Even if you don’t know much about vintage Hollywood, you probably know the name Sharon Tate. The up-and-coming actress and wife of director Roman Polanski was just 26, and eight and a half months pregnant, on August 8, 1969, when five people broke into her home at 10500 Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills — a house their cult leader, Charles Manson, had previously visited as a guest — and killed everyone inside. The next night, desperate to make the first round of deaths look like part of a race war, Manson ordered his followers to a different address in Central Los Angeles, this one owned by middle-class couple Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, to kill again.
The Tate-LaBianca murders, a.k.a. the Manson Family murders, profoundly shook America’s perception of itself. They upended ideas of safety, security, and innocence, and effectively sounded the death knell of ’60s counterculture, ushering in a new decade of darkly psychosexual, conspiracy-laced cultural exploration of America’s seedy underbelly. The ritualistic nature of the killings set the stage for the rise of Satanic Panic, a phenomenon that never fully went away.
And Manson continues to loom large in the cultural imagination, even 50 years after the murders and two years after his death in 2017. Media depictions of him proliferate in pop culture. Quentin Tarantino even revisits the topic of the murders in his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
But what you may not know is that Manson’s followers had killed both before and after their most famous murders. The cultural narrative around the Tate-LaBianca murders is that they happened out of nowhere — that Manson’s followers simply erupted into unthinkable violence on command, after being thoroughly brainwashed. But in fact, Manson was a career criminal by the time he moved to California, and the Tate-LaBianca murders were part of a long period of escalating criminality from him and his followers. Their other major crimes included multiple murders, torture, hostage-taking, and the attempted assassination of a US president.
Another longstanding public perception about the Manson Family murders is that they were a kind of psychic attack on America itself — an explosive release of tension, an inevitable result of the freewheeling, drug-happy counterculture of the ’60s. In countless depictions of the murders over the 50 years since they took place, they have largely been framed as a drug-fueled, randomized frenzy. But the murders weren’t random at all, nor were they a reactionary backlash to normative American culture; rather, they were an outgrowth of Manson’s warped sense that he was entitled to all the power and fortune he so desired.
Manson, like many psychotically predatory men whose violence has hypnotized American culture, was really just an everyday misogynist. He wasn’t a product of ’60s counterculture — he was a master manipulator of it, one who used the “free love” ethos of the time to prey on a cadre of troubled, abused young women, who continued to carry out his thirst for violence even after he was in jail.
The “Manson girls” and his other followers have continued to fascinate us. But the Manson murders were ultimately about Charles Manson himself. And Charles Manson craved wealth, fame, and power. That longing manifested in an obsessive love-hate relationship with Hollywood — an addiction that ultimately led to the Manson Family murders.
Manson had a terrible early life that led to decades of crime as an adult
Charles Manson was born on November 12, 1934, in Ohio. His mother, Kathleen Maddox, was a teen; Charles’s biological father abandoned her before the baby’s birth. She married William Manson shortly before the baby was born and soon started calling her son Charles Milles Manson, after her new husband.
Manson grew up with his mother’s relatives in an allegedly neglectful and abusive environment. By age 13, he had begun committing various petty crimes, including robbery, and in 1949 he was detained at the Indiana Boys School, where he endured sexual assault and abuse. Over a period of several escape attempts and transfers to numerous juvenile centers, he began committing violent sexual assaults on other boys, and was ultimately transferred to the Ohio Federal Reformatory in 1952.
When he was 19 years old, in 1954, Manson was released to his aunt and uncle in McMechen, West Virginia, and for a brief time, he appeared to settle down, marrying and moving to Los Angeles. But Manson continued to commit crimes; in 1957, he was sentenced to three years in a Los Angeles prison, during which his wife filed for divorce.
