war in the eyes of the cult and thus was used as a thematic approach to the matter of the end of the world. The murder of “a rising film star and several upper-class California residents” would help to provoke racial violence, or so the Family thought (Atchison and Heide 772). Unfortunately for the Family, the murders did nothing but result in the lengthy and very public trial of Charles Manson and his associates at the end of the decade.
The murders themselves took place over three nights with a total of eight fatalities. The first murder occurred in July of 1969, with the stabbing of Gary Hinman. Killed for his money, the Hinman murder marked the first of a string of attacks that would result in the imprisonment of Manson and most of his family. Though the “motivation for this murder was thought to be robbery”, Manson nonetheless ordered the victim's blood to be used to write the phrase “Political Piggy” on the wall (Bugliosi and Gentry). The second set of murders occurred months later on August 9th, 1969. The arrest of Bobby Beausoleil on charges of the Hinman murder forced Manson's hand, as he believed the race war had now arrived and the time to begin the conflict had begun. He ordered “Family members [to enter] the home and gruesomely murder the four occupants. Sharon Tate and her unborn child, Wojciech Frykowski, Jay Sebring, and Abigail Folger” all died of brutal stab wounds (C. Watson and Hoekstra). These murders, accompanied by further writing on the wall in blood with the word “Pig”, were efforts by Manson to spark a race war, though they proved to be unsuccessful. The next night saw Manson, the four murderers from the Tate house, and extra Family reinforcements invade the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The killers, all of whom participated except Manson who left after helping to tie the victims down, “ran a bayonet into LaBianca 12 times, and carved the word "WAR" into his chest. Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Watson stabbed Rosemary 41 times” (Gillis 33). Again, the word “PIG” was written in blood on the wall, and LaBianca's corpse was left with a fork sticking out of the dead man's stomach. Lastly, the Manson catchphrase of “Helter Skelter” (admittedly spelled wrong) had been written in blood in the kitchen. Arrested in October of 1969, Manson and several Family members were found guilty of “varying counts of murder after a 7-month trial” (Atchison and Heide 780). Initially convicted under the death penalty, the sentences were instead forced to be mitigated to life in prison, given the ruling of the Supreme Court against the constitutionality of the death penalty in 1972.
To understand how Charles Manson influenced the horrific crimes committed under his direction, it becomes necessary to show the ways in which his message appealed to the minds of “middle-class youths from reportedly good families” (Atchison and Heide 792). Watson, Fromme, and Van Houten, the three killers present in the LaBianca and Tate murders, were all individuals that exhibited particular strains of social deviancy that Manson was able to prey upon. Van Houten, for example, experienced heavy drug use and had an abortion at a young age, Fromme became heavily involved in marijuana use and fringe political movements, and Watson committed burglary often at a young age. Watson, in particular, became “immersed into criminal activity and surrounded by people with favorable attitudes toward deviance” (Atchison and Heide 791). Desperate for a value system that made sense to his own worldview and his experiences, Watson would be easily seduced by Manson into the latter's Family, merging their two philosophies of life into a single entity where only Manson's orders mattered. Van Houten's poor relationship with her parents and her social shunning as a result of her abortion led her to find a warm and inviting community in Manson's Family, allowing her to “become one with the Family and to let her former identity go” (Atchison and Heide 792). This ability to recreate one's own image and identity along with views that Van Houten deemed correct created a hold on her that Manson could utilize to accomplish even horrific crimes. Fromme, likewise, experienced strain and tension with her family, exacerbated by her drug use and association with radical political movements. Similar to Van Houten, Manson's warm and opening arms provided an outlet through which Fromme found acceptance and a strong, positive relationship.
Manson himself, however, was a product of more than mere family issues and a charismatic cult leader. Instead, one compelling explanation for Manson's actions lays in labeling theory, which posits that “lawbreakers feel labeled as a result of being processed in the criminal justice system for committing a primary deviance” (Atchison and Heide 780). Instead of rehabilitation, these people embrace and embody the label of deviant and commit further actions to cement themselves as different and “become locked into their deviant roles”. Emmons in his 1986 account of Manson's life reports how the young Charlie, due to his financially insecure family situation, received no presents during the Christmas holiday. In a fit of anger, Manson burned all of his classmate's toys and from then on would find himself declared a deviant from society and labeled as a criminal (Atchison and Heide 780). Years later, Manson would be formally declared a “ringleader” of an escape attempt from a home for displaced youth and had his picture published in the local newspaper, again reflecting the importance of formal labeling on causing criminal behavior. Both of these instances occurred before Manson was an adult, thereby creating a strong self-fulfilling prophecy of deviant social behavior from a young age. At the same time, Manson was constantly exposed to and surrounded by criminals. Spending most of his life being processed by the criminal justice system, Manson never had the opportunity to experience what mainstream society would deem a normal life. Instead, his support system of confidants and friends were all fellow criminals and social deviants, and he lived a life in which both current and former inmates would regale him with tales of criminal debauchery and opulence. At no point in his life did Manson ever experience positive reinforcement or a beneficial interaction from authority; indeed, prison guards taunted him over his rape by fellow inmates as a young boy. Indeed, Manson's self-proclaimed heroes were “the guys who got away with the biggest bank heist […] the mobsters who defied the system that was keeping me locked up” (Emmons 48). Thus, both the formal labeling of Manson as a social deviant from a young age and the repeated exposure to the criminal mindset created a man who sought self-actualization in the illegal pursuit of wealth and power and who saw himself as a creature where criminality was his calling. Much like Ted Bundy, he was intelligent yet lethal.
Charles Manson is a unique character in American history. As a cult leader, criminal, and murderer, he nonetheless created a system of values that attracted a substantial number of very dedicated followers that would not hesitate to do his bidding. Founder of the Family, an apocalyptic racist organization centered around the coming “Helter Skelter”, or doomsday race war, Manson mixed criminality with excessive drug use and radical rhetoric to attract and seduce many young dysfunctional American youths with his ideals. Charismatic and a powerful figure, Manson influenced his followers to commit horrific crimes under the guise of his extremist philosophy. Labeled as a social deviant from a young age, Manson created his own self-fulfilling prophecy by ensuring he remained in the criminal sphere until his eventual incarceration.
Atchinson, Andrew J and Heide, Kathleen M. “Charles Manson and the Family: The Application of Sociological Theories to Multple Murder”. 55 (2011). 771-798).
Bugliosi, V. and Gentry, C. “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders”. New York, NY: Norton 1974.
Emmons, N. “Manson in his own words: As told to Nuel Emmons”. New York, NY: Grove Press
Gillis, Charlie. "The Devil Inside." Maclean's 125.16 (2012): 30-33. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 June 2013.