Murder and Madness: How Charles Manson controlled and coerced his deadly cult

It was a hot night in the California desert; a series of shapes wove and wavered around the fire while the small light on the end of a suspicious-looking cigarette winked its way from hand to hand inside the stoned circle. Noise was a low, hot babble of chilled secrets and groovy gossip, the twitching fire (with periodic sparks of laughter) and the occasional rattle of someone who had had a few too many smokes and needed a good-natured thwack on the back from a nearby bro. At the far end was a figure leaning into a group conversation, but angled slightly away from them so as to be able to see anyone approaching. In the slow glow of the light, “his face was like a sun, shining in its strength”.

His name, as has been written, is Manson and he is a prodigy, a child of our time. Others knew him simply as Charlie, the leader of the Family around the flame, “the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude”. Charlie, as described by former Family member Catherine ‘Gypsy’ Share, spoke to that multitude. She says he “became whatever you needed him to be.” He would “be very caring, would work on your inadequacies, your needs, help you take away your fears”. She said:

“Charlie talked to whoever he was talking to in a way that they would believe him. If he was talking to hippies he’d talk one way, if he was talking to motorcycle guys, he’d talk another way. He could just reflect whatever he draws out…whatever he knows they agree with.”

Catherine ‘Gypsy’ Share although not involved in the Tate/ LaBianca murders  was implicated in lesser plots inspired by Manson such as armed robbery


Something Witchy This Way Comes: Manson finds his followers

The 1960s were the start of The Age of Aquarius, a decade of change led by Catherine Share and this new generation. People tried to put them down through a succession of wars, such as Vietnam, whose repercussion reverberated across America, but she and others like her had decided to “give peace a chance” and headed to the epicentre of the hippy subculture. It was the era of the Summer of Love and times they were a-changin’. Dr Martin Luther King’s dreams had spoken to the multitude and behold! The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave a people a place at the table regardless of colour, creed, sex or origin. Many had begun to find way to resolve their issues by taking that seat at the table of Man, talking through their problems and swearing to ban the bomb.

Woman, man, son and daughter were changing. Rather than following the footsteps of their fathers, people discovered the power to change the universe. Loose fitting, music festival-blessed robes conferred the bliss of Flower Power on the Wearer and imbued adults with the idealism of Children, ably assisted by a recently-popularised pill and legislation which gave women power over their fertility. What was more, the space race had gathered pace and everyone knew that before long Man, arm strong and will ready, would soon claim the moon itself for his own. The focus of this movement was none other than Haight, California. For years later the sun God would offer to shine its light on those seeking actualisation, be it in the film industry or of the equal rights movement, and none wanted it more than a group of college-age kids who wandered the roads in search of adventure.

Charlie’s friends were a cross-section of America. A number of them came from stable, even religious backgrounds, while others experienced early forays into petty crime. Indeed, even a number of those who had come from law-abiding homes had had their lives disrupted by family breakups ranging from their parents’ divorces through to fleeing from political persecution, as in the case of Catherine Share. Together, their backgrounds didn’t matter and they could be taken for who they were, including an All-American sports star Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, erotic dancer Susan Atkins , young divorcee Linda Kasabian, insurance agency worker Patricia Krenwinkel, homecoming queen Leslie van Houten, and actor Robert Beausoleil. Their previous lives and problem parents had been passed away and it was there for all to see: they were Family. The rest is a mixture of fact and conjecture as the brothers and sisters have different accounts what happened during those drug addled days with their brethren.

The Manson Family in happier times
The Manson Family in happier times

Leslie van Houten was one such sister. Stating that she was ‘a very creative girl’ in an interview, she had wanted to be a school teacher and left her middle class home to find someone ‘to love and hold on to and call [her] own’. Charlie, in the era of free love, was willing to share himself with her. Between them and the rest of the Family, they made magic together. They became nomads, travelling from place to place, having sex (when Charlie told them to), making friends and taking copious amounts of LSD. They were told, “the whole idea was to let time disappear. There was no time – we were all living now.” Even looking back, Leslie’s language suggests Manson convinced them that if they just “let” themselves, they could access a power that could control the universe and could choose to manipulate time itself while the rest of the world was subject to the march of reality and its wife, worldly problems. Leslie said that the whole idea of their so-called “magical mystery tour” was that “every day [they] would get more out of ourselves. Every day was Halloween.”

Bit by bit, by having a positive outlook (Charlie had trained in positive thinking… someplace) and by allowing themselves to see things from other perspectives, they could be different. By daring to play the different parts Charlie gave them in fun little drama workshops, they would get “out” of their old, humdrum lives and “get more out” of their new ones. They could be gypsies, pirates, whatever they wanted. It seemed like heaven. Charlie’s teachings began to change. Having encouraged them to let go of their personal hang-ups, He began to preach. He had them re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ while tripping. He spoke about an impending race war and told them they had to ‘die’ to be reborn and rule the world.