The decade spanning 1957 to 1967 was turbulent for Manson. He spent much of it in a cycle of suspended sentences, probation violation, and imprisonment. He became a pimp, was briefly married to a sex worker, and began exploring ways to achieve Hollywood fame. He took guitar lessons — though according to one producer who would later attempt to work with him, he was an “unmitigated disaster” — paid careful attention to the Beatles, developed ambitions of becoming a singer-songwriter, and attempted to gain insider connections to film studios.
Meanwhile, he carefully studied religion as a tool of control and manipulation — especially Scientology — along with social engineering. He also sought the advice of other career criminals, including pimps who taught him techniques for successfully coercing and breaking down the resistance of women under his control.
Manson’s cult arose out of San Francisco’s predatory hippie culture and ended in the shadow of Hollywood
After his prison release in 1967, Manson moved to San Francisco, the center of the era’s countercultural revolution. The post-prison world he walked into was a new one, awash with hippies who openly rejected social norms and formed idyllic enclaves ostensibly free of restrictions and taboos.
But Manson exploited the drug-happy, freewheeling goodwill of the era, by bonding with his would-be followers and then luring them into imbalanced and manipulative relationships. He quickly targeted his first follower, 23-year-old Mary Brunner, for her house and her income. Brunner, who’d moved to California to work as a librarian, turned easily to petty crime and supported Manson while he recruited followers.
Hippie communities of the ’60s often wound up reifying the same restrictive and imbalanced gender norms that they purported to escape. They were especially damaging to young women, who often became vulnerable targets of sexual assault. The story of Manson’s youngest known follower, Dianne Lake, is a quintessential example. Lake’s family had moved from Minnesota to California just to participate in the countercultural lifestyle. While living in a free love commune called Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm, Lake’s parents allowed her to take drugs and have sex. She met Manson at age 14.
With the full approval of her parents, Lake immediately began a sexual relationship with Manson and joined the Family. She did not participate in the Manson murders, but she was living with the cult when they took place, and her knowledge of them made her a major witness during his prosecution. Today, she argues that ’60s counterculture was a cover for women like her and the other Manson girls to “be abused or taken advantage of.”
But Manson counted on this cover. He traveled throughout California, approaching young women in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park as well as Los Angeles’s Venice Beach, presenting himself as a religious figure and urging them to follow him by surrendering their identities to him completely. His follower count grew, and in the fall of 1967, Manson packed up the Family and moved them to Los Angeles — toward his dreams of Hollywood stardom.
Manson’s brush with Hollywood saw him manipulating people with fame and power in a failed attempt to network his way into stardom
In Hollywood, Manson began to work his music industry connections. He was soon making inroads with music producers and actors, including character actor Al Lewis, who remembered Manson as “a nice guy” and had Manson babysit his kids on several occasions. Universal producer Gary Stromberg granted Manson a recording session only to find Manson unprepared, unreliable, and untalented. By far Manson’s most valuable connection, however, was one he made through two of his female cult members while they were hitchhiking: Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.
Manson was especially successful in manipulating Wilson. Throughout 1968, Wilson allowed Manson and the Family to live in his house on Sunset Boulevard and lent Manson hundreds of thousands of dollars to help him record an album — in exchange for sexual gratification from Manson’s female followers. Wilson’s manager finally evicted the Family in August 1968. They ended up at Spahn Movie Ranch, a popular site for filming Westerns where, once again, Manson traded the sexual favors of his female followers to the ranch’s owner in exchange for free room and board.
Wilson tried to promote Manson’s music and even convinced the Beach Boys to record one of Manson’s songs. He also introduced Manson to Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day. Though Melcher, a record producer, put off the issue of whether he would sign Manson, he stayed friendly with the Family. During this time, Melcher also dated up-and-coming Hollywood star Candice Bergen, who was renting a house at 10050 Cielo Drive. Both Wilson and Manson frequently visited Bergen and Melcher at the house.
