Between Wild Wild Country, “The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence” (now becoming a film), and the start of the Nxivm trial, cults are most definitely part of the zeitgeist these days. Mary Herron—director of one of the many Charles Manson movies coming out— shared some theories about them last night after a preview screening of Charlie Says, which hits theaters Friday following runs at the Tribeca and Montclair film festivals.
Charlie Says stars a scraggly Matt Smith as Manson (if you happen to be obsessed with American Psycho, which Herron adapted into a movie, you may know that Smith played Patrick Bateman in the short-lived musical). But the film’s focus is more on the “Manson Girls”— Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten—and the trio’s time in prison under the tutelage of Karlene Faith, a teacher and feminist activist whose book, The Long Prison Journey of Leslie van Houten, informed the movie along with the Ed Sanders classic, The Family.
As with American Psycho, the screenwriter is Guinevere Turner, although here she’s going it alone and working off her personal experiences with a cult. You may have read her recent New Yorker piece about growing up in The Lyman Family, a commune whose followers believed aliens would take them to Venus. Turner outlined abuse and sexism—such as public beatings and unfair division of labor— similar to the kind Manson perpetrates throughout Charlie Says.
Turner has said she wanted to explore the relatively under-told story of what happened to the Manson’s female followers after they were given life sentences for their roles in the Tate-LaBianca murders. Last night at the Pelham Picture House in Westchester, Herron expressed a similar curiosity. “It’s funny, because there’s lots of interviews with Charles Mansion in prison, but nobody really ever focused on the women,” she told the crowd. “It’s as if their lives stopped in 1969 after the trial was over.” Herron wanted to know “what happened to these perfectly normal young people to make them do these terrible things.”
To answer that, the movie finds Leslie Van Houten (played by Hannah Murray, aka Gilly from Game of Thrones) flashing back to her time on Spahn Ranch, recalling how she found acceptance amidst its merry pranksters and came to adopt Manson’s mantra of ego abandonment to such an extent that she was eventually able to buy into his apocalyptic vision of starting a race war named Helter Skelter.
Herron attributed this susceptibility to a few things: “One is them being really young, and young people are probably more vulnerable to cults or to outside influence. And there’s that longing that a lot of people have for community, for being part of something bigger than yourself.” Another factor: “In the last stages of the family there was a point when [Manson] was giving them acid every single day.”
There was also the isolation that happens in all cults, Herron said. “In this case there’s a geographical isolation. It’s the late ’60s; there’s no internet; they’re on Spahn Ranch, so they’re 30, 40 miles from Los Angeles; and they have a few visitors, but very little contact with the outside world. So Charlie’s reality becomes their reality.”
Needless to say, Manson’s reality wasn’t a pleasant one. Aside from mental illness, “he had a horrible life,” Herron said. “Which explains why he was warped. He grew up in prison, really, from the age of 12. And he was this little guy; very bad things happened to him in prison, clearly, and he learned to survive both by manipulating people and by spotting people’s weakness and vulnerability.”
Manson, she said, had one thing in common with other cult leaders: “this tremendous will to dominate and control.” His time as a pimp, after he served prison time for car theft in the late 1950s, meant that “he had that way of sweet-talking girls and making them feel like he understood them, or he was focused on them.”
Add to that, the turmoil of the era made it an ideal time for Manson to hold sway. “I don’t know how much damage he would’ve done if he hadn’t been released from prison [this time for prostitution] and come out in the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, where there were so many young people looking for someone to follow, looking for someone to make sense of things, looking for a guru. He had this kind of homemade philosophy that he would dole out that made people feel like he was a kind of Jesus figure, actually.”
In addition, the horrors of Vietnam, race riots, and violent protests “just created a feeling that society was going up in smoke,” Herron said. “It was collapsing. I think it was in that environment that Manson was able to create this apocalyptic vision and have it make sense to his followers, even though it was crazy.”
Despite managing to convince Family members that they would grow fairy wings and that their murderous acts would spark an African-American revolt that they would ride out in an underground cave, Manson’s primary aim wasn’t necessarily to be a prophet or messiah. Asked about licensing Manson’s songs for Smith to play on screen, Herron explained, “The music is such an important part of the film because I think people forget; they think he was this crazy cult leader, and his ambition was actually to be a rock star. That’s what he really wanted. Like many monsters in history, he’s a failed artist.”
Charlie Says takes a dark turn after Manson flunks an audition for a producer who had worked with Dennis Wilson and the Beach Boys (Wilson became friendly with the Family after picking up two of its members while they were hitchhiking.) “A lot of people who write memoirs about time in the Manson family said everything got much darker and it was a total turning point after the Terry Melcher audition,” Herron explained. Indeed, Susan Atkins testified that Manson ordered the murders at the Sharon Tate home in order to instill fear in Melcher, its previous owner.
In Charlie Says, Manson thinks he can seduce Melcher by having his “girls” bake cookies and go topless as they sing backup— after his rejection, he brutally beats one of them when the salad dressing isn’t to his liking. Despite instructing his followers to relinquish ego and pride, he’s jealous and controlling. “The hippie culture was a culture of radicalism and experimentation,” Herron noted, “at the same time as gender roles that are extremely old-fashioned and traditional. What was radical in that culture did not extend to how men and women behaved—in fact it was more so.”
Sensing the degree to which the Girls have internalized Manson’s sexism and racism, she assigns them books about spousal abuse, sexuality, and feminist sisterhood, and has a African-American activist disabuse them of the notion that Manson would have led a black uprising.
In the end, Faith struggles with the knowledge that the more she enlightens the prisoners, the closer they’ll come to realizing the full horror of what they’ve