Not every evening, but several times a week — after the kids have gone to bed — there comes a moment when my husband reaches for the television remote and declares that we we will now “watch something in which no one is murdered.” I chuckle, but I don’t object, because by then he has already indulged my penchant for the “True Crime” television genre.
On any given night, there will be at least one viewing of Dateline, 48 Hours, Deranged, Most Evil, Cold Case Files, Crime 360, The First 48, True Crime, American Justice, Dominick Dunne: Power, Privilege and Justice, Crime Stories, City Confidential, The Interrogators, Notorious, or Forensic Files. Maybe any two of the above. Then my hubby commandeers the remote and it’s either HGTV, DIY, The Food Network, or Logo.
Can’t say that I blame him. But it wasn’t until the first time he made that announcement that I realized I’d had a longstanding fascination — more than half my life at this point. —with crime stories. It was something I took so much for granted that I didn’t notice how much I watched the shows above or others like them. It wasn’t until just recently that I thought about where, when and how it got started.
By now, you’d have to be something of a hermit not to have at least heard that the 40th anniversary of the Manson Family murders is upon us.
Forty years ago on Aug. 8, from his ranch in the San Fernando Valley, Charles Manson dispatched a band of devoted fanatics on a high-profile killing spree that shocked the world and terrified Angelenos, who never left their doors and windows unlocked again.
“It was a scary thing back then and it continues to this day,” says Vincent Bugliosi, who successfully prosecuted the Manson “family” for one of the city’s most notorious murder binges.
Among the seven victims of the two-day murder spree was actress Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski, who was eight and a half months pregnant at the time.
As details of the crimes emerged, fear spread in a city that simply could not comprehend the sheer brutality of the murderers, many of whom were long-haired young women who could be mistaken for peaceniks.
I wasn’t a year old yet, when the Manson Family murders shook the country — too young to know anything about it at the time — but that’s where this fascination started.
Do you, don’t you want me to love you?
I’m coming down fast but I’m miles above you… “Helter Skelter,” The Beatles
So many cultural milestones came and went in 1969— that summer, really — that changed the world we lived in then to the world we live in today. And I was born just before all of them happened. I was just over four months old when the Stonewall Riots happened on June 28th. I was just five months old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and Neil Armstrong took his famous first step. And I was still just five months old when the two events that have been credited with “ending the Sixties” — the Manson murders and Woodstock — took place.
I was there, technically. Still, I missed them — in the sense that I missed the “before” that these events pushed over the ledge into “after.” Like everyone else, I was living in the aftermath. But unlike those who’d lived in the “before,” I merely lived in the aftermath, waiting for history to catch up with me.
History caught up with me one night, late into high school, when I came across a copy of Helter Skelter among some random books on shelf in our den. I hadn’t heard about the Manson family or the Tate/LaBiana murders yet. But by then I was already a voracious reader, constantly on the search for new reading material. So, when my search led me to this book I didn’t even know was in the house, I took it to my room for some night/bedtime reading.
I don’t recommend it as bedtime reading. At least, not for the faint of heart.
It turned out I wasn’t that faint of heart. Still, the book scared the hell out of me, probably much in the same way that the murders themselves scared people. Vincent Bugliosi, chief prosecutor in the Manson family murder case and author of Helter Skelter has said that the apparent randomness and brutality of the killings ratcheted up fear in Los Angeles at the time, causing people to lock their doors at night when they hadn’t before, and sparking a rise in the purchase of guns and guard dogs.
Watson: Set the scene for us. What was the mood of the country, and of Los Angeles, on the eve of the Manson murders?
Bugliosi: I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but I can tell you that in L.A., it was a time of relative innocence. I’ve heard many people say that prior to these murders, there were areas of the city where folks literally did not lock their doors at night. That ended with the Tate-LaBianca murders. The killings were so terribly brutal and savage: 169 stab wounds, seven gunshot wounds. They appeared to be random, with no discernible conventional motive. That induced a lot of fear throughout the city of Los Angeles, particularly in Bel Air and Beverly Hills, the heart of the movie colony, where the Tate murders happened (the LaBianca murders happened across town, near Griffith Park). Names were dropped from guest lists. Parties were canceled. No one knew if the killers were among them. Overnight, the sale of guns and guard dogs rose dramatically.