As a result of Melcher’s delay over signing Manson to a record deal, the relationship between Wilson and Manson began to sour, as Wilson chafed under Manson’s treatment of him and his money. By the time Manson’s song, “Cease to Exist,” was released as a Beach Boys single in December 1968, the title had been changed to “Never Learn Not to Love,” Manson’s blues influences had been swapped for the Beach Boys’ familiar pop sound, and Manson had been denied a songwriting credit. In response to the snub, Manson allegedly threatened to kill Wilson.
These threats, combined with his general lack of talent, his violent temper, his flagrant racism, and his tendency to rant about an upcoming race war, had all contributed to Melcher finally shying away from helping Manson with his musical career. According to Beach Boys member Mike Love, it was Melcher’s mom Doris Day who, alarmed at the friendship developing between the volatile Manson and her son, convinced Melcher and Bergen to move out of the Cielo Drive house in January 1969. In June, Melcher finally told Manson that he wouldn’t be signing him to a record deal. By the summer of 1969, it was clear that Manson’s dreams of Hollywood stardom were over.
Manson was aware that Melcher and Bergen had moved out of the house at 10050 Cielo Drive. In fact, the house was now being rented by filmmaker Roman Polanski and his wife, Valley of the Dolls actress Sharon Tate. But Manson seemed to have the house fixed in his head as a microcosm of Hollywood itself — everything he’d been denied. So in August 1969, with his paranoia increasing and his commune under apparent threat, he ordered a group of his followers to visit the address and kill everyone inside.
The Manson Family murders weren’t occult in nature — they were about diverting attention from an earlier killing
Ostensibly, Manson ordered his followers to commit the Tate-LaBianca murders because he was trying to jump-start what he purported to believe would be the coming race war between the government and black citizens — in particular the Black Panthers, whom he hated. Manson had dubbed this movement Helter Skelter, preaching that the Beatles’ White Album song of the same name — which was written about an amusement park — was about the forthcoming war. Throughout the summer months of 1969, Manson had been hinting to his followers that if black Americans didn’t start Helter Skelter, the Family should help it along.
But Manson also wanted to distract the law from other crimes. In May 1969, he had non-fatally shot a drug dealer named Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe after a dispute over a drug payment. Two months later, Manson had urged several of his followers to steal money from a friend of his named Gary Hinman. After two days of holding Hinman hostage, during which Manson cut Hinman’s ear, Manson follower Bobby Beausoleil killed Hinman.
The Family members attempted to blame the death on the Black Panthers by writing “Political Piggie” and a Black Panther symbol in blood on the wall. But Beausoleil was arrested for the murder and taken into custody on August 6.
Manson now feared that Beausoleil would crack under pressure while being interrogated and implicate Manson in the murder of Hinman and the previous shooting of Crowe. Two other Manson Family members, Mary Brunner and Sandra Good, were also arrested at the same time for using a stolen credit card. Their bail was only $600, but their arrest, combined with Beausoleil’s, was enough to send Manson into a rage spiral.
Just two days after Beausoleil was taken into custody, on August 8, 1969, Manson ordered his right-hand man, Charles “Tex” Watson, to take three members of the Family to the Cielo Drive address.
Multiple Manson Family members generally claimed that Manson himself never came up with the idea of murdering rich Hollywood “piggies” — that this idea originated from group conversations while Manson wasn’t even present. But during Mansion’s trial, Watson claimed Manson told him to go to Melcher’s former house on Cielo drive and “totally destroy” the current inhabitants.
Manson’s goal was to have his followers kill everyone at the house and make the killings look like the Hinman killing, in order to divert police suspicion from the captive Beausoleil.
Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted the Manson Family murders and co-wrote a celebrated book about them, 1974’s Helter Skelter, claimed that Manson further wanted to unnerve Melcher in retaliation for Melcher’s refusal to help him advance his music career.
Whatever the motive, the Family’s total victim count stands at 12, and possibly higher.
