Charles Manson’s bizarre plan to ignite a race war was unknown to Los Angeles in August 1969, as were his pathetic collection of young, rapt followers, his bizarre misinterpretation of Beatle lyrics, and Manson himself. What L.A. knew at the time was that seven people had been brutally murdered in two homes, apparently by invasion-style killers who left little clue as to motive. Crime was up nationwide, the turbulent 1960s were nearing their finale and the world seemed to have lost its mind. The city was terrified.
The closest modern comparison may be disco-era New York, eight years later, when a killer who called himself Son of Sam stalked the streets with a .44 caliber revolver, shot 13 people and wrote mocking notes to police.
David Berkowitz did his own killing (although he has claimed that cultists or demons were to blame for some of the shootings) and Manson did none of his, instead sending his hangers-on to do his grisly work.
In both cases, though, the killers instigated urban panic, gained media notoriety before being caught and, afterward, cemented their presence in the public mind and popular culture, assisted by endless news stories, books, documentaries and dramas.
He is a fixture in the popular imagination, a point underscored in the film Natural Born Killers.
Manson and Berkowitz were rank amateurs by the murderous standards set by more recent killers, who acted in single spasms of violence — without cultish followings and with motives varying from marital spite (as in the Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Rancho Tehama, Calif., shootings) to religio-political (as in the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack) to the still-unknown (as with the Las Vegas mass shooting in October). But in the near future the names of those killers will be recalled only sporadically, perhaps with the help of a quick Google query and a check of Wikipedia. The Son of Sam nickname may linger in New Yorkers’ memory, but the name David Berkowitiz is fading.
But we will remember Manson.
Why is that? After the murders and the trial, Manson did nothing but sit in prison – as befits someone who misused his odd power over others by directing them to commit multiple murders. He forfeited his freedom and died an inmate.
But the rest of us have kept him alive. While some media organizations (although not the Los Angeles Times) have made a point not to repeat the names of suspected mass killers in the belief that doing so gives them unwarranted fame, there is no such decorum with Manson. He is a fixture in the popular imagination, a point underscored in the film Natural Born Killers, itself a send-up of the intimate link between mass murder (or serial killings or spree killings or one of the other carefully categorized distinctions) and pop culture. “Yeah, it’s pretty hard to beat the king,” admits Woody Harrelson’s clearly envious Mickey Knox in the 1994 movie. Guns N’ Roses recorded a middling song Manson wrote. Pop act Marilyn Manson named himself partially after the killer.
It’s hard to argue that Manson’s notoriety did him any good. Although he was sentenced to death, he was spared after a court ruling striking down California’s death penalty statute. But he never got parole, despite repeated pleas for release.
Neither did any of his followers. Susan Atkins died in prison. Patricia Krenwinkel remains locked up, as does Charles “Tex” Watson. A parole board ruled in favor of Leslie Van Houten earlier this year, but it remains to be seen whether Gov. Jerry Brown will reject the decision, as he did a year ago.
The place of the Manson killings in the public mind may help ensure that none of the surviving murderers is ever paroled, leaving this nagging thought: If these killings had not resonated as they did, and were just seven scattered murders, would the five perpetrators have been released long ago? Is parole actually granted or withheld based on the crimes themselves and on evidence of remorse and rehabilitation, as it should be, or instead based on the publicity that can be marshaled for or against the inmates?
It is very much a live question, as California re-envigorates its parole system in response to last year’s Proposition 57. For Manson himself, though, there never was much of a question at all. He was such a troublemaker in prison that he was almost certainly never going to be released. He’s been effectively dead to the world for more than 40 years, except to the extent that we insisted on keeping him alive in print, on television, in pop music and film. It would be nice if now, finally, we would just let him die.