Celebrity as Religion – Case Study: Charles Manson

‘As a matter of fact, Manson apparently didn’t think that two and a half hours was enough. He wrote me a postcard saying that he wished we’d had more time for him to say what was on his mind – more time to explain himself. He said he was sorry that I didn’t believe some of the things that he told me. He ended it by saying ‘maybe when you see the world die you will see how real I try to be’. How do we process the horrors lurking under Charles Manson’s infamy? Do we sweep him under the rug, or stare him right in the face? Why is he still relevant? Why do his actions, and who he was, still
resonate with us? After Charles Manson died on November 17th, 2017, there was a surge
of interest regarding both his personality and his crimes, which is common when a controversial
figure dies. The first time I learned who Michael Jackson was and listened to his music
was when he died when I was 11. Regardless of what you say about Charles Manson or what he deserves, you can’t deny he’s a pretty compelling figure to say the least. ‘Tell me in a sentence who you are.’ ‘Nobody.’ Along with Nuremburg, Ted Bundy, O. J. Simpson,
Saddam Hussein and Michael Jackson, the Manson family’s murder spree was widely decreed
to be a ‘trial of the century’, and because it happened amongst a slew of incredibly influential
events which took place over the short span of a month (Woodstock, moon landings, Vietnam,
the end of the 1960s, etc.) he’s often tied to a sense of nostalgia. Brian Hugh Warner
combined and juxtaposed Manson’s name with an equally iconic figure, Marilyn Monroe,
to form his stage name and the name of his band, Marilyn Manson. And as it would happen
he wasn’t the only musician to take inspiration from Manson. As human beings we like to categorise and
quantify things because it’s how we understand what appears too complex. What labels have
we given Manson to understand him? How do you perceive him? How did Manson see himself?
Well, either as nothing – ‘I’m nobody. I’m a tramp, a bum, a hobo.’ – or everything.
If Manson saw that someone was trying to put him into a box, he would argue that label
was in fact a reflection of them, and not who he was. Many view the over-saturation, wall-to-wall
coverage and constant exposure of school shooters and/or terrorists as negative, concerned that
this will only promote more violence. Joker was probably the most timely and culturally
relevant film of the year largely because it dares to ask: what inspires us to become
violent? After all the hype and concern, I was led to believe it was going to be much
more violent than it ended up being. Sure, it’s a violent film, no doubt, but I was caught off-guard by its level of restraint. What I took from Joker was that the violence that ensues is
simply a result of a society ignoring, and in some instances vilifying, those with mental
illness. The cinema where the 2012 Aurora shooting occurred refused to show Joker, and
according to Roger Evans, the concept that James Holmes entered the theatre dressed as
Heath Ledger’s Joker is actually a major misconception. Holmes wore a gas mask, headphones, a load-bearing vest, ballistic helmet, and
other protective gear. I can’t help but wonder why the fake Joker-inspired narrative
was more interesting to the public than the truth. We’ve seen instances of killers taking inspiration
from the media. The Zodiac killer most likely took inspiration from The Most Dangerous Game,
and would go on to inspire Heriberto Seda, an American serial killer who operated in
New York from 1990-1993, as well as possibly 14-year-old Shinichiro Azuma who killed two
people and injured two others in Kobe, Japan, in 1997. Both sent codes and taunting letters
to police. John Hinckley Jr. become inspired by Taxi Driver to shoot Ronald Reagan in 1981.
14-year-old school shooter Barry Loukaitis possibly took inspiration from The Basketball
Diaries, which not many people
know about because it happened on the same day as the Columbine massacre. Many killers
have taken inspiration from others, such as the Tylenol poisonings copycat, and in Mindhunter
the characters note how much of Manson’s philosophy was borrowed. So does violence
inspire violence? Well, it can, but not in a vacuum – there are always other factors
at play, whether it be mental health, drugs, abuse, etc. But what about when violence inspires
adoration, celebrity… even love? Hybristophilia, also known as Bonnie and Clyde
syndrome, describes the attraction towards those who have committed a crime or outrage.