The Manson murders: the victims
Victims prior to the Tate La-Bianca murders:
Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe: Crowe was an LA drug dealer who threatened to wipe out the Manson Family after Tex Watson defrauded him. In response, Manson went to Crowe’s apartment on July 1, 1969, and shot him. Manson believed he had killed Crowe, but Crowe survived and never reported the shooting to the police. Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi tracked him down, however, and he testified at Manson’s trial — which, according to Bugliosi, was the first time Manson realized he was still alive.
Gary Hinman: Born in Colorado, Hinman was a Buddhist music teacher pursuing a doctorate in sociology at UCLA when he became roommates with Bobby Beausoleil. The two met Charles Manson in 1968, and Beausoleil became the primary perpetrator of Manson’s orders to attack Hinman in July 1969. The Manson Family inexplicably believed Hinman had come into a large sum of money; in fact, at the time of his death at age 33, he reportedly had just $50 in his bank account.
Victims at the Tate residence:
Abigail Folger: The 26-year-old heiress to the Folgers Coffee fortune, Folger hadn’t simply rested in the lap of her luxury. She graduated from Harvard with a master’s in art history and worked for a time at a Berkeley art museum before moving to LA in 1968. Once there, she threw herself into activism, doing volunteer social work for an urban welfare program and working for a racially charged city council campaign. She and her boyfriend, Wojciech Frykowski, spent most of the spring and summer of 1969 house-sitting for Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate at 10500 Cielo Drive. Even though Tate returned from overseas work at the end of the summer, Polanski invited Folger and Frykowski to keep living there through August. So they were all hanging out in the house together on the night of August 8, 1969.
Wojciech Frykowski: Frykowski grew up in Poland and studied chemistry. He became bar buddies with Roman Polanski while hanging around film studios in Łódź. He worked as a lifeguard on Polanski’s first film, Knife in the Water, and ultimately moved to California, where he met girlfriend Abigail Folger. In Polanski’s autobiography, Roman by Polanski, the filmmaker reportedly described Frykowski as “good-natured, softhearted to the point of sentimentality, and utterly loyal.” He was 33 the night of the Tate murders.
Steven Parent: 18-year-old Steven Parent graduated from high school two months before his death at the Tate-Polanski residence. A native of Los Angeles, he loved music and playing the guitar. He was working two jobs over the summer to pay for his enrollment in community college in the fall; to supplement his income, he tried to sell small electronics and mechanical devices to friends, including his friend William Garretson, who worked as the caretaker of 10500 Cielo Drive. Parent visited Garretson at the house the night of August 8 in order to try to sell him a small clock; through total bad luck, he was driving out of the gated residence the moment the Manson Family members entered. Though he reportedly pleaded for his life, Tex Watson shot him four times.
Jay Sebring: A Birmingham, Alabama, native and a Korean War Navy veteran, Sebring became a celebrity hairstylist during the ’60s by importing many European fashion trends to Los Angeles — tricks like the then-astonishing tactic of shampooing men’s hair before styling it. He did hair for several movies and is credited with designing Jim Morrison’s iconic hairstyle as well as inventing the entire men’s hair industry. His salon grew into an international hair company before his death. Through the mid-’60s, he and Sharon Tate were extremely close, first dating and remaining best friends. Sebring was 35 years old when he was killed at 10500 Cielo Drive.
Sharon Tate: A Texas pageant girl and Army brat, Tate broke into acting while attending high school in Italy. She’d already made a name for herself as a fashion model and comedic actress by the time she married Roman Polanski in January 1968. Now a cult classic, 1967’s Valley of the Dolls established the typical media response to her performances, which tended to fixate on her sex appeal while mocking her acting ability. Still, Tate’s role in the film garnered her a Golden Globe nomination, and Polanski always believed in her talent. A short film made about her in 1965 described her as “today’s kind of girl […] bursting with youth, beauty, vitality, and hope.” She was 26 at the time of her death.
