Charles Manson doesn’t represent the apex of hippiedom, or the dark side of the ’60s dream, any more than Sweeney Todd represents the tastes and attitudes of Victorian-era English barbers.
Strange as it is to say, Charles Manson has had quite an extensive pop-culture afterlife. Recently, he and his infamous cult served as an important subplot in Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. He’s also been popping up at various points in the pop-cultural zeitgeist: Fictionalized versions of him appear in TV shows such as Mindhunter and Aquarius, and in Emma Cline’s excellent novel The Girls. Karina Longworth’s superbly researched You Must Remember This podcast, which chronicles lost or forgotten Hollywood history, includes a series of episodes exploring Manson’s peripheral connections to the industry. There are plenty of amateur and professional documentaries analyzing his life and crimes, and he was interviewed by several prominent journalists (as well as Geraldo Rivera) over the years.
Then there are the biographies and true-crime books, including one by the lawyer who put him away, that explain his case in exhaustive detail. His songs have been covered by famous musicians, and back in the ’90s he occasionally appeared on T-shirts. I can think of a few times when he’s been used as a punch line in various comedy bits. It’s fair to say that at this point pretty much every aspect of his lurid life story has been thoroughly told and retold through different lenses. There really isn’t much left to uncover about him—and truth be told, there wasn’t really all that much there to begin with. The issue isn’t necessarily the quality of any of these particular examples—some of them are quite thoughtful and multifaceted in their own right—but the quantity of his appearances in pop culture is a little troubling.
The first problem with all this sympathy for a devil is that all of this attention bestows on Manson a certain measure of the fame he always craved. It also unintentionally indulges in a certain aspect of his shtick, which was to subtly suggest that he had more depth than he really possessed. Part of what helped him to create his cult in the first place was his fairly ordinary obsession with fame and pop culture. Who hasn’t wished to be a rock star or celebrity at one point or another? Manson continually stoked a murderously distorted version of that normal desire in some gullible, alienated youngsters, and demonstrated equal amounts of ruthlessness and cluelessness about what it meant and how to accomplish it. In a certain sense, he’s no less of an amoral social climber than Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, who doesn’t waste any time having moral qualms about killing his way into hanging out with the beautiful people. It’s a common American trait to want fame and fortune but not have a very clear idea about what to do with it if it’s ever attained. When you get right down to it, Manson’s truest motivations were really about as banal as evil gets.
On some level, we are all intrigued by the dark side. Centuries of mythology and literature are full of dynamic villains who flout convention and shatter the social contract to get what they’re after. Satan famously gets the best lines in Paradise Lost, and lots more people tend to want to check out Dante’s Inferno than his travels to purgatory or paradise. But one thing that every great writer knows is that the bad guys need to have something interesting about their characters, a compelling motivation or psychological complexity or dark eloquence that keeps them interesting. There really isn’t any of that going on with Manson.
Sure, Manson had a miserable and brutal childhood and was increasingly warped by spending most of his life in prison. But that only made his later violent inclinations even more textbook. Manson was decidedly not a criminal mastermind, as the pathetic tale of his misdeeds proves. Nor was he a talented but misunderstood artist—just listen to his songs for two minutes and you’ll be quickly disabused of that notion. And he was hardly any kind of radical or revolutionary leader, no matter what he tried to tell himself as he sat around playing Beatles records backwards.
The biggest problem with how we talk about Manson is ultimately categorical. He is often lazily used as a kind of easy framing device to talk about larger cultural issues and generational shifts, usually involving some hand-wringing clichés about “the death of the ’60s,” in the mode of Joan Didion’s declaration that “the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community.”
This is plainly ridiculous.
Charles Manson doesn’t represent the apex of hippiedom, or the dark side of the ’60s dream, any more than Sweeney Todd represents the tastes and attitudes of Victorian-era English barbers. There were plenty of scruffy loners with stoned raps about “The Man” wandering around Haight-Ashbury at the time, but it’s not as if they went off on killing sprees at Grateful Dead concerts. Elevating Charles Manson into any kind of representative generational figure is absurdly hyperbolic.
In truth, it wasn’t Manson or Altamont that did the counterculture in as an effective force for change. It was Richard Nixon’s massive re-election in 1972. Though the Watergate break-in soon proved to be his undoing, he did win 49 states in one of the biggest landslides in American history. And it wasn’t because he found the vital center, either.
If we’re talking about the dark impulses of an era rearing their ugly head, our object of scrutiny should be Nixon’s re-election campaign, which pushed the culture wars as far as they could go. Painting poor George McGovern as the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” and linking Democrats to avatars of depravity was clearly intended to extend the fear and loathing in which Nixon’s target audience held dissidents to his more garden-variety political opponents. Several decades later, we can see how this set the stage for a very different president’s similar culture-war scapegoating. In a sense, treating Manson as a symbol of any general cultural drift unintentionally echoes the demagogy on which Nixon depended.
Waving aside the haze of the pseudo-philosophizing that Manson built up around himself about his ultimate meaning, motives, and impact, it’s clear how little there really was to the man himself. Manson was merely a creep who happened to use basic manipulation and stoned bullshit on already vulnerable kids, and who ended up killing an alarming number of people for no real reason at all. To say any more about him at this point, to keep analyzing him or his place in history, or to make him into a meaningful cultural signifier of any kind merely bolsters his grandiose idea of himself and reinforces how his ghastly image can be used to demonize otherwise fairly harmless folks. As a cultural frame, Manson is empty, except for whatever is projected onto him by others.
Maybe the best way to think about Charles Manson is not at all.