At This Point, Really, Is There Anything Left to Explain About the Manson Murders?

A new Fox documentary on the late mass murderer Charles Manson reinforces, perhaps not by choice, the near-certainty that there may be little more to know or say about him.

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Inside the Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes, which airs Monday, Sept. 17, at 8 p.m. ET, suggests in its opening minutes that an extensive, long-buried stash of vintage film footage and audio tape will give us a new understanding of how Manson’s small cult came to infamously slaughter seven people in 1969.

We’ve had mass murders since then. The Manson killings sparked their own level of media frenzy because one of the victims was the well-known actress Sharon Tate and all the deaths were seemingly random, that is, suddenly no one in all of Los Angeles was safe.

When Manson and five of his followers were arrested, several turned out to be young women who apparently had been so mesmerized by Manson that they killed on his orders without question. Yes, that’s scary.

“They turned hippies into zombies,” one interviewee here remarks.

The Lost Tapes, we are told at the beginning, draws on more than a hundred hours of 1968–69 film footage plus numerous audio tapes in which a filmmaker interviewed Manson and his followers, who at the time numbered about 30.

They lived on a ranch 30 miles north of Los Angeles, the Spahn ranch, under a deal worked out by Manson with the owner, 80-year-old George Spahn. The suggestion here is that in lieu of rent, Manson’s girls worked around the ranch and may have provided personal services to Mr. Spahn.

In fact, Lost Tapes narrator Liev Schreiber explains, that’s consistent with the playbook by which Manson started building his cult in the first place.

An unknown musician fresh off a seven-year jail term, Manson played his guitar on street corners until he had attracted a handful of attractive young women. Broken wings, they’re called here –- women as young as 14 who were adrift and wanted someone to be nice to them.

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Manson then leveraged these women to bring in young men, and he kept them all with a menu of sex, drugs, music and nonsensical gibberish about becoming one with each other and showing them the true path.

To be fair, there was a lot of nonsense like that in the late 1960s. Most of it just didn’t lead to murder.

Lost Tapes tracks the well-known story of how Manson met Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who liked anyone who had a stable of willing women and introduced Manson to music producer Terry Melcher.

Manson auditioned for Melcher, who correctly assessed his music as boring. An angry Manson silently swore he’d get even, which is how he came to have his team kill five people, including Tate, at a house Melcher was renting. Melcher wasn’t home and thus wasn’t among them.

Lost Tapes notes Manson tried to leave clues that would pin those murders, and another two the next night, on the Black Panthers. This would start a race war, he told his cult members, that would wipe out all black people except for a few who would survive to become Manson’s servants.

Hold that thought.

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Later in the documentary, an FBI profiler who interviewed Manson in 1979 says he challenged Manson on the scenario of a race war, which Manson called “Helter-Skelter” after a Beatles song. All you really wanted, the profiler says he suggested to Manson, was sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

He says Manson just laughed and nodded.

It’s also possible, however, that the race war fantasy, however insane, was real. Manson was in fact a white supremacist, allied with the Aryan Brotherhood. In prison he scratched a swastika on his forehead.

Lost Tapes never uses the phrase “white supremacist.” It probably should be in the conversation.

Interestingly, the documentary makes somewhat sparing use of the actual lost tapes. There’s almost nothing of Manson himself. There are a number of scary scenes in which his female followers reiterate and pledge loyalty to whatever Charlie said. There are scenes of, say, the whole group frolicking on acid.

We also get contemporary interviews with Catherine “Gypsy” Share and Dianne “Snake” Lake, two members of the family who weren’t involved in the killings. Their explanations of Manson’s appeal may be the freshest part of Lost Tapes.

Several pivotal scenes in the Manson family’s evolution are re-enacted. This is a standard technique, which doesn’t make it good or particularly satisfying. That’s especially true when a documentary has promised a large cache of rare source material.

But the lack of revelations doesn’t all fall on the filmmakers. It’s just as likely that they watched these hundred-plus hours of video, listened to all the tapes and realized there’s not much left to reveal.

A charismatic white supremacist corralled lost girls by promising them a a family, a life of caring and pleasure, then used them to carry out his psychopathic fantasies.

And maybe in the end the “how” and “why” may be no more than Bruce Springsteen explained through his Charles Starkweather character in the 1982 song “Nebraska”:

“If you ask why I did what I did,

Sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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