On the one hand you have individuals who may be turned on by their partner cheating on
them, and on the other hand you have Manson’s family drawn to a criminal who would go on
to inspire horrific killings, and a fan culture and glorification of other criminals, usually
expressed online through fan art, such as the Columbine shooters. Many notorious criminals
receive fan mail from those sometimes referred to as ‘prison groupies’ while incarcerated
and sometimes end up marrying those who learn about them through the media. One of the first
widespread examples of this was Ted Bundy, and others such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Richard Ramirez experienced similar waves of adoring fans. Just to be clear, I certainly don’t wish to condone this behaviour at all, but it’s obvious that people will fetishise and celebrify anything.
In recent years it has become more absurd than ever. When Manson was on trial, his followers
threatened to immolate themselves outside the courthouse if he was ruled guilty, and
when Manson carved an ‘X’ into his forehead to symbolise that he had been ‘crossed out
of the world’, his flock followed suit. The screenwriters of Mindhunter do an incredible
job building the tension for the confrontation with Manson from the very first episode of
Season 1 and in Season 2, Episode 5, we have a ten-minute long scene of Holden and Bill
interviewing him. In Season 1, Holden’s emotional arc comes to a head at the end of
the last episode, and is a satisfying conclusion. I found Manson’s scene in Season 2 to be the most personally engaging because it’s where Bill’s emotional arc
comes to a climax. Bill’s logical, grounded, compartmentalising method is completely at
odds with Manson’s chaotic, spiralling and abstract philosophy. For Tench, solving crimes
is an equation, but trying to apply the old formula to new crimes – and not just random
murders, but targeted attacks on the innocent elite – gets him nowhere. Understanding Manson’s philosophy is no
simple task. Holden is able to attempt empathy for the subject in the hopes of gaining a
deeper cognition. Kemper seems to understand Manson, or can at least relate to him – ‘It’s not easy butchering people, it’s hard work. Physically and mentally I don’t think people realise… you need to vent’, but because Manson attacks some of Bill’s most deeply-rooted beliefs, it becomes intensely personal. Mindhunter is about psychological manipulation.
In Season 1, Tench is used to being able to cope with the violence he experiences. Others
are shaken by it – ‘what people won’t do to each other… there’s nothing people won’t
do’ – but he always has a calm fortitude. In Season 2, Bill starts to become more emotionally affected by his work because of how it connects to his home life. For Bill, it’s quite easy
to categorise Manson before he meets him, ascribe him a label – ‘you fuckin’ midget!’
– and the interview begins more or less normally. Manson doesn’t say a word for the first
two minutes as Holden and Bill introduce themselves. Manson gets his claws into Bill quickly by
learning that he is a family man, and uses this to attack him psychologically for the
rest of the interview. They then discuss Manson’s level of responsibility for the murders. ‘Let’s talk about August 9th, 1969.’ ‘That is gone in the past, and when it is gone, it is gone, brother.’ ‘That summer you told the family now is the time for Helter Skelter.’ ‘That they needed to start a race war by murdering wealthy white people -‘ ‘That’s the District Attorney’s fantasy, that’s his fears. That’s a reflection of his fears.’ ‘So you’re saying this never happened?’ ‘Sure I’m saying that never happened! Bugliosi is a genius, man!’ ‘He got everything a prosecutor would want, except one thing: a case.’ Manson argues that Helter Skelter is a fantasy dreamt up by the District Attorney and relays that he feels he’s been deserted by his family. Manson also demonstrates an awareness of how others perceive him. ‘Now, I might have had an opinion about blacks and whites and the hassles they were having, but I don’t recall anything about starting a race war.’ ‘So how did that become ‘the story?’ ‘It was Sadie who started hearing messages in the White Album.’ ‘She gave the media the material for any perversion they cared print. The DA grabbed Sadie’s version and ran all the way through the courtroom with it. Charles Manson, the most dangerous man alive! Hippie cult-leader who programmed people to kill! In that book he’s got me so powerful a look from me stopped his watch!’ – understanding how the media and the public have mythologised him. If Manson was not only a hippie but a leader of them, Bill’s confrontation with Manson is by extension
an expression of his disapproval of the counter-cultural movement. Bill thinks he knows how to be a
husband, a father, two areas of acute vulnerability for him, but when he comes face-to-face with
Manson, those foundations he built are challenged. Manson sees Bill as what he instructed his
