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How the Manson family became a pop culture trope

It’s an American horror story.

Charles Manson on South Park’s episode, “Merry Christmas Charlie Manson!”
Charles Manson on South Park’s episode, “Merry Christmas Charlie Manson!”
Comedy Central
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The murders that the Manson family committed in August 1969 claimed seven lives over two nights, and they struck dread into the hearts of people all over Los Angeles. It took months for the police to crack the case — which came to be known as the Tate-LaBianca murders, named after three of the victims, including actress Sharon Tate — and link them to the Manson family, which by then was falling apart, with members fleeing, defecting, and being arrested for a variety of charges.

The trial that followed captured the American imagination, and Charles Manson became that familiar archetype: the murderer both despised and revered by the public. His courtroom antics attracted national attention. During the trial, he received letters from young women who wanted to join his family, even though he was on his way to prison.

In the half-century following the murders, though, Manson has become another sort of icon — the lynchpin for a pop culture trope. He isn’t a serial killer, exactly, nor is he famous for being the leader of a cult. Instead, Manson family lore and especially the murders in 1969, have served as an inspiration to dozens of creators, and not just for documentaries and memoirs and biographies and true crime docudramas, as one might expect. It’s also been the basis for fictional stories.

The enduring legacy of the Manson story is a curious one. Why this story, of all true-murder tales? What is it about Charles Manson, his followers, and the horrific murders they committed that keep us coming back for more — not just the facts, but in our made-up stories, too?

Fictional characters find themselves in Charles Manson’s orbit

Historians and journalists have crafted compelling works of nonfiction about Charles Manson and his followers, reading their strange history through various lenses while still sticking completely to the facts. Joan Didion leaned on the story for one of her most famous essays, “The White Album,” which starts with her famous line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” and takes its title from the Beatles album that Manson obsessed over. He told his followers that the Beatles were sending them messages through it.

Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson and several of his followers in connection with the Tate-LaBianca murders, wrote a New York Times bestselling book entitled Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, which was published in 1974 and became the bestselling true-crime book in history as well as the basis for two docudrama films. Karina Longworth devoted an entire season of her podcast You Must Remember This to examining the story through the lens of its connections to Hollywood and its effect on it. Many others have retold the story of the case, the criminals, and the family as well.

And given the contemporary penchant for true-crime retellings, none of this seems too surprising. But it’s hard to miss just how significant the Mansons have been to creators of fiction, too. Something about the story captures the imagination.

Manson (played by Gethin Anthony) and two of his girls in NBC’s Aquarius.
Manson (played by Gethin Anthony) and two of his girls (Tara Lynne Barr and Emma Dumont) in NBC’s Aquarius.
Vivian Zink/NBC

At times, the family or the murders provide a setting into which fictional characters can stumble. That’s what happens in Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s also the setup for NBC’s 2015-16 series Aquarius, in which LAPD detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) discovers the young woman whose disappearance he’s investigating is with the Manson family.

Similarly, in the upcoming second season of the Netflix show Mindhunter, fictional FBI agents who are investigating the (real-life) Atlanta child murders between 1979 and 1981 will turn, in their attempt to crack the case, to known killers, including the Son of Sam and Manson. (And in a mind-bending twist, Manson will be played in the series by Damon Herriman, who also played Manson in Tarantino’s film.)

For a while, it seemed like Mad Men might be headed in this direction, too. In the eighth episode of season six, Megan Draper (wife of the show’s protagonist Don, and played by Jessica Paré) showed up wearing a shirt identical to one worn by Sharon Tate in a 1967 Esquire shoot, prompting theories that Megan was Sharon Tate, or at least would meet the same fate. By the next season, which opened in January 1969 — about seven months before the murders — the parallels grew even stronger, with Megan moving to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career, seemingly to the same neighborhood in which Manson’s family went on their murderous rampage.

Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) wearing a T-shirt on Mad Men identical to one Sharon Tate was photographed in. The shirt sparked a flurry of fan theories that Megan was Tate, or would at least meet the same fate.
Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) wearing a T-shirt on Mad Men identical to one Sharon Tate was photographed in. The shirt sparked a flurry of fan theories that Megan was Tate, or would at least meet the same fate.

These theories weren’t too big of a stretch; Mad Men did intersect with the “real” world a number of times, including for momentous events like John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the moon landing. The theories about Megan as a Tate stand-in didn’t pan out, but it seemed at times as if the show was keeping Manson in the back of viewers’ minds on purpose, and that makes a lot of sense. As historians like Longworth have pointed out, Manson, his family, and people like them were seemingly everywhere in LA in the late 1960s, showing up at parties, hanging out with bona fide rock stars (like Beach Boy Dennis Wilson), hitchhiking at street corners. It makes sense that the Drapers, or Once Upon a Time’s Cliff Booth, or Aquarius’s Sam Hodiak, would find their paths crossing with the Manson family.

Manson’s story also furnishes a template for other fictional worlds

Sometimes, though, the way Charles Manson and his family show up in fiction is more oblique — more as a type than as themselves. In Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The Girls, for instance, Charles Manson never shows up. But it’s clearly a story about him anyway. The protagonist, a disaffected teenager named Evie, runs away and joins a commune led by a man named Russell who’s attended by (and has sex with) a group of young women. Evie becomes fascinated by them, and in particular a girl named Suzanne.

