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The life and death of notorious cult leader Charles Manson, explained

Manson will be remembered as the wild-eyed man behind the murderous Manson Family cult. He was more of an everyday narcissist.

Cameramen film the scene as Charles Manson is brought into the Los Angeles city jail under suspicion of having masterminded the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969.
Cameramen film the scene as Charles Manson is brought into the Los Angeles city jail under suspicion of having masterminded the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969.
Bettmann via Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Charles Manson, the notorious cult leader whose instigation of the brutal Manson Family murders in the late 1960s profoundly bruised American culture, died on Sunday night of natural causes after a brief period of hospitalization in Kern County, California, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Manson was 83, and had been imprisoned since April 22, 1971, on a commuted death sentence for the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969. The killing spree, organized by Manson and carried out by his followers — members of a cult known as the Manson Family — remains one of the most shocking acts of violence in Hollywood history. The murders were a gleeful and bloody series of carnage whose level of violence (which involved knives, guns, beatings, and bayonets), apparent lack of motive, and signaling of hippie culture gone off the rails stunned the world and left seven people dead, including actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child.

Manson and the members of the Manson Family have been the subject of ongoing cultural fascination in the nearly five decades since the murders. Manson, in particular, has remained emblazoned in the public image as an erratic figure with a swastika in the middle of his forehead, a fringe prophet spouting apocalyptic racism who is nonetheless still somehow able to exert a fascinating hold over his followers old and new. Just three years ago, Los Angeles attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted the Manson Family murders and co-wrote a celebrated book about them, 1974’s Helter Skelter, spoke of Manson in mythic terms:

“The name Manson has become a metaphor for evil, and there's a side of human nature that's fascinated by pure unalloyed evil.”

The Manson Family murders helped plunge the cultural ethos of the following decade into sustained psychosexual anxiety. Manson’s followers were largely middle-class white women who’d been all but stripped of their original identities, while their victims were ostensibly untouchable members of Hollywood’s elite upper class. Manson had managed to infiltrate both the heart of Hollywood and the heart of middle-class America. The murders, and Manson, upended ideas of safety, security, and innocence.

Manson’s cultural impact was immediate and hard to overstate

Manson became one of the most infamous figures in US history. He shook Hollywood into a decade of anxiety, and effectively rang the death knell of ’60s counterculture — all without directly carrying out any of the brutal murders committed in his name.

1969:  Police mug shot of American cult leader and murderer Charles Manson. Information about the Tate-LaBianca murders is detailed below the photo.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1969 Police mug shot of American cult leader and murderer Charles Manson.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“He aimed his followers like a gun, and they slaughtered mercilessly,” Jeanette Manning, writer of the Cults podcast, wrote of Manson in the series’ opening episode.

It’s hard to overstate the lasting cultural impact of Manson’s aim into the heart of Hollywood. Before Manson, cults and religious organizations like Hare Krishna, Scientology, and other countercultural sects that arose in the mid-20th century were generally considered kooky but on the fringe.

But the senseless gore of the Manson Family murders — alternately known as the Tate–LaBianca murders in reference to the two families Manson’s followers targeted during their two-day killing spree — upended that impression.

Manson’s famously wild-eyed stare, his deep-seated racism, and the group of young women who rushed to his defense while brushing off the acts of extreme violence they or their friends had committed in his name all made Manson synonymous with cult leaders. He brought cults and their destructive tendencies into modern public consciousness.

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 — and according to the personal narrative he created for himself, he was born without a name. His mother, Kathleen Maddox, had been raised in an oppressively religious household and was an unwed teen mother, abandoned by Charles’s biological father. Shortly after the birth of her son, she briefly married another man, William Manson, and began calling the baby Charles Milles Manson after her 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. He attended church with his family, and in 1955 he married Rosalie Willis, moving with her to Los Angeles.