The LaBianca murders:
Leno LaBianca: The son of Italian immigrants, LaBianca was a brilliant student who married his high school sweetheart before serving in Europe during World War II and becoming a sergeant first class in the Army Reserve thereafter. Though he fathered three kids, his first marriage disintegrated after the war. In 1959, he married again in a Vegas wedding to Rosemary, and though her kids lived with them in their house on Waverly Drive, the children were with friends out of town the weekend of the murders. Leno LaBianca died alongside his wife on August 10, 1969, just days after his 44th birthday.
Rosemary LaBianca: Rosemary grew up in Arizona and moved to Los Angeles sometime in the 1940s, during her late teens. Her first marriage resulted in two children but ended in divorce, and she turned her attention to business; on the profits of a mobile dress shop she invented, she became a self-made millionaire and wealthy investor. In 1959, she married Leno LaBianca, and in 1968, the pair moved into his childhood home on Waverly Drive, in what was intended to be a temporary living arrangement. She was killed by the Manson Family on August 10, 1969, at age 40.
Donald “Shorty” Shea: The last murder Manson ordered while living at Spahn Ranch was that of “Shorty” Shea, a ranch employee who clashed with Manson several times. After the Tate-LaBianca murders, Manson became convinced that Shea was a police informant and ordered several members of the Family to kill him. Shea was beaten and stabbed to death on August 28, 1969. He was 36.
James and Lauren Willett: James Willett was a Vietnam veteran who served in the Marines. In 1972, the year after the Manson trial, he and his wife, Lauren “Reni” Willett, became friends with several members of the by-then scattered Manson Family. James was 26 years old at the time he vanished; his body was later found more than 100 miles away from that of his wife. Authorities believed Reni had traveled with the group for months after her husband’s death, possibly to ensure her safety and that of her infant daughter. It didn’t work; she was found buried beneath the house where the group was living. She died at the age of 19; her daughter was still with the group when they were apprehended and was taken in by relatives.
Other deaths with strong but unconfirmed connections to the Manson Family:
Mark Walts: 16-year-old Mark Walts wasn’t a Family member, but he was a frequent guest at Spahn Ranch and a known friend of many Family members. Though the Family was reportedly “shocked” by Walts’s murder on July 17, 1969, Walts’s brother was convinced that Manson was responsible for his death, and called Manson in order to directly accuse him. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department investigated the Mansons and other Spahn Ranch inhabitants in regards to Walts’s murder, but the case remains unsolved.
John Philip “Zero” Haught: Haught, an Ohio native, had moved to California with a friend in the late ’60s and met Manson in the summer of 1969. He joined the Manson Family and was among the group who was arrested in the October raid of the clan for the Tate-LaBianca murders; Manson may have suspected him of being an informant.
On November 5, 1969, Haught was hanging out with some of the Family — including Bruce Davis, who’d been involved in killing Donald Shea on Manson’s orders two months before. According to all the other Family members present, Zero suddenly found a gun in the room, picked it up, and promptly shot himself while attempting a game of Russian roulette. The problem? According to Jeff Guinn’s book Manson, when police investigated the death, they found that the gun, rather than having zero bullets and one spent shell casing, instead contained seven bullets and one spent shell. Moreover, the gun had been wiped free of prints. Despite this, police concluded Haught had killed himself. He was 22 years old.
Reet Jurvetson: Jurvetson was an Estonian refugee whose family fled to Canada to escape Soviet oppression during World War II. She moved to Los Angeles in 1969 and was killed just a few months later, around November 15, 1969. Jurvetson’s body remained unidentified for nearly 35 years, during which time she was identified only as “Jane Doe No. 59.” Advances in DNA technology ultimately allowed her body to be identified and her family notified in 2003.
Authorities have always suspected a link between Jurvetson’s murder and the Manson Family, due to the proximity of her body to the location of the Tate murders and the widely held belief that the unknown woman was a friend of the Manson Family. Moreover, the proximity of her time of death to the death of Family member John Haught, whose death was also strongly suspected to have come on the orders of Manson, led to speculation that Jurvetson was murdered because she witnessed his death. She was 19 when she died.
