While NBC gives us the glitz and glamour of the EMMYs on Monday night, FOX will be giving us.. Charles Manson. It’s quite the contrast, to say the least. But, hey, counter-programming has long been a network strategy.
Inside the Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes examines 100 hours of recently resurfaced videos, many taken from inside Manson’s compound. For those not up to speed on the shockingly bloody crime, Charles Manson drew in young followers in the sixties, and eventually convinced several of them to go on an A-List killing spree, known as the Tate-Labianca murders. Sharon Tate was a model and actress, eight months pregnant, and married to (now infamous) director Roman Polanski. If you read about the killings, make yourself a drink before you dive in!
The Cocktail hung out with the producer of the special, Simon Andreae, to get a sense of whythe murders still fascinate us after all these years.
So, what gives? “I think partly we care because next year is going to be the fiftieth anniversary of the Tate-Labianca murders, so a big milestone in the Manson story.” Fifty is a good, round number, and you can couple that with the fact that Manson just died late last year. Those two factors led Quentin Tarantino to start work on a Manson movie, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” which will be out in late July on the anniversary of the killing spree.
But Simon says it’s a lot more than timing. It’s the grip Manson continues to hold from beyond the grave. “I think Manson himself, like it or not, was an intensely charismatic personality. You only have to look at a few seconds of footage of him, sometimes even a photograph, and he is a compelling, magnetic personality, whatever he did.”
Simon also points out it’s shocking for the sheer breadth of violence, “He crossed so many ethical, moral and social taboos all at once and to such an extreme degree of sex, of violence, of brainwashing, and of course, of murder.”
Good & Evil
“He is the poster child for evil, by which to some extent we can then measure good.” Manson was such an extreme example wretchedness, Simon believes we can find good by examining his evil. “Frankly to some degree, in order to understand what right behavior is, we need to have examples of wrong behavior. I’m not advocating anyone committing a crime but I do think that is part of the fascination.”
Manson’s been called many things, but a “people person” isn’t one of them. You just have to watch one of his parole hearings to figure that out. But that’s not to say his presence wasn’t felt. “He is just a very magnetic personality. One of the prosecutors in the Manson trial who appears in our documentary, says you knew when Manson was in a room. Whether you were looking in his direction or not, you knew when he was in the room.”
But it was always uncomfortable. “He was that charismatic. That magnetic. But as I say, beyond that, his deeds were so evil he struck right at the heart of America’s most sacred space, Beverly Hills, Hollywood.”
Making of A Murderer
But even in America of the sixties, pop culture would ratchet up even the most violent of crimes. And that’s what happened with the Manson murders. “He killed almost the equivalent of the Virgin Mary in Christian culture. A young, white, pregnant, beautiful film star. Everything in the late sixties America held sacred.” But there was more than just a starlet killed. “He didn’t just kill her. He very brutally murdered and stabbed her. Or rather his followers did who came under his control. For that reason too, I think the act was so desecrating that it captured America’s imagination as a true horror story.”
The special has a ton of footage of Manson with his disciples. And Simon told us watching hour after hour affected him personally. “It affected me deeply because when you hear about the Manson story, even when you see one or two of the characters involved today talking about what happened in the past, you can scarcely believe that it’s possible to take a regular, white bread, middle class, law-abiding citizen and turn them within the space of two years or less, into a brutal, callous, unthinking killer.”
The toughest part is knowing that it didn’t have to be that way, but you can’t yell at the screen to stop the inevitable. “When you watch the tapes, you can see in real-time. these kids being changed and brainwashed. You can see it in their eyes. You can hear it in their voice. That I think is what is most unique and compelling about seeing the actual footage of those kids from the time.”
Til Death Til They Depart
The murderers from that night, the most blindly loyal and ruthless of Manson’s disciples, are still behind bars. And we asked Simon if, now that Manson is dead, any of them will ever see the light of day. “If history is anything to go by, no. The killers who are still behind bars have now been up for parole one, two, three, sometimes a dozen or more times.”
He points out that one of them actually came close, but it didn’t happen. “I know Governor Jerry Brown, in theory, was possibly going to release (Leslie Van Houten) earlier this year. It didn’t happen.”
And, frankly, a Manson Murderer walking free is just too much for people to grasp. “To be honest, I think America would be so appalled at the idea that our justice system could release people who committed crimes that severe and heinous. And that becomes so much a part of the fabric of evil in our society. My suspicion is they will live out the rest of their lives behind bars.”
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
The Mai-Tai. It was the most popular cocktail in the late sixties, after getting its start during the tiki craze in California. A perfect tribute to the era of this show.