But during this period, Manson began to study religion as a tool of control, and to practice coercing and manipulating other people — in particular, vulnerable young women. He also continued to commit theft and other crimes. After he failed to show up for a court appearance in 1957, he was sentenced to three years in a Los Angeles prison, during which Rosalie gave birth to his son, Charles Manson Jr. Shortly after, she filed for divorce.

The decade spanning 1957 to ’67 was turbulent for Manson. He spent much of it in a cycle of suspended sentences, probation violation, and imprisonment. He also became a pimp during that period, was briefly married to a sex worker, and began exploring his options 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 continued to study the art of manipulation, especially the techniques of subtle social engineering taught by Dale Carnegie and his 1936 manifesto How to Win Friends and Influence People. Manson paid close attention to Scientology and drew upon its emotional manipulation of followers with the idea of immortality and purging the self of past trauma. And he 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 hippie culture and ended in the shadow of Hollywood

When Manson was released from prison in 1967, he moved to Northern California, moving between the city of Berkeley and the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, which were then the centers of the era’s countercultural revolution. The post-prison world that Manson 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 as Karina Longworth notes in her fantastic series about the Manson murders on the You Must Remember This podcast, these hippie communities often wound up reifying the same restrictive and imbalanced gender norms that they purported to escape, with the “free love” culture often leaving young women disempowered and vulnerable to sexual assault and further marginalization. Manson embraced this approach and used it to his advantage. He exploited the drug-happy, freewheeling goodwill of the era, first by bonding with his would-be followers over perceived shared social rejections, and then by luring them into imbalanced and manipulative relationships.

Manson targeted his first follower, 23-year-old Mary Brunner, for her house and her income. Brunner supported him while he participated openly in the free love culture, and eventually gave birth to a son, Valentine Michael Manson. Manson traveled throughout California and would approach 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, in effect, surrendering their identities to him completely.

More people, mostly women, followed, and in the fall of 1967, Manson packed up the Family and moved them all to Los Angeles — toward his dreams of Hollywood stardom.

Once he arrived in Hollywood, Manson began to shore up the music industry connections he’d forged while in and out of prison. He was soon making inroads with music producers and actors, including Universal producer Gary Stromberg, who granted Manson a recording session only to find Manson unprepared, unreliable, and untalented. Manson also befriended songwriters Gregg Jakobson and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.

Manson was especially successful in manipulating Wilson, and his ties to Wilson and the influential people Wilson introduced him to would become a factor in the Manson Family murders. Throughout 1968, Wilson allowed Manson and the Family to live in Wilson’s house on Sunset Boulevard and lent him hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Manson record an album — in exchange for sexual gratification from Manson’s female followers. (This arrangement lasted until Wilson’s manager evicted them 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. It was there that his commune would grow and ultimately fall apart.)

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, a record producer and the only son of Doris Day — though Melcher would eventually decline to sign Manson to a recording contract. As a result, 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 tendency to rant about an upcoming race war, which he called “Helter Skelter,” had all contributed to Melcher shying away from helping Manson with his musical career, effectively ending Manson’s Hollywood ambitions. By the summer of 1969, it was clear that Manson’s dreams of Hollywood stardom were over.

In August, with his paranoia increasing and his commune under apparent threat, Manson would order a group of his followers to visit Terry Melcher’s old house in Benedict Canyon and kill everyone inside.

The Manson Family murders weren’t occult in nature — they were about diverting attention from an earlier killing

Susan Denise Atkins, (left), Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten,(right), laugh after receiving the death sentence for their part in the Tate-LaBianca killing at the order of Charles Manson.
Susan Denise Atkins, (left), Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten (right), laugh after receiving the death sentence for their part in the Tate-LaBianca killing at the order of Charles Manson.
Bettmann via Getty Images

Ostensibly, Manson ordered his followers to commit the Tate-LaBianca murders because he was trying to jumpstart 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 create a giant distraction for the police from his own growing mess of legal troubles. In May 1969, Manson had nonfatally 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.

