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Why people obsess over Charles Manson and true crime

The writer behind the Young Charlie podcast on Charles Manson, sociopaths, and true crime.

FILE - In this 1969 file photo, Charles Manson is escorted to his arraignment on conspiracy-murder charges in connection with the Sharon Tate murder case. Authorities say Manson, cult leader and mastermind behind 1969 deaths of actress Sharon Tate and several others, died on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017. He was 83. (AP Photo, File)
Charles Manson being escorted to his arraignment in 1969.
AP

When Larry Brand found out Charles Manson had passed away on Sunday of last week, he says he felt nothing.

The screenwriter and director had spent months delving into the personal life and psychology of the notorious cult leader who orchestrated the brutal murder of Sharon Tate and six other people in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Manson’s death occurred just after the premiere of a new podcast he had been working on called Young Charlie, which explores Manson’s life in the lead-up to the murders.

“I think by the time he died, his legend had so outgrown him that I think his life or death became almost irrelevant,” said Brand. “I tried to understand and get invested at least as a writer in his emotional state. But I was trying to get into his head without him getting into my head.”

Brand got involved in the podcast through his film-producing partners Rebecca Reynolds and Jim Carpenter, who co-created a true crime podcast series with Wondery called Hollywood & Crime along with Jon Ponder and Tracy Pattin, who also hosts the show. When the pair approached Brand to help them create a season on Manson, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I thought, if I'm gonna do this, I wanna come at it from a different angle and do a story we haven't really seen before,” he said. “The first thing that popped into my head was the title Young Charlie — to do an investigation of him from early childhood to the night that he sends his followers out to commit the murders.”

I chatted with Brand by phone. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Karen Turner

Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to pursue this story?

Larry Brand

I think going in, I was aware of it as most Americans were, as this kind of dark story from our past. Looked at through a general kind of cultural lens, it seems somewhat inexplicable. There were these hippie kids, and while most of them were out enjoying themselves in Woodstock, these kids, indistinguishable from any other hippie you'd see on the street, were out committing the most brutal, grotesque murders. How could this happen? As I did more and more exploring, I think it became clear what actually happened in terms of his psychology, and the psychology of the people who followed him. And my goal in presenting it this way was to demystify the events.

By the end of the series, I think people will gain an understanding of what was going on in Charlie's head, what was going on in his accomplices' heads, and how he overrode whatever moral compasses they would've had. Charlie was clearly a sociopath and, I believe, was showing these kinds of behaviors at a very, very early age. I don't think that's necessarily true of the kids that went out and committed these murders.

Karen Turner

How do you feel like Manson’s youth ended up defining this man and this crime?

Larry Brand

Charlie was essentially kind of a run-of-the-mill sociopath. Born in any other time and any other place, he would've lived out his life in obscurity. He may not have committed any serious offenses. His goal in life was to be a pimp. He spent most of his time stealing cars and committing armed robberies. No one was ever shot.

But he had a natural ability to con people. He was manipulative as far back as we can look in his personal history. He would paint verbal pictures that would suck people in. Even when he was a little kid, his relatives — his cousin, his aunt and uncle — already sensed his ability to manipulate.

And when he found himself in San Francisco in 1967, the so-called Summer of Love, he had a willing population of young seekers. There were gurus on every corner. And what Charlie did is he would take these cultural threads, these philosophies — frankly, they were pretty shallow philosophies — that all had similar themes about love and giving up your ego and your past. And if you present these kinds of ideas to a naive audience, they sound original or profound.

It's not hard to see how an experienced older con man could manipulate these kids by using these cultural threads that were just in the era of the time. These gathered these kids around him.

Karen Turner

Yeah, can you talk a little bit more about that? How the period itself affected this crime and the reaction to it?

Larry Brand

This was the height of the ’60s. It's no coincidence that he was so influenced by the Beatles. There was this sense in the air, this kind of expectation that those kids were somehow special, separated from every other generation before them. They were gonna be the initiators of a new age of man. So in a climate like that, it's not surprising that these cults would spring up. Everything was beautiful; everything was part of this love generation.

What was shocking was these kids were a dark mirror inversion of the kids that were emblematic of peace and love and light. The cosmos was speaking to us and saying, "Don't be quite so smug. Don't be so morally condescending, because you know what? You're actually not that different from every other generation to come before you. And there is this dark side."

Karen Turner

I read a really interesting piece today about how the idea that Charles Manson was liberal and counterculture is a little bit wrong, in that maybe he donned that aesthetic but he ultimately had far-right, white supremacist beliefs.

Larry Brand

By the time he got out of prison in 1966, Charlie had spent more time incarcerated than free. Something like 17 out of his 32 years was spent incarcerated. Within those institutions, there was a huge amount of tribalism. I think that in prison systems, if you're not already a racist or at least tribalist, then I think that certainly will bring that out in you.

And I think he was very much a creature of that system. He was a racist, which I think is probably a better term than white supremacist for him. I think he hid that from his followers because that was very much frowned upon universally by that generation, by the hippie generation.

Karen Turner

Why do you think this crime has captured the popular imagination so much?

Larry Brand

We understand — as horrifying it is anytime someone is murdered — if someone is murdered for revenge, or someone is murdered for a sexual infidelity, or someone is murdered for financial gain. We understand when there is greed, we understand when there is revenge, we understand sexual jealousy. But the apparent inexplicability of those murders, the gratuitousness of those murders, the — in essence — murdering for the joy of murdering takes that to another level of evil. That's maybe the core of why it resonates and is so frightening to us. Evil for the sake of evil.

Karen Turner

So you're doing this true crime podcast, and it's one in a series of true crime podcasts. What do you think about the recent upsurge in interest for true crime TV shows and podcasts?

Larry Brand

These shows elicit a certain voyeuristic tendency that is part of our evolutionary endowment. We are a voyeuristic species; we are interested in what other people do. We are especially interested in what other people do that may impact us, whether it is sexual or criminal or violent. It's not an accident that we are gossips, that we're fascinated by what other people do. And when other people do things that are horrifying, that fascinates us that much more.

From the beginning of the written word, or probably before the written word when people were telling stories around campfires, they were probably stories that involved violence. And I think the reason that it touches us is because we can all become victims. My hope in doing the series was to go beyond the voyeuristic, was to go beyond the titillating, and conduct an examination into the mental frameworks that allowed this to happen.

We talk about Charlie as if he's a monster. And that's a fine convention to use, but he's also a human being. I also hear this question a fair amount: Are you concerned with humanizing him?

Well, Charlie was a human. And so we need to understand what it is that makes a human being do these kinds of things. So this show was really a question of taking an excursion into the mind of the killers, with the hope that by the end of the journey we've learned a little bit more about how they did what they did, how members of our species could perpetrate that kind of violence. Because we are all members of that species.

Correction: This article was updated to include co-creators Tracy Pattin and Jon Ponder.

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