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Charles Manson’s shadow still looms large over LA

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FILE - In this 1969 file photo, Charles Manson is escorted to his arraignment on conspiracy-murder charges in connection with the Sharon Tate murder case.
In this 1969 file photo, Charles Manson is escorted to his arraignment on conspiracy-murder charges in connection with the Sharon Tate murder case. (AP Photo, File)

Manson is dead, but America's morbid fascination with the cult leader is far from over

The gruesome murders committed by Charles Manson's followers and his own madness during the Helter Skelter trial both captivated and terrified Angelenos.  During the summer of 1969, Manson's 'family' murdered actress Sharon Tate and six other people in Los Angeles. In the months following the killings, the city descended into a state of fear and panic as police spent months searching for the perpetrators.

Manson passed away Sunday at the age of 83, but his effect on the psyche of Los Angeles can still be felt.  Jeff Guinn wrote the biography, "Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson." Guinn joined Take Two's A Martinez to talk about Manson's impact.

The mood in Los Angeles following the murders

In between the actual killings and when Manson was actually apprehended and presented to the public as the leader of the killers, the paranoia really grew. It’s almost impossible today to imagine how frightened and how paranoid the atmosphere in Los Angeles was at the time.

You've got to remember that you had the Tate killings, five people slaughtered including an actress whose name was fairly well known. that’s in the newspaper one day.  And then the next day in Los Feliz, which is an upper-class neighborhood, two more people are slaughtered. They didn't even consider that killings could be done by the same people.

But the gruesomeness of people literally butchered and words written on the walls with blood had people throughout L.A., especially in the well-to-do areas, in a widespread panic. It seemed like anybody could die.

I think the best example of this paranoia is that guard dogs were selling for maybe $200 apiece before the murders. On Monday August the 11th, that’s two days after the murders, guard dogs could not be bought in Los Angles for less than $1,500. Hardware stores sold guns in those days, maybe around three to four guns a day.  But now every hardware store in Los Angeles was sold out of guns; I mean literally 200 to 300 guns were being sold at individual stores a day. The waves of revulsion and fear were touching everybody…

'Long hairs' or hippies -- because there was some sense once Manson was first apprehended that he was just a hippie -- had a grizzly joke among them that was ‘you may as well not hitchhike anymore, because nobody will pick you up; [everyday people] are afraid of us all.’

So the paranoia was widespread and it lasted for months and months, not just after the killings and Manson arrest, but all during the so-called Helter Skelter trial.

The role of the press in drawing attention to Manson

There were plenty of updates and here’s the reason why: Manson’s timing always worked brilliantly for him and terribly for the rest of the world. Just as this is happening, there is a newspaper war between the two Los Angeles dailies at the time. And they were competing with each other because a Manson or Helter Skelter or LaBianca story would pull lots of eyes to your newspaper...

So you’ve got the two newspapers in L.A. everyday competing over who can come up with the grizzliest story, the strangest story, and obviously there was plenty of weirdness to go around. It happened every day, so it kept escalating. I mean it was palpable -- almost a living thing -- this panic, this fear, this paranoia…

If you looked at the different areas in Los Angeles like Santa Monica, weekend nights teenagers  would usually just be roaming the streets, but now that wasn’t happening.  People were literally afraid to walk down the street in Los Angeles.

The role of Los Angeles in making Manson so well known

You’ve got to remember in 1969, California was the epicenter of culture for kids, the American public and the world. It was also frankly the epicenter of violence after Watts, but all eyes were focused on California. First in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco, Charlie [Manson] pretended to be an omniscient guru where he collected most of his followers.

In Los Angeles, the heart of the recording industry and Hollywood, people were used to looking at Los Angeles for stories that entertained. And gradually as the Helter Skelter trial went on, people literally began forgetting that innocent people had died horribly at the hands of Charles Manson’s followers. And to a certain extent it became entertainment. think of Manson in that day as sort of a criminal Kardashian. He’s amusing people, he’s giving them something to look at and think about.

How Manson influenced the way we process high-profile murders in Los Angeles

Los Angeles was an epicenter of media focus then just as much as it is today. But beyond that, people in the rest of country, there’s an exaggerated sense of importance given to cultural events in California and that included crime and violence.  It’s not that horrific things don’t happen all over the country, but somehow when they happen in California, particularly Southern California, there’s this fine line that’s crossed. It becomes not only something to be repulsed by; it’s also entertainment. And you’re right, if this had happened in podunk Nebraska, no we would be talking about them now. But here we are all these years later [still talking about it]. And I think for another generation Charlie Manson’s name is still going to generate interest in Americans.


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