followers to write on the walls in the victims’ blood – a pig, a stony-faced suit giving
him rules, telling him how to act. If ‘now is the only thing that is real’, it follows
that we thus have no responsibility for our actions in the past. If Manson is nothing,
or just a reflection of others’ fears, and he didn’t personally commit the murders…
is there anything to fear? Manson’s scene directly contrasts to Tex’s
scene later in the episode, who does accept responsibility for his actions, and finds
hope for his future through religion (which Manson derides). Religion is a key motif in
Season Two: Manson echoes Christ’s pose in the crucifixion, the scene with Kemper
takes place in a chapel, an extended sequence in Atlanta heavily features crosses, all of
this tying back to a murder which occurs incredibly close to home for Bill. At this point I think
it’s important to consider the religiosity of celebrity and the celebrification of religious or cult-like figures. I mean, how different are they really? Is celebrity just the conglomeration of labels we ascribe to someone in the public
eye? Before Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood! came
out, I felt incredibly anxious about how Tarantino would deal with the Manson family murders.
How would Tarantino, obviously renowned for his hyper-stylised violence, tastefully handle
some of the most gruesome and gut-wrenching murders in America’s history? Thankfully,
instead of the gory, sad end to a tragic story, Tarantino delivers his most meta film yet,
subverting our expectations, turning a quote used by the killers – ‘I’m the devil
and I’m here to do the devil’s business’ – into a joke at Tex Watson’s expense
– ‘…nah, it was dumber than that.’ ‘Something like… Rex…’ ‘God, shoot him, Tex!’ ‘Tex!’ I was certainly expecting to see more of Charles Manson in the film, and the one scene we’re
granted is a depiction of something that actually happened (Manson stopping by the Cielo Drive
house looking for someone else). But in terms of narrative, what purpose does it serve?
Cliff watches the scenario unfold as he fixes the roof of the house owned by Leonardo DiCaprio’s
character Rick Dalton, but Manson isn’t present when he visits Manson’s desert commune
at Spahn ranch, and, true to history, isn’t present at any of the murders. Tarantino certainly
doesn’t glorify Manson or the hippie lifestyle, but neither does he attempt to humanise him
or give him much relevance to the main thrust of the narrative. The infamous becoming celebrated figures is
nothing new. Gangsters such as Al Capone and John Dillinger have long captured the public’s
imagination. Jack the Ripper was the first widely publicised serial killer to grip the
press, and before then bushrangers such as Ned Kelly were the Australian equivalent of
outlaws Billy the Kid or Jesse James, whose myths often overcame their notoriety and horrendous deeds. Pirates developed mythic personæ the rumours of which would spread by mouth across
the seas, an example of which being Blackbeard, who would tie lit fuses to his dreadlocks,
or Ching Shih, who commanded over three hundred ships manned by an army of 20,000-40,000 men,
women and children, and was renowned across Asia for her conquests and exploits. Oral
and written tradition were the only way to learn of these legends, and before then you
usually had to be either royalty, part of the church, have some sort of conflict with
royalty or the church (i.e. Joan of Arc as well as countless other martyrs and saints),
or be fictional. The functions of religion and celebrity are
remarkably similar. Both are methods of narrativisation, making sense of the senseless, a way of dealing
with the vagueness of life. Through both we can achieve some sort of transcendence and
meaning-making, through both can we share communion and community with others who might share our beliefs and interests. The euphoria that we can feel through being part of an audience
and engaging with a powerful figure can be intoxicating. We want to feel part of something,
to feel like we belong, are part of a family, and there’s a term for this: collective
effervescence. As our society shifted from agrarian to industrialised, and then with the advent of the digital age,
we became blessed with more free time on our hands than ever, and we fill it up with more
and more online content each day, more and more stories, myths, and those who preach
them. No longer do we hobble to church to have our meaning-making tales of old pontificated
to us, rather we decide who we want to hear from out of an ever-expanding pool of people
clamouring for our attention and desperate for clout. Relics of celebrities aren’t treated much
differently from the way religion displays and cares for theirs. Jackie Kennedy’s pink
Chanel suit is stored away from public view in air-tight, temperature-controlled, windowless
room in the National Archives and according to the deed of her heir won’t be displayed
until 2103. I can’t help but be reminded of the way the Vatican treats their artefacts.