Why did the crimes penetrate so deeply in the American psyche? How did the culture change in the immediate aftermath?
I was just involved prosecuting one murder case after another, so I’m not someone who’s a sociologist. But the killings tapped a feeling of dread … if you’re not safe in your own home, where are you safe? And the very thought of young women dressed in black, armed with sharp knives, entering the homes of complete strangers in the middle of the night and mercilessly stabbing them to death … it’s difficult to even contemplate a thought like that.
Of course, it’s not that murders never happened before, or that people weren’t murdered in their homes. (The Cutler family murders that inspired Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, for example, were essentially the result of a home invasion that took place 10 years before the Manson murders.) but that these murders were so far outside the scripts of class and race at the time.
These murders happened in neighborhoods were things like this weren’t supposed to happen, and to people this sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen to — wealthy white people in wealthy white neighborhoods. They were done by people who weren’t supposed to be capable of that kind of thing — middle-class to upper-middle class white kids. Change or take away the who and the where and it’s likely that the events of the nights of August 9th and 10th, 1969, would have gotten far less attention.
(Layer in the inherent racism of Manson’s Helter Skelter scenario, and both class and race become explicit themes rather than subtexts.)
Nonetheless, the real possibility of no longer being safe in my own home was part of the unshakable residue of that shared bit of history. It was one that I’d lived for as long as the rest of the country, since the murders and the murderers became news, but I didn’t realize it.
Our doors, after all, were always locked at night. My parents made sure of that every night before bed, and when we were older they impressed upon us the importance of making sure the house was secured at night. They never mentioned the Manson family or the murders they committed almost 20 years earlier. (In fact, my father got a little upset when he found out that the book was even in the house, and that I was reading it. But he didn’t try to take it away, or make me stop reading it.)
I’m not even sure I made a connection at night, as I lay there reading about Manson, his “family,” and their crime. But suddenly every creak, pop, or other unidentifiable noise became a potential threat quietly announcing itself before invading. I got up and checked the doors again. And today, we perform an updated version of the task I observed my parents doing, both locking the doors at night and making sure the security system is turned on. (Especially during the rash of home invasions in our area last year.)
Only, we’re no longer on the lookout for crazed hippies with some acid-soaked vision of Armageddon urging them on to the point where peace, love and patchouli are a prologue to fear, violence and the smell of death. Our phantoms now are much more run-of-the-mill, and — though no less dangerous — far less interesting.
Do you, don’t you want me to make you?
I’m coming down fast but don’t let me break you… “Helter Skelter,” The Beatles
I have to admit, initially it was the killers who fascinated me, sparking what’s an interest in the criminal mind; a desire to understand why and what makes people do things like this.
There were crime scene photos in the book. (The bodies of the victims were cut out of the photos, leaving white shapes which looked like chalk outlines that had been filled in. The photos of the crimes scene with the victims bodies, as well as coroner’s photographs are — of course — readily available on the internet. Search for them if you want. You won’t find them here.) But I didn’t linger over them. I was too disturbed by them.
Instead, I fixated on the pictures of the murderers. They had the glassy eyes, empty smiles, and deadly devoutness of fanatics — all of which made them just as dangerous as they seemed. But theirs were quite different faces from those the “bogeyman” almost always wore. (A year or more after I’d read Helter Skelter, the phantom slipped back into a more familiar form in the person of Willie Horton.)
In fact, frozen in time on the page, if the style of their hair and clothing were updated (and they spent some time in detox), they’d resemble any number of my classmates at the time. And I couldn’t fathom anyone I knew committing murder, let alone in such a horrific manner.
That was to change a few years later, when I was in college.
The beginning of ratcheting down from a fascination to an interest started a couple of years ago. I’d taken on a freelance project that interested me because it involved writing fiction; something I hadn’t tried to do in years. Specifically, the assignment was to develop an outline for a murder mystery.