The murders, the trial, and the crimes that followed
The members of the Manson Family are extremely numerous; at its peak, the group consisted of about 100 casual followers and 30 core members. For the full rundown of significant Manson associates, Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter remains the best source.
On August 8 and 9, 1969, Tex Watson took Manson followers Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Linda Kasabian to the house on Cielo Drive, where all of them — except Kasabian, who was horrified — proceeded to kill Tate and four guests: Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent, an 18-year-old who just happened to be leaving the property as they were entering. As Beausoleil had done after killing Hinman, they wrote “Pig” on the door in blood, in order to tie the killings to Hinman’s murder and implicate the Black Panthers.
The next night, August 10, Manson directed these followers, plus Leslie Van Houten and Steve “Clem” Grogan, to a house owned by Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, who were wealthy but far from the Hollywood elite. (Kasabian managed to thwart more violence from planned for another residence in another part of the city.) Manson directed and participated in the binding of the couple but left his followers to commit the violence. After killing the pair, the Family members once again wrote chilling phrases on walls in blood, including “Helter Skelter.”
Those messages made both the Tate murders and the LaBianca murders seem occult, a product of grand evil. That impression lingers today, although the murders were practically just a red herring — all a plot to make sure Beausoleil was released before he could implicate Manson for his crimes. And even this plan went horribly awry.
These days, the Tate-LaBianca murders are always mentioned as connected. But at the time they occurred, LA police shrugged off the idea of a link between the crimes, despite the identical messages scrawled on the walls in blood. Although police raided the Manson Family at Spahn Ranch shortly after the murders, it was on suspicion of car theft. The Family was quickly released, and Manson relocated to Barker Ranch at Death Valley. Before they left Spahn Ranch, however, Manson ordered yet another killing — the August 26 murder of Donald Shea, a ranch hand whom Manson blamed for informing on him about the stolen cars to police.
In October 1969, many members of the Family, including Manson, were arrested — again, not for the Tate or LaBianca murders, but for stealing RV equipment. But by this point, the police who were investigating the LaBianca murders had finally connected the dots between the two murders and linked them back to the murder of Hinman and Manson’s involvement in it. On December 1, police issued warrants for the five main participants in the Tate-LaBianca killings: Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten.
A sensationalized 1971 trial followed, characterized by disruptive outbursts from Manson and his supporters inside the courtroom and protests from Manson supporters outside — even an exploding courthouse bomb, which thankfully injured no one. (Police never confirmed a link between the bomb and Manson, though it was placed directly beneath the courtroom during the trial.) Ultimately, Charles Manson was convicted on seven counts of first-degree murder for the Tate-LaBianca killings, later followed by two more convictions for the deaths of Hinman and Shea, the Spahn ranch hand. Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten were all sentenced to death, though their death penalties were commuted to life sentences the following year with the abolishment of the death penalty in the state of California.
Though the public moved on after the trials, the scattered members of the Manson Family did not, and throughout the early ’70s they continued to resort to violence and various levels of crime, from petty to dramatic. On August 21, 1971, Manson Family members Mary Brunner, Catherine “Gypsy” Share, Dennis Rice, Charles Lovett, Larry Bailey, and Kenneth Como raided an Army surplus store in southwest LA. The group frantically stockpiled weapons while holding customers and employees hostage, and then became embroiled in a shootout with police that resulted in Brunner and Share being wounded. Authorities believed their ultimate plan was to hijack a plane in order to ransom the captives for the release of the imprisoned Family members.
