Why Manson cult murders, 50 years later, still intrigue: He 'remains an icon of evil'

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor

It’s been 50 years since the summer of 1969 was marred by murder, when three devoted members of Charles Manson’s cult, the Manson Family, went on a two-night killing spree in residential Los Angeles, leaving seven victims in their wake, and sending shock waves across the country.

Sharon Tate — actress and pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski — was the most prominent of those murdered. But also stabbed, beaten or shot to death were her dinner guests — coffee heiress Abigail Folger and her boyfriend, writer Wojciech Frykowski, and celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring — plus Steven Parent, a friend of the gardener. Supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary were killed on the second night.

“We wanted to do a crime that would shock the world, that the world would have to stand up and take notice,” Susan Atkins, one of the murderers, would say about choosing Tate — the door of whose mansion was left with “PIG” smeared in blood. They certainly achieved that goal, shocking and horrifying the public even now, five decades later, with details of their crimes.

In this 1969 file photo, Charles Manson is escorted to his arraignment on conspiracy-murder charges in connection with the Sharon Tate murder case. (AP Photo, File)

So, what is it that keeps people so intrigued, and how can we explain what drove these followers to kill? Yahoo Lifestyle spoke with Rick Ross, executive director of the Cult Education Institute and author of Cults Inside Out, about the power of Manson and other cult leaders on the anniversary of the brutal murders.

“Charlie Manson remains an icon of evil because of the enormous depravity and the violent level that that group exhibited,” Ross says. “He will be remembered always as just the quintessential cult leader, the most evil cult leader that anyone can imagine.”

Manson, who had spent most of his life incarcerated, from his teens until his 30s, was “a psychopath,” he explains, “and he had developed his skills of manipulation,” using drugs and isolation, among other methods, to get his followers to fall in line.

Charles Manson followers, from left, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten walking into court in August 1969. (AP Photo/George Brich, File)

Although it was the late ’60s, Ross wants to be clear about the cult’s place in the largely peaceful, free-love counterculture of the time. “[Manson] wasn’t a hippie. He was an ex-con, and wanted to be a movie star, wanted to be a rock star, and when he was rejected, he became filled with narcissistic rage,” he explains about some of his possible motives. “But it had nothing to do with the Summer of Love; it had to do with Charles Manson and his deep hate and anger at society.”

“I don’t think that the Manson Family…fit within the context of the ’60s and the counterculture movement,” Ross adds. “That was just what he used as a device to recruit people. And you see that with many cult leaders: They grab something that’s in popular culture, and then it’s the bait-and-switch, and you don’t get what you think you’re going to get when you go behind the door.”

Ross says what Manson — who died in prison in 2017 — ultimately did was “weaponize” his girls. “He broke them down and then he sent them out to kill people.”

Actress Sharon Tate is shown in this undated photo. Tate, who starred in television and film roles, was one of five victims found slain in her home on Aug. 9, 1969 in California. (AP Photo)

In addition to drugs and isolation, Manson used sex — a common tool for cult leaders, explains Ross, who recently testified at the federal racketeering trial of Keith Raniere, head of the Nvixm sex cult, about being hired by parents to help extricate their children from the group.

“The bottom line with cult leaders is not sex, it’s power and control,” he says. “Charles Manson would have sex with women and men in the group, and it was his way of saying, ‘You are mine, I own you, submit to me…’ I think sex for them just becomes a means of subordinating the people in the group to their domination,” Ross says. “And I certainly saw that over and over again with Keith Ranirie and Nvixm, and with Waco Davidians, [seeing] the same pattern with them.”

A new cult trend he’s been following closely, he shares, is that of groups that operate solely online and through social media. “People are becoming fully indoctrinated by watching videos on YouTube,” he says. “I’ve done a number of interventions to get people out of groups where they never physically met the leader at any time, and where they may not have even sat down with any members of the group. We saw this with ISIS, and the radicalization process.”

If you know someone who you believe to be caught up in a cult, Ross has some surprising advice: “Don’t be confrontational, don’t get in their face and say, ‘You’re in a damn cult!’” If you do, he says, rest assured that they’ll repeat it to the people who are their “handlers,” who will coach them about how to put you off. “It’s going to become increasingly difficult to communicate, and you may become estranged from them,” Ross says. So instead, he suggests, “Do your homework. Develop a strategy, and realize that you’re dealing with a destructive group. They have a script, they have a plan, and you better have one, too.”

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

Follow Lyndsey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Spotify.

Want daily pop culture news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Entertainment & Lifestyle’s newsletter.