I wasn’t sure I could develop a murder mystery with enough believable plot twists to pass muster with fans of the genre. I’d never attempted anything like it, but I forged ahead. To make it interesting, I added a story element that reflected an interest of mine — a serial killer, whose crimes resembled the central murder in the story, but who did not commit the murder in question, and remained at large at the end of the story.
At some point I decided to tell at least some part of the story from the serial killer’s point of view, and that was enough to send me off on a self-assigned task of researching serial killers. (I enjoy doing research almost as much as I enjoy writing.) As the research led me deeper into the subject, it led me away from the fascination that started with reading Helter Skelter, and whatever romanticized notions I had about the people who commit such acts.
There are at least two archetypical serial killer types: the obviously deranged type that you spot right away and take measures to avoid, and the smooth, sophisticated type whose “mask of sanity” stays firmly in place until it’s too for you to run away, once you know what’s hidden beneath it. I started out with Ted Bundy, who clearly fit on the the latter end of the scale, with Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me.
I’ll admit I was to some degree drawn in by Bundy’s image, much like some of his victims and groupies. And it would have stopped there, except that Rule — who knew Bundy personally — plumbed the depths of Bundy’s personality, such as it was. She gave equal time to the victims and their families, despite her friendship with Bundy, and didn’t shy away from what Bundy actually did to his victims. My research took me online, and at one of several sites on serial killers I found crime scene photographs related to Bundy’s murders, as well as post-mortem pictures of some victims. This time, unlike my first reading of Helter Skelter, I made myself look at the pictures of the victims, and I began seeing Bundy more as his victims probably saw him.
I’ve written this before, but one of the most striking things I’ve found about researching cases for the LGBT Hate Crimes Project is how little information is often available about the victim. In some cases, where the victim or victims survived an assault or attempted murder, they may speak for themselves, unless they are minors or afraid of reprisals if they speak out. (Some victims are targeted because they are marginalized and less likely to speak out and report a crime against them.) In some cases — where the victim has been killed and was also a member of a marginalized group — the victim almost disappears, except for a fleeting sentence here or there in one news article or another, hinting at the life that existed before the crime that snuffed it out.
Meanwhile, my research expanded to include The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers and The Serial Killer Files. Whenever possible, I found myself searching for more information on the victims, in some cases finding pictures of how their killers left them. It was like an independent immersion study course, and I came up covered in slime.
The last one I studied was Dennis Rader, a/k/a BTK. If each profile made these people less interesting, Rader was perhaps the least interesting of all. There was nothing fascinating, nothing curious, nothing sympathetic or even remotely likable about him. His ordinariness both added to the impact of his crimes and pushed fascination over into disgust. By the time I was done, I’d finished the process I began with Bundy, and my point of view had flipped to those of his victims.
I’d never look at people or cases like this in the same way again. Perhaps it was the passage of time — nearly 20 years — between the nights spent reading about the Manson murders and the nights spent reading about Rader’s murders. I’d become a parent since then, and I read the stories about Rader’s murders through the eyes of a parent.
I read with the heart of a parent about how he killed Josephine Otero and little Joseph Otero Jr., strangling the nine-year-old boy to death even as his mother regained consciousness enough to realize what was going on and scream “You killed my boy!” He strangled her too — on the bed where Josephine was also tied up, before he took the 11-year-old girl to the basement and hung her.
I read about how he suffocated and strangled Shirley Vian, even as her children were tied up and locked in the bathroom.
I read about how he strangled Vicki Wegerle and left her for dead, with her two-year-old son right there in the house.
I went all the way back to Bundy and listened to the statements and interviews of parents who’s daughters he’d killed.
I’d had enough. I had to come up for air. My research ended.
But one thing remained with me — how unremarkable Rader’s personality was. There was nothing particularly special about him. That’s probably what made him able to fool as many people as he did for so long — much in the same way that Bundy’s good looks, charm, and wit hid the same kind of bottomless darkness.
But how, I asked, could anyone sit beside a killer and not know what lay beneath the surface?
It was then that I remembered. I knew the answer to that question, because I’d done it myself.