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 10050 Cielo Drive — an address where Terry Melcher had recently lived. Manson knew that Melcher no longer lived in the house, but that whoever did live there was likely to be a member of Hollywood’s elite, whom he now had a blanket vendetta against. In fact, the house was being rented by filmmaker Roman Polanski and his wife, Valley of the Dolls actress Sharon Tate, then eight months pregnant.

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 away from the captive Beausoleil. He also, according to prosecutor Bugliosi’s version of events in Helter Skelter, wanted to unnerve Melcher in retaliation for Melcher’s refusal to help him advance his music career.

That night, Watson took Manson followers Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Linda Kasabian to the house on Cielo Drive, where they proceeded to viciously murder Tate and four guests: Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent. As Beausoleil had done, they wrote “Pig” on the door in blood, in order to tie the killings to the death of Hinman and implicate the Black Panthers.

The next night, August 10, the same group of followers was joined by Manson himself, as well as two more members of the Family, Leslie Van Houten and Steve “Clem” Grogan. Manson led them to a house owned by Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, who were wealthy but far from being classified as Hollywood elite. Manson directed and participated in the binding of the couple, but left his followers to commit the violence. After murdering the pair, the Family members once again wrote chilling phrases on walls in blood, including “Healter Skelter.”

All of this made both the Tate murders and the LaBianca murders seem occult, a product of grand evil. That impression still lingers today, even though the murders were part of Manson’s scheme to frame the Black Panthers for multiple murders so Beausoleil would be released before he could implicate Manson. And even this plan went horribly awry: It took the police months to even tie the two crimes together, during which time they raided the Manson Family at Spahn Ranch 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 one more killing — the August 26 murder of Donald Shea, a ranch hand whom Manson blamed for informing on him about stolen cars to police.

In October 1969, many members of the Family, including Manson, were arrested — 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, as well as Manson’s involvement in it. Manson remained in custody along with Atkins, who had implicated herself in the murder of Hinman. On December 1, police issued warrants for the five main participants in the Tate-LaBianca killings: Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten.

Ultimately, after a sensationalized 1971 trial, 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 the Spahn ranch hand, Shea. Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten were all sentenced to death, though their death penalties were overturned the following year with the abolishment of the death penalty in the state of California. Atkins died in prison in 2009; Van Houten is currently being considered for parole. Watson and Krenwinkel are still in prison; Krenwinkel is the longest-serving female inmate in California.

While in prison, Manson maintained the public’s ongoing interest due to his wild and erratic commentary and behavior in interviews he sat for from behind bars. He joined the white supremacist group Aryan Brotherhood, and according to a report earlier this year by the LA Times, Manson was a perpetually disruptive prisoner, with female officers bearing “the brunt of his verbal abuse.” In 2012, he was denied parole for the 12th and final time.

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 that led him to make a random strike into the middle of Hollywood’s elite. But that impression is almost entirely false.

Manson wasn’t a hippie. Rather, he deliberately appropriated and manipulated the trappings of hippie culture for his own personal ends, seeking out vulnerable women caught up in the countercultural lifestyle and using the idea of “free love” to exert control and bond his followers to him.

And far from being an outsider to Hollywood, Manson regularly hobnobbed with Hollywood royalty. He networked with record producers and participated in recording sessions with the Beach Boys. The apparent random savagery of the Manson Family murders wasn’t random at all; rather, it was Manson’s backlash against Hollywood’s insider culture and his failed attempts to manipulate it.

Perhaps most crucially, Manson secured his cult — which at its peak consisted of about 100 casual followers and about 30 core members — through misogyny. He manipulated, isolated, and wore down the resistance of the many women he drew to him, and he used them ruthlessly. He 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.

Beneath all of Manson’s theatrics, his bizarre ramblings, his controlling behavior and violent outbursts, his real cultural impact lay in his ability to make his run-of-the-mill petty crimes and all-too-common control and dominance of women seem like something larger than life. But Manson’s evil wasn’t outsize; he was an average 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 own 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 women he took into the Family, long before they began to kill for his sake.