During and after the Manson trial, other members of the Family began a stint of petty crime, including robbery and identity theft. The group included Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and several couples: Michael Monfort and Nancy Pitman, James “Spider” Craig and Priscilla Cooper, and Maria Theresa “Crystal” Alonzo and her husband, a white supremacist named Bill Goucher. In 1971, the group befriended another young couple named James and Lauren Willett; later, both were later found murdered, due to the group’s suspicion that James Willett might inform on them. In 1972, all the group’s members except for Alonzo and Fromme were convicted or pleaded guilty to the double murders. The Willetts’ infant daughter survived.
Alonzo, who had actually become a Manson follower after his arrest, was detained but not charged for the Willett murders; two years later, in 1974, she was instead convicted in a bizarre plot to kidnap a foreign consul and hold them for ransom in exchange for freeing two prison inmates. Her current whereabouts are unknown, and one report suggests she died in 1985 in California, at the age of 33.
By far the most notorious nonlethal crime committed by a Manson Family member didn’t occur until the middle of the following decade. On September 5, 1975, still-loyal Manson supporter Fromme attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford during a public appearance in Sacramento. Fromme aimed a loaded Colt .45 at the president, but the gun didn’t fire, and investigators later realized there was no round in the chamber.
Fromme had originally wanted to assassinate the previous president, Richard Nixon, because he had presided over the Manson trials and had drawn Manson’s particular enmity before his incarceration. But after Nixon’s impeachment, Fromme transferred her presidential fixation to Nixon’s successor. For her crime, she was sentenced to life in prison, but was released in 2009 at age 60, after which she became a friendly but reclusive real estate agent in upstate New York.
A 2012 article on Fromme’s post-prison life suggested she remains loyal to Charles Manson.
Manson was more of a cultural and Hollywood insider than his legacy would suggest — and more of an ordinary misogynist
The lasting cultural impression Manson has left is that of a rogue element, a horribly defective product of San Francisco’s hippie counterculture. But that impression is inaccurate. Far from being a cultural outsider, Manson regularly hobnobbed with Hollywood royalty. And he wasn’t a hippie, but a con man who deliberately appropriated the trappings of hippie culture — mainly to manipulate vulnerable women caught up in the countercultural lifestyle, and then use those women to further manipulate his way into positions of power and influence.
Manson routinely relied on the devotion of his female followers to gain power, either through their direct labor on his behalf or through their willingness to trade sexual favors to whomever Manson wanted, for whatever Manson wanted for himself. And many of them are still serving time in jail as a result: Atkins died in prison in 2009; Van Houten was recently denied parole. Patricia Krenwinkel is the longest-serving female inmate in California. Male followers Tex Watson and Bruce Davis also remain in prison; Davis, 76, was approved for parole in June 2019, but his release will likely be blocked by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who, like all of his predecessors, has blocked every motion for release for all the Manson family members.
Manson himself maintained the public’s ongoing interest while he was in prison due to his wild and erratic commentary and behavior behind bars. He joined the white supremacist group Aryan Brotherhood and was a perpetually disruptive prisoner, with female officers bearing “the brunt of his verbal abuse.” As a fringe prophet spouting apocalyptic racism who was nonetheless still somehow able to exert a fascinating hold over his followers old and new, he brought cults and their destructive tendencies into modern public consciousness.
Bugliosi spoke of Manson in mythic terms in 2014: “The name Manson has become a metaphor for evil, and there’s a side of human nature that’s fascinated by pure unalloyed evil.”
But this narrative of Manson has thankfully diminished over time, and given way to the truth: that beneath all his theatrics, his bizarre ramblings, his googly-eyed camera-hogging, and his violent outbursts, Manson’s evil wasn’t outsize, occult, or supernatural. He was an average, everyday narcissist who practiced social engineering and learned to use the bodies of willing women around him as a bargaining tool.
His rise to prominence and the violence he engendered says more about the complicated moment in which he moved, and the gender and social roles he exploited, than his special talents as a master manipulator. Manson’s power was built not on his own abilities but on the bodies, sacrifices, and ravaged souls of the people he took into the Family — long before they began to kill for his sake.