The fear that hovered over Los Angeles in the wake of the August 1969 killings of actress Sharon Tate and six others has, with the passage of a half-century, evolved into an odd and unseemly nostalgia. Charles Manson and his pathetic band of hangers-on have sparked a cottage industry of tours, books and films that recount or rejigger the two nights of horror, the lives of the perpetrators and victims leading up to that point, and the trials and punishments that followed. It’s as if we just can’t let go of our morbid fascination with what seemed at the time to be a defining moment in history.
Or maybe, as sick and bizarre as it may sound, the memory of the cruel, senseless and cold-blooded Manson killings sparks a yearning for some long-ago time when multiple random killings seemed unusual, and when a killer like Manson destroyed comparatively fewer lives than today’s mass murderers — the angry young men, the grudge-fueled middle-aged men, the racist hate mongers, the spiteful teenagers, armed with guns.
In the 1960s, violent crime was beginning a steady climb that was to persist for a quarter century, and perhaps the Manson killings symbolize that frightful era. Today, the nation’s crime rate continues its plunge notwithstanding an occasional spike. Yet this is the heyday of wholesale slaughter.
A gunman killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio, on Sunday, the day after another shooter killed 22 in El Paso, and a week after another killed three in Gilroy, Calif. — although the Gilroy killings are no longer mentioned in news reports because the number of dead is too small in comparison and last week was so long ago.
So commonplace are killings by the hate-filled or the deranged that the single fatality at a Poway synagogue in April is often forgotten when recounting hate killings, because the gunman’s rifle jammed and he couldn’t keep shooting.
But don’t forget — 12 died in Virginia Beach in May. And the last decade has included the 2017 Las Vegas shooting (58 dead), the 2016 Orlando nightclub killings (49 dead), the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (27 dead, including 20 children age 7 and younger). There were also mass killings at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and on and on.
In comparison, the members of Manson’s “family” were — although brutal — rank amateurs.
On the night of Aug. 8, 1969, several of them drove to Tate’s home at Manson’s instruction for the first night of killing in order to — take your pick — launch Manson’s plan for race war or frighten a man who failed to launch Manson’s music career.
Charles “Tex” Watson shot 18-year-old Steven Parent. Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Watson then shot or stabbed hairstylist Jay Sebring, heiress Abigail Folger, their friend Wojciech Frykowski and Tate.
The next night, Watson, Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten tortured and killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.
Prosecutors argued that Manson planned to blame the killings on African Americans in order to start a race war that blacks would win. But then they supposedly would be unable to govern themselves, and Manson would somehow take over.
He was reportedly inspired by bizarre misinterpretations of Beatles lyrics.
Today, self-described Manson experts offer their interpretations and market new theories or purported bits of evidence, often referring to the killer simply as “Charlie” to claim some intimacy or understanding of the murderer.
For the rest of us, it may be tempting to seek some meaning in Manson and his acolytes, perhaps as precursors for today’s mass murderers, or at least those who align themselves with racist or white supremacist ideology, or who harbor some ludicrous notion about their own role in history.
Let it go. If there was any lesson to be learned from the Manson killings 50 years ago, our society failed to learn it.
Manson’s victims deserve to be remembered, as do all murder victims, but Manson and his sorry followers do not. Enough Manson reminiscing. Enough murder nostalgia. We have our own mass murder problem, and we can ill afford to indulge in wistful or lurid looks back to a time when senseless mass killing was so rare that we could remember the names of the killers.