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How Charles Manson Left His Mark On Pop Culture


The death of Charles Manson yesterday doesn't end his place in pop culture, where he's practically immortal. Nearly 50 years have passed since he was put away for his role in a string of gruesome murders that happened in 1969, and the Manson story has been told in many ways since then. "Helter Skelter," the true crime novel about the Manson family murders, sold more than 7 million copies and inspired a TV movie.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: From the best-selling book that revealed every true and bloody detail now comes the motion picture that has already shocked 100 million Americans.

HU: Guns N' Roses released a song written by Manson in 1993.


AXL ROSE: (Singing) Look at your game, girl. Look at your game, girl.

HU: One of the best-selling books last year, Emma Cline's "The Girls," was inspired by his cult. And this year, "American Horror Story" proved you just can't tell a story about cults without mentioning Charles Manson.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What looked like the work of a bunch of psychopaths was actually a part of something much, much larger, something that in 50 years' time would be remembered and repeated repeatedly. Charles Manson was playing the long game here.

HU: To dig into this deeper, Scott Bonn joins us on the line. He's a criminologist and the author of "Why We Love Serial Killers." Scott, thanks for coming on the program.

SCOTT BONN: Thank you very much for having me.

HU: What is it about Charles Manson in particular and his cult that are so interwoven with Hollywood at that particular time in the late-1960s?

BONN: It's due to I think a number of factors. Partially it's Manson himself. He was just such an over-the-top, bizarre character and yet at the same time very charismatic that he was riveting. And then you had his following - these attractive, young women who seemed to just be slaves at his behest and the killings themselves - I mean, just bloodcurdlingly horrible murders. And the victims - in many cases, they were the beautiful people, the rich and famous in Hollywood. And it happened of course on the backdrop of not only Hollywood but the peace and love movement of the late-1960s. So it was such a contradiction. It just absolutely blew the minds of the public at the time.

HU: What is it about evil or these acts of evil that you think broadly captures people's imagination?

BONN: We're compelled to know why. We want to know why people would do these things. And I think it also begs us to look within ourselves. Could I ever do something like this? I think that it's human nature to wonder why would someone do this, and are there any circumstances under which I might do something horrible? And so it gets us to look within ourselves.

HU: Now, if there weren't enough Manson-based stories already, now we learned that director Quentin Tarantino's next film is also going to be based on Manson. Is Charles Manson always going to be a muse for professional storytellers?

BONN: Yeah, I think so. I mean, there are certain iconic individuals that stand the test of time. And individuals collect all kinds of strange things, including Manson's hair clippings from prison. People pay thousands of dollars for that. And if you go online, you can buy strange products like onesies for your babies with Charles Manson's face on it. (Laughter) So there are people out there who are just - will go to the extreme with their obsession with these things.

HU: Scott, it's striking that we're talking about this name who's so glorified in pop culture while at the same time, in this time of mass shootings that we're seeing in the United States, there's more and more conversation about withholding the name of these killers because we don't want to give them notoriety. What's the difference between what Charles Manson enjoyed I guess or continues to enjoy in terms of notoriety versus this debate that we're having now about maybe keeping the names of killers quiet?

BONN: It had something to do with the crimes themselves. The psychology or the pathology of a mass shooter is very different than Manson. Manson basked in glory. He saw himself as the savior in many ways, whereas these mass public shooters are fatalistic individuals who oftentimes want to go out in a blaze of glory. And there's a recognition that we should really focus on the victims themselves.

The Manson story was so compelling. It was almost inevitable that it was going to become a larger-than-life story. But I do think that over the years, we've learned that it's not a good thing to give these individuals notoriety and publicity and focus more on the victims wherever we possibly can.

HU: Criminologist Scott Bonn speaking to us from Las Vegas via Skype. Scott, thanks.

BONN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Bonn