The group eventually murders a number of people at the house of a man named Mitch, against whom Russell has a grudge because Mitch promised to give him a record contract, then didn’t follow through. That’s a version of the way the Manson family ended up at Sharon Tate’s house on August 8, 1969; they went there because the prior occupant was Terry Melcher, who didn’t give Manson a recording contract.

The Girls is also — like many recent stories about the Manson family, fictional and otherwise — a refracting lens for the stories of the Manson girls, which are also told in movies like the 2019 film Charlie Says. Though early retellings of the story often focused on Manson himself, later ones have tackled the motivations of the girls, and the ways that their willingness to prostrate themselves to Manson’s desires and orders reflects and twists patriarchal assumptions. Manson surrounded himself with young women, but he was plainly misogynistic and often abusive. Untangling their attraction to him is a whole genre unto itself.

Sarah Paulson as one of the Manson girls and Rachel Roberts as Sharon Tate in American Horror Story: Cult’s episode entitled “Charles in Charge.”
Sarah Paulson as one of the Manson girls and Rachel Roberts as Sharon Tate in American Horror Story: Cult’s episode entitled “Charles in Charge.”

This same use of Manson’s tactic as a template for other characters’ stories shows up in American Horror Story’s seventh season, subtitled Cult. The season’s cult leader, Kai, played by Evan Peters, uses a number of different historical cults as templates for his actions. For him, leading a cult is a means to an end, and that end is gaining political power for people like him: white men. (The season is, in truth, a bit of a mess.)

In the 10th episode, “Charles in Charge,” Kai recounts to his band of angry white male followers the story of Manson and the murders, and as he tells the story we see key players from the American Horror Story universe stand in for various Manson girls, with Kai himself as Manson. It’s a fever dream, and one that animates the imagination of his followers, who enthusiastically agree when he says that they need to unleash “a night of a thousand Tates” on the world — in other words, commit lots of high-profile murders to cause fear and draw attention to their cause. That, he tells them, will cause them to gain power and, eventually, the presidency.

This, too, bears strong resemblance to what Manson was actually after. Kai calls the “night of a thousand Tates” his own “helter-skelter” — a reference to the most baffling, weird, and blood-curlingly racist part of Manson’s worldview. Manson and his followers referred to the coming apocalypse as “Helter Skelter.” It sounds genuinely wild but, in brief, Manson lifted the term from a song on the Beatles’ White Album and applied it to his vision of the future, in which a race war between white and black people would break out. The black people would prevail because they were stronger and kill off white people. Meanwhile, the Manson family would be hiding in an underground city below Death Valley (accessible by something he called the “bottomless pit”), so they wouldn’t be killed in the war.

Kai (Evan Peters) as Charles Manson in American Horror Story: Cult.
Kai (Evan Peters) as Charles Manson in American Horror Story: Cult.

But after black people prevailed, Manson said, they wouldn’t know how to rule, so the (white) Manson family would emerge and take over. The murders were part of a plan to kick off Helter Skelter; the group was supposed to make it seem as if the Black Panthers had committed the crimes and therefore incite the war. And so, the styling of AHS: Cult’s Manson episode as a way for Kai and his proto-MAGA cult to explicitly gain power for male white supremacists also matches what Manson was really about.

All this fictional retreading of his story shows that Manson was, in a way, a success

There are plenty of other fictional universes in which Manson and his family make an appearance. The girls who survived being part of the family furnished some of the inspiration for the 2011 indie drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which the title character has recently left a cult where young women regularly had sex with a charismatic male leader. In Alison Umminger’s 2016 YA novel American Girls, researching the Manson family becomes an opportunity for self-awakening for a 15-year-old young woman. The 2015 indie comedy Manson Family Vacation is about two bickering brothers who grow closer while visiting sites connected with Manson and the murders. And the 16th episode of South Park’s second season — a spoof of the famous A Charlie Brown Christmas special entitled “Merry Christmas Charlie Manson!” — suggests that if Manson experienced Christmas, he might have a change of heart. (Kind of.)

And now that Ghost Adventures’ Zak Bagans has purchased the house in which the family murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the day after the Tate murders, there’s undoubtedly more Manson family-based entertainment on the way.

Gypsy (Lena Dunham) leads a pack of Manson girls in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Gypsy (Lena Dunham) leads a pack of Manson girls in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Sony Pictures

All of which, in a way, is what Manson (who died in 2017 while serving a life sentence) kind of wanted. Manson came to Hollywood, like many others, looking for fame and fortune as a rock star, something he was sure he was owed. He never reached that goal through his music. But the last five decades have delivered it to him in an entirely different way. He’s not a literal rockstar; he’s a prototype, a paradigm, an archetype.

And he’s a mirror, too. We create and experience fiction, as a culture, to work out our anxieties, fears, and hopes. So perhaps our continued obsession with Manson and his family — and not just in documentaries, but in our imaginations, too — is a reflection of what scares us. If the American dream holds out the promise that you can be whoever you want to be, as long as you’re willing to go big and work hard, then Charles Manson shows us how that promise can warp and twist the soul to the point of inhumanity.