For many readers, the Charles Manson cult and its murders were before their time. They were before my time too, but I researched them as they are relevant to two of my professional interests, forensic psychiatry and anthropology. Given the shifts in the political landscape in recent years, I suggest this far-right cult and their aims should be of interest to everyone today.
The ‘flower power’ era of the late 60s can seem far away, and especially the scene in sunny California to which many young people flocked. However, the fault lines in society (and not just US society) that the era was the fruit of, are still present. Activists were tackling racism, patriarchy, abuses of military might and, as Hunter S Thompson put it, anticipated “inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil”. That victory has not been won, those young radicals are now pensioners and, tragically, Hunter blew his brains out. But the battles rages on, in fresh ways.
There has often been a focus on the on hallucinogen use by Manson prior to the murders, but this was far from the most notable thing about him - it was hardly unusual then, nor now. Many take hallucinogens at festivals, but we don’t see Glastonbury turn into a far-right army trying to start a war, which is what Manson was trying to do. Twisted politics was the root of the murders, and deluded ideas about ethnicity and the relative worth of people of colour, compared to Manson’s ‘master race’.
Manson’s far-right cult, which he called a ’family’, was behind nine murders in 1969. The slaughter was designed to trigger an apocalyptic race war, just as Anders Breivik’s massacre was designed to trigger a war against Muslims. Manson’s idea was that black people would be blamed for the murders of prominent white figures and there would then be revenge on black people.
Manson called the anticipated war Helter Skelter, a reference to Beatles material onto which he projected all sorts of delusional ideas. These ideas included him being the Messiah of a biblical apocalypse.
Manson’s plan was as convoluted as it was bizarre, but it ultimately relied on the assumption that white people would be wiped out in a race war, except him and his ‘family’ of young white cult members. Prior to the ‘war’ he and his followers were to make an album full of messages about the impeding conflict, just as he imagined there were in Beatles songs. The songs were intended to lure young white women who had flocked to San Francisco to his group. This would, Manson imagined, deprive black men of white women to have sex with, and fuel their frustration and anger.
During the race war, Manson and his enlarged cult (so he anticipated) would remain hidden under Death Valley, where he believed (thanks to the Book of Revelations) to be a city of gold found in a bottomless pit. He hoped to later emerge, with his cult expanded to 144,000 people, to enslave the black population. Even the most modest part of the plan, making the album, did not work out as Manson hoped, and so the murder spree was initiated to speed along the war.
Manson was sentenced with a Swastika scratched on the centre of his forehead, which was subsequently tattooed. While in prison, he and members of his cult had connections with other far-right supremacists, who make up powerful prison gangs.
In the decades since Manson was incarcerated, there has been a rise in far-right activity in the US and across Europe. Over the last decade, white supremacists, such as Richard Spencer and cronies, have attempted to rebrand the far-right by using the term ‘alt-right’. This has had some success, as it has brought people under the umbrella who might not identify as supremacists. Spencer himself, when he isn’t ranting on Twitter about having his verified tick taken away, argues for a white-only country and firmly believes black people are inferior beings.
When we consider the motives of Manson to cause conflict – so he would gain power – these still drive far-right agitators. What would these people be without the battle? Deluded losers. Social media has enabled such people to gain devotees more quickly than Manson did. Therefore, it is right that Twitter and other media limit their toxic influence.