Speaking of Jackie, in 1974 Larry Flynt purchased pictures of her posing nude for $18,000 and
published them in the August 1975 issue of Hustler, making him an overnight millionaire.
It’s not the first time that a man has capitalised on a woman’s fame in this way; Hugh Hefner
published nude photos of Marilyn Monroe in Playboy without ever asking her consent or
paying her for it. I wonder how many people consider the person behind ‘the Fappening’
to be a saint. Fans make pilgrimages to Hollywood Boulevard
and Graceland much in the same way Muslims pilgrimage to Mecca. How do we deify someone?
With a halo? With angel’s wings? How do we teach future generations to venerate iconic
figures? Through adorning them with intricate robes and precious gems and metals? Through
putting them on a throne or pedestal? How do we peddle these people to the masses? Are
autographs, selfies, merchandise and collectibles really much different from the way the Vatican
exploits the Pope and his image for profit? When I visited Rome in 2015 I went to a gift
shop in the Vatican where you could buy mass-produced images of Pope Francis, and I wondered…
at what point does it become idolatry? When you’re taught to revere someone or something
from a young age, and you don’t question why you should or you’re taught not to ask
questions or talk back, it becomes blind obedience, and we seek to make the intangible tangible.
To remind us that the thing is real we must hold the thing, touch the thing, experience
the thing. But say you want a taste of the holiness.
You want to be adored, even worshipped, throngs of fans screaming your name. Who cares about
working on being a good person, developing an interesting personality, or contributing
something valuable or educational – you want to amass a bunch of brand deals, sell
t-shirts with your name on them and become filthy rich. How do you that? It’s actually
pretty easy: be charismatic. Max Weber defines charismatic authority as ‘a certain quality
of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and
treated as if endowed by supernatural, superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers
or qualities’. Charisma comes from the Greek, meaning ‘divine gift of grace’ or a ‘special
ability given by the gods’. Stage presence, confidence, the x-factor, the ability to influence
other people. We see this in the Christian myth of the Pentecost – a visitation from
the divine granting you power to communicate and connect with others, the ability to go
out and preach. So we’ve established that celebrity can
be dangerous. Crazed fans kill their idols, idols manipulate their fans, constantly being surrounded by waves of people all desperate
for a piece of you and plagues of paparazzi whose job it is to capture your likeness for
profit can have a real affect on some people’s mental health. So in that way, it’s again
similar to religion: think of the Crusades, the countless wars waged and terrorist acts
inspired over religious differences, and how deadly things can become when charisma and religion are fused. Celebrity and religion can both inspire positive change and lead
us to a better society, or, it can lead to this. To conclude, a 27-year-old woman named Afton Elaine Burton, also known as ‘Star’, tried to marry Charles
Manson so that after his death she could profit off people coming to view his body. Burton,
53 years his junior, planned to display his remains in a glass crypt, an idea which didn’t make sense to Manson, who believed he was immortal.

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