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Re-reading Helter Skelter, 45 years on: How culpable are leaders in the wrongdoings of a cult?

Published in 1974, Helter Skelter was co-written by the prosecutor of the Charles Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi and American writer, Curt Gentry.

Almost 50 years later, I got to study the novel for a module I took at university. It is a beautifully written, well-thought-out novel that traces the crime, the murderers and the trial in all of its 600 pages. The outrageous crimes committed by the Manson family are not limited to the most famous killings of Sharon Tate and her friends. The depth of their crimes reached far beyond that one batch of murders. The raw storytelling of the narrative picks apart the mistakes of the police force, the indecisiveness of the jury during the trial and the possibility of the death sentence handed to those convicted. It is a startlingly honest novel that calls into question human nature and the morals of others.

One of the major questions that got repeatedly stuck in my head as I read the Helter Skelter was; how culpable are the leaders when looking at the wrongdoings of a cult?

There has been a vast majority in the number of cults over the last several decades, however, it is because of the wrongdoings of cults, such as Jonestown, Waco and The Manson Family, that the view of cults overall is a negative one. However, not all cults are evil; it is only when the leaders of a cult (for example, Charles Manson and Jim Jones) become immersed in their vision for what they believe will be a better world and believe that the only way to achieve such a vision is through horrific acts, that does it become evil. Cults are not always outside of the law but are often characterised in this way because of their dominant leaders.

Cult leaders are self-appointed with a distinct mission in life.

The cult leader was often a dominant figure, labelling themselves as God, or a prophet, or even a father to many of their followers. Jim Jones, the leader and founder of The People’s Temple, was appointed as director of the Human Rights Commissioner because of his liberalist views and his vision for equality, particularly advocating racial integration. Charles Manson appointed himself as a Messiah-like figure who intended to lead his people from the inevitable race war. David Koresh was the leader of The Branch Davidians sect (and the leader behind the siege at Waco in 1993), a religious group in which Koresh labelled himself as the self-acclaimed final prophet. However, many leaders eventually come to abuse their power for themselves rather than for the greater good.

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Manson believed that there was to be an uprising from the “black man" and to instigate it, he murdered Sharon Tate, along with seven others. Vincent Bugliosi described the motive behind the Manson Family killings as – “Judgement Day, Armageddon, Helter Skelter – to Manson they were one and the same, a racial holocaust which would see the black man emerge triumphant.” It is out of self-preservation for himself and his family members that Manson decided to order a killing spree in L.A. Manson wished to “start a race war with these acts", as a way of overthrowing what little power African-Americans had in American during the 20th century. Manson wished to frame African-Americans for his crime, forcing the white community to retaliate “until there was open revolution in the streets, until they [the white people] finally won and took over. Then black man would assume white man’s karma. He would then be the establishment.” Thus, Manson and his family would have complete control once they dominated over the other race. It was through this extreme ideology and hateful view of African-Americans that Manson’s act of murder can be viewed as evil as defined by Kant.

The Manson Family offered support to those who wanted to escape consumerist America.

Manson offered community amongst the group because he was viewed by many of the members (the female members in particular) as a father figure. He was also commonly referred to as Jesus Christ; “I may have implied on several occasions to several different people that I may have been Jesus Christ, but I haven't decided yet what I am or who I am” as stated in Helter Skelter. By referring to himself as Jesus Christ, his followers believed he had the power to change the world, to change consumerist America. The view of him as a powerful figure, allowed him to exercise control and also offered solace to his members, as they felt safe with him and the others on Spahn Ranch; this enticed new members as they were drawn to the safety of the community.

Throughout the trial of the Mason Family cult, many members such as Leslie Van Houten attempted an insanity plea as a way of evading the trial and possible jail time. However, many of the family members had mentally deteriorated due to the usage of hallucinogenic drugs during their time on Spahn Ranch. This regressive mental state only allowed them to be even more easily influenced by their leader, thus losing their sense of individuality completely. It is predominately because of Charles Manson that the family members that committed murders were seen as having a regressive mental state. Bugliosi describes Manson as having used “his own superior intelligence” as a way of connecting and exerting his power over his followers – “he was not only older than his followers, he was brighter, more articulate and savvy, far more clever and insidious. With his prison background, his ever-adaptable line of con, plus a pimp's knowledge of how to manipulate others, he had little trouble convincing his naïve, impressionable followers that it was not they but society that was sick. This too was what they wanted to hear." It was Manson’s charismatic personality that heavily influenced his members, exerting his power over them, as a way of creating a race war that will give him what he wants; power and popularity.

In recent years, there has been a glamorisation of cults and their leaders.

Television shows such as American Horror Story, Waco (the 2018 American mini-series based on the David Koresh lead cult) and Charlie Says (the upcoming film dedicated to the life of Charles Manson) has cultivated a deep interest in the dealings within a cult and often attempt to shine a light on what happens within one. Charles Manson was viewed as an icon throughout popular culture, making him adored by female fans all over the world, he even graced the cover of Rolling Stone. Many believed that if Manson was going to be released during his time in prison then he would not kill again because he achieved what he wanted – fame. It is because of this idealisation of Manson that he influenced many people. His power over people is evident when he etched an ‘X’ on his forehead and Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten did the same the following day; “When the jurors were brought into court Monday morning, the X’s were the first thing they saw – graphic evidence that when Manson led, the girls followed.” Bugliosi in his novel points out how this act of defiance only aided his case in portraying Charles Manson as the charismatic leader as the reason behind why several of his followers committed murder in his name.

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Many argue that Manson cannot be wholly to blame for the atrocious acts him and his family committed, simply because he did not commit them himself but rather ordered four of his most loyal followers to do so. However, Bugliosi spends the entirety of the Manson family trial attempting to prove that if they were not under the influence of Charles Manson, then these people would not have committed murder. It is the individual’s choice to decide to join a movement such as a cult, however, it is the power of the leader that convinces them to take hallucinogenic drugs, to isolate themselves from the rest of the society and eventually to commit murder.

It is evident that the charismatic leaders are extremely culpable in the wrongdoings of a cult, when looking at Jim Jones, Charles Manson and David Koresh. All three leaders believed themselves to be a prophet, a God, a friend and a lover. Many of these leaders sexually exploited their members, with Manson having several children with the women on Spahn Ranch. A charismatic leader is able to exploit their member’s weaknesses and use the sense of community and safety within the group to their advantage. It is the devoted loyalty that the members have for their leaders is what leads to them committing horrific acts unquestioningly and it is Bugliosi who steers you towards this conclusion as he attempts to undeniably prove that if it wasn't for the influence of Charles Manson then it is unlikely that any of the murders would have happened. 

(All of the quotes used above are from Helter Skelter written by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, published by Arrow books in 2015)