Manson Remains The Model For Villains

Posted: August 08, 1999

If Charles Manson did not exist, we would have had to invent him - or someone just as irresistibly grotesque.

We need a gold-standard bogeyman, a human monster incarnate, against whose misdeeds all others can be measured - and there he is.

We need a man to remind us that celebrity is about quantity, not quality - and so he metastasizes his 15 horrendous minutes into a lifetime as a master of scam.

There have been more prolific serial killers than Charles Manson - the Night Stalker, murderer of 13 and perhaps more. There have been, if possible, more depraved ones - Lawrence Bittaker, who recorded the keening anguish of the women he tortured and killed, to enjoy later at his leisure.

Yet Manson remains the archetype, the nightmare made flesh, invoked as the cautionary tale against drugs, against rock music, against license, against, even, California. Thirty years after the gory August weekend that put him in prison for the final time, three months from reaching the gold-watch age of 65, Charles Manson sits in Corcoran Prison, in special quarters that confirm his singular status to himself and the world.

He inks in his forehead swastika afresh, reads his fan mail - four letters a day on average, more than any other man in stir - and broods over the district attorney who put him there, over Richard Nixon who, from the Oval Office, deigned to pronounce him guilty.

His acolytes freshen his name via Web sites. He has been the subject of an opera. Comedians use the Manson Family to make mock of family values. He is a cash cow for sellers of T-shirts and crime memorabilia. He is Manson Inc.

Here is the length of the shadow he casts: A judge sentencing a Los Angeles area woman to prison for paddling her child to death to expel the devil compared her to Charles Manson, meriting "a special place in hell." A prosecutor of a Ventura County, Calif., man who enlisted his girlfriend to kill his wife referred to him as "the Charles Manson of the whole thing." A friend of mine lives in Benedict Canyon, near Los Angeles, where each August, the tourists come looking for the house where actress Sharon Tate and four other people were killed by The Family. The street number has been changed and the house has been razed; not long thereafter, a Sunset Boulevard business called "You've Got Bad Taste" was selling authentic chunks of wallboard from the leveled house for $3 a pop.

If we remember it so, think of Steven Kay. Fifty-three times now, the deputy D.A. who had a hand in four Manson-related murder trials has trudged to this prison and that one, saying "No, no, absolutely not" when any of the Manson killers comes up for parole.

Persuading the parole board is easy; persuading the kids is not.

In Santa Cruz in June, Kay was walking down a street, and here came teenagers in Manson T-shirts, and all Kay could do was shake his head. "I understand why they're wearing them: they want to show they're anti-establishment. But they don't understand how bad he is. You might as well be wearing a T-shirt with Hitler's face." Over time, true-crime tales became not moral lessons but a titillating trade in the vicarious - Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden. The virtues of the hero were hard pressed to compete with the louche allure of the villain. In killing beautiful people, Manson's name became bigger than his victims' ever were.

As the Manson anniversary images are aired this weekend, as you go whistling once more through that graveyard, remember that it is not box-office gore we see. It is real. Remember, too, who it was who put the bodies there.

Patt Morrison is a Los Angeles Times columnist and frequent commentator on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com

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