Coven Fever: Manson’s murderous mission

United by the fire of Manson’s fervent teaching, the Family took on the world. Manson had, after all, had a taste of the celestial reality of stardom. He was an old style wanderer and had penned the rhythm and the Word of many a parable and, after his girls had a chance encounter with the singer, Charlie had good vibrations (though no release, record or otherwise) with The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. Charlie was just waiting for the right time when he would know that the world was ready for him, though he was getting more than a little irritated by the wait.

The sign of the sign came to Charlie through culture itself: The Beatles’ album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles were shapeshifters and had transformed themselves from clean-cut kids into psychedelic superstars and they wore their magic on their sleeve. It included Aleister Crowley, immortalised as ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’. Cambridge-educated Crowley was a ceremonial magician; an occultist. He established his own religion, Thelema, based on furthering the will through feasting, dramatic ritual, thought and sex. His education made it hard to dismiss him as a crank and his ideas fitted with the cultural re-evaluation of the self. He was pictured on the album cover with psychoanalyst Carl Jung and Albert Einstein himself – a world-changer famous in part for a photograph in which he stuck out his tongue. The message to Manson was clear: you could use sex, drugs and rock and roll to become one of the culturally-anointed ‘chosen’ and could be remembered.

While it was the case that Crowley intended his followers to follow their own desires, the idea of offering friendship and fun in exchange for loyalty seemed to appeal to Manson.

The living room where Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family
The living room where Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family


Manson felt he finally got his breakthrough from The Beatles themselves. They released The White Album, containing the track Helter Skelter. Manson apparently perceived the hit as a hidden code being revealed to him as an opportunity to write the wrongs he felt had been committed by society… by removing the perpetrators. In particular, he connected the album and the band in general to a part of the Bible, for he had attended church in his youth. The specific sections were verses 1-4 of chapter 9 in The Book of Revelations, believed by some to foretell the second coming of the son of God. Charlie quite agreed. Locusts were to come on to the land as a “star” fell to earth and an abyss offering a safe haven for the faithful would open. Thinking somewhat literally, Charlie interpreted the culture-changing Beatles as the locusts and assumed that the abyss would be at one of the nomadic Family’s bolt holes. Uniting by inciting a race war, he would show them the way to Armageddon. They would make way for a new earth after “the first had passed away”; would be swallowed beneath the depths and then return victorious.

According to Pat, Charlie instructed her, Linda and Susan to go with Tex to the house of film director Roman Polanski and his pregnant partner Sharon Tate and “do everything that Tex” said. They climbed the windows and bore down on their prey, butchering them with shots, bludgeon and stab wounds numbering 102, a number of those inflicted after the victims were dead. The next night, with Leslie along for the ride, they followed their leader through to the home of the LaBiancas and killed the elderly couple with lighting cords and skewered them with dinner equipment, leaving 67 stab wounds in their wake. They would report this back to Charlie, who had actually excused himself from the proceedings. Finally, they scrawled the sloppy, symbolic messages “death to pigs”, “rise” and of course “helter skelter” on the walls and on a fridge, so as to kick start the end of the world.

In the chaotic recollections of Pat Krenwinkel:

“We …we just we were so locked and like, it’s just like…okay, okay, this must be, this, I mean, you just become more and…and more like… a robot, the somehow …this must…bring it!”

But it didn’t.

Nothing happened other than LA going into lockdown. Celebrities skipped town terrified, acted the hero by standing guard on the streets or flushed their dope down the sewers over rumours that the killings were drugs related. The Manson Family carried on as they were, stealing cars and the like until on Susan was caught…and blabbed.

The Witch Trial: Manson in the dock

With one heck of a hippy hangover, Charlie and the others were charged with the murders in 1969. Manson himself had to be brought in using circumstantial evidence and conspiracy laws since he’d made himself scarce for the dirty work. Indeed, he’d even choreographed the trial. He told his Family to be sure to make a spectacle that would disrupt the court proceedings. Pat quotes:

“[Charlie said] I want you each to stand up and hold your hands up in some stupid symbols. You’re gonna stand up and scream.’ You know, each day was scripted…. With Manson, he believed that everything we did was creating some picture that would go out in the universe and somehow change it toward… he’d bend it towards his will.”

Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten at the trial
Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten at the trial

They did as they were told. They sang, chatted and flirted with reporters. The girls also under suspicion followed Charlie in carving Swastikas into their foreheads as symbols of their rejection of society. Even the defence attorney (no doubt unintentionally) mimicked Manson’s preachy, bombastic style of speech, stating Manson had hoped that white men would “turn against the black man if they thought that the black man had committed these seven murders.” The attorney’s use of the singular – ‘black man’ – was singular. So strong was Manson’s influence that even when sister Pat smelled a rat (rather than a locust), she knew that she could not go back. She recalls:

“And all of a sudden he [Charlie] was asking every one of us to lie on a daily basis about something. ‘Oh, say this, say that’…but I didn’t…do that. It was like, you lie? A god lies?”

