Why Charles Manson Won’t Die

The mass murderer will likely perish behind bars, but his cultural influence continues to live on

The T-shirt that launched a murderous Mad Men plot theory

Diminutive killer and cult leader Charles Manson maintains a presence in popular culture that must delight him. He was a fringe player in the late ’60s Los Angeles music scene, and even though his powers of malevolent persuasion far exceeded his songwriting skills, he dreamed of making it big as a musician. The twisted philosophy he peddled to his followers was cobbled together from two sources: the Bible and the Beatles.

His love for the most popular band in the world was as giddy as a teenage girl’s; he was a mass murderer who dug a quality melody. Manson’s wild misinterpretation of the lyrics to “Helter Skelter” (along with the rest of The White Album) would go on to taint the tune with infamy.

Today Manson is serving a life sentence at Corcoran State Prison for overseeing the August 1969 bloodbath commonly known as the Tate-La Bianca murders. Most of his disciples, known collectively as the “family,” have renounced him. But he still has a kind of following. The Manson groupies of today aren’t dancing in the nude around a bonfire at Spahn Ranch—and most would insist their identification with Manson is ironic—but the man’s mesmerizing gaze continues to penetrate and inspire.

Axl Rose, who liked to wear a Manson T-shirt onstage in the early ’90s, recorded the Manson-penned song “Look at Your Game, Girl” and included it as an unlisted track on Guns N’ Roses’ 1993 album, The Spaghetti Incident?

Trent Reznor bought the house at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon where the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate and four other victims. Reznor set up a recording studio there and named it “Le Pig.” (One of the killers, Susan Atkins, had scrawled “pig” in Sharon Tate’s blood on the front door.)  Marilyn Manson, whose stage name was inspired by Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson, recorded part of his first album there, which was originally titled The Manson Family Album.  Maybe the specter of violence inspired some of the lyrics, such as these from “Snake Eyes and Sissies:” “Run you down without a twitch / Your car’s just not as big as mine / Tear the son out of your bitch / And sprinkle your remains with lye.”

Actor Bob Odenkirk played Manson as if he were a mischievous household pet in this clip from the early ’90s MTV show The Ben Stiller Show.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s South Park riffed on Manson in the second season episode “Merry Christmas, Charlie Manson!” in which the cult leader talks about the meaning of family and sings a holiday song.

Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong played a futuristic Charles Manson in the 2006 stop-motion animated movie Live Freaky Die Freaky.

In “The Better Half,” episode nine in the sixth season of Mad Men, Megan Draper, played by Jessica Paré, wears a white T-shirt with a vivid red star, the same kind worn by Sharon Tate on a 1967 cover of Esquire magazine. Fans speculated the T-shirt was a hint that Megan, an actress like Tate, is going to be murdered.

Michelle McNamara is a contributor to Los Angeles magazine and the blogger behind True Crime Diary. She wrote about the Golden State Killer in the March issue of Los Angeles.