I was one of millions who tuned in to watch the CBS movie "Helter Skelter" a couple of weeks ago. It's based on the greatest true crime book of all time, and it's the story of a criminal mastermind.
I'm willing to admit I have an intense fascination with this sort of thing. I'm not a crazy serial killer, but I certainly am interested in them. Crime books line my shelves and I'm a sucker for a cheap movie of the week that might tell me more about the latest headline-grabbing crime drama.
Charles Manson is a true crime junkie's favorite topic. He's different from a regular old Ted Bundy-style crazy killer, he actually persuaded other people to kill for him. And they did so willingly, many of them remaining loyal to him for years after their arrests. They worshipped him, and they killed to make him proud. What a sick and twisted story, but fascinating nonetheless. I find myself wanting to figure out the psychology behind Charles Manson. Of course, I'm not the only one who wants to do so, and no one else has cracked the case since the murders occurred in 1969, so I don't expect to be the one to save the day.
Which is why I became annoyed when I read a review of the movie version of "Helter Skelter" in the Boston Herald recently. In the review, the reporter asks why the movie doesn't explain "such depravity and lack of respect for human life." Criminal behavior doesn't usually make sense to those of us who don't engage in it, so of course we're not ever going to fully understand why he did what he did, or how he did what he did.
One of the many interesting elements about Manson and his followers was that they didn't seem to think they were doing anything wrong. All accounts show that they appeared to sincerely believe they were doing the work of God and they were "saving" their victims from something else. Watching the movie obviously offered different images than those that enter one's mind while reading the book seeing their crazy facial expressions and those infamous hollow Manson eyes made me realize that likely no one will ever really know what goes on inside his head.
The Boston Globe writer ponders how a former yearbook editor and homecoming queen could become Manson disciples and cold-blooded killers. Well, that is a "why" that can be answered. They were obviously masterfully brainwashed. Although it's never easy to explain why anyone would kill, particularly when they have nothing to gain from it, people who are brainwashed will do whatever they are told. As for why they were told to kill, as for why Charles Manson acted the way he did, I don't think we'll ever completely comprehend that.
Insanity, particularly criminal insanity, is not easily explained, and it's not the job of a made-for-TV movie to do that. A movie can entertain us and leave us with a subject to debate, a topic to ponder. It gives us the facts and leaves us to wonder or interpret what factors combine to create the type of person who may have actually believed his victims wanted to die (of course, whether he actually believed that is again subject to debate).
Don't criticize the movie for not answering the why. It's not a question that's easily answered.
April Avison is the city editor of the Daily Herald. Her column appears on Mondays. She can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.