Manson trial prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi recalls the moment the verdicts were handed down:

“I looked over at Manson and his Family were trembling. Here’s someone who always spoke about the beauty of death. He was always telling everyone that death was a beautiful thing and when we kill these people we’ll be doing them a favour and they won’t realise it, but … he fought very hard for his own life so that was just pure hypocrisy on his part.”

Manson was not the Messiah, but he had been a very sad boy. At the trial, the details of his life became public. Charlie had been able to talk to counsellor and convict alike because by the time he established his Family, he had spent half of his life in prisons and detention centres. This charismatic leader had been born to a 16-year-old armed robber called Kathleen who had “sold” him as a child for the price of a pitcher of beer before dumping him with sometimes vague acquaintances throughout his childhood. Teenage Charlie was a petty criminal before prison, though the latter was an atmosphere he loved, not because of its brutality, but institutional the structure forced on him gave him a security that made him feel controlled; safe. Prison provided the surrogate parent the now-adult Charlie had never had. Indeed, when time came for his release, he is said to have pleaded with the purse-string holders to be allowed to cower within their walls, the little boy who never really grew up. He wanted to hide from the world, but if he could not, he resolved to rain Hell on it by constructing the Family he’d never had. In that sense it’s natural that they were less than perfect.

Witchcult Today: The fate of the Manson Family

In 1972 the Supreme Court overturned the death penalty. Since that time, some of the Family have been released from prison, some simply left, one (Lynette Fromme) went on to attempt to assassinate a president, one (Susan Atkins) has died and the rest remain incarcerated. There have been numerous films made about them ranging from biopics to documentaries and one-off interviews with Charlie in which he either rages at supposedly inappropriate questions or attempts to charm with his peculiar brand of homespun wit. He’s remained a contradiction in terms. He’s vaunted as a mass murderer who has never actually killed anyone, an international celebrity who cannot give interviews (but, like Real Crime issue 1’s Jeffrey Dahmer, has been interviewed by the best) and a critic of the system who begged to remain in its clutches. He has remained a cultural icon ever since.

Father Time has changed the Family. While words and deeds can bear false witness, a level of fascination remains around the media appearances in which the Family not only put their cases, but also relive their hot and hazy Manson days. Some, such as Lynette, seem to see their time with the Family with a somewhat terrifying rose tint. Lynette describes those summers with a smile that belies what happened and washes away her years saying how Charlie’s “mind intrigued” her. It is noticeable that during her interviews, she repeatedly raises her eyes to the left – a biological function showing that she’s actually recalling and indeed reliving her experiences and apparently enjoying it.

Manson pictured in 2013
Manson pictured in 2013 (c)

Not all are the same. Leslie van Houten is an example. With a face full of lines that attest to her internal wars, Leslie now notes the control that Charlie had, not even through some feat of majestic mentalism, but as a result of her own sheer, damning gullibility. She recalls:

“I would watch him and I would feel totally out of control and I would watch him and he would seem totally in control.”

This just before noting that she often didn’t see him actually take the acid himself, rather than bathe the brains of the rest of his Family in it. That he also used basic confidence trickery to encourage them to “die” in themselves, as she recalls it, was a method of supposedly ridding themselves of influences from the outside world. She now sees it as actually enabling Charlie to replace their own ideals with his own. It is similarly noticeable in documentaries that Pat Krenwinkel’s raised, clawed hands and knotted grimace show just how uncomfortable and angry her recollection of the episodes made her feel. She says:

“The older I get, the harder it is. Every day someone’s getting shot, someone’s gettin’ cut someone’s getting beat. I’ve lived in that all my life, woman. That don’t wrinkle up my forehead.”

But it does.

There once was a young man, son to a wandering mother, who gazed upon his reflection in the California surf. He was pleased with the image and saw in it strength and determination. These were qualities that he felt he could have for himself and he became fixated with others seeing within him what he had seen in that water. Charlie Manson, like Narcissus, fell in. We are left with the image of two Charlies: one who never truly believed in his own cult but wanted fame to cover his own inadequacies and is now impelled to mirror his claims to maintain the fame that remains to him, and the man who did believe and has trapped himself within his own image. A recent episode saw him engaged to one Afton Elaine Burton (known as Star) only to break off the arrangement when he learned that the delightful Ms Burton wished to embalm her beloved and present him to a paying public box office on his death bed. For all his bluster, the death cult crusader wants his dignity.

Dignity will not be his legacy. News of the incident was frequently reported in a jeering tone, with the New York Post describing it as a “plot too crazy even” for Manson. He has become Charlie by name and nature leaving for most of the world the image of a cartoonish, raving freak; a madman loon who’ll shake his fists at the moon rather than hope to conquer it. But while the hair is now grey and the heavily lidded eyes puffy and consumed within an old man’s face, the Swastika remains defiant on his forehead. It is reflected on a photo of Burton, his former bride to be. It shows one thing remains of the Family: there will always be people attracted to the myth of the manic, Messianic, musician, make-believe murderer. Those easily led will always want a leader who plays the latest tunes, but if you dance unawares to the beat of a devil, be prepared for a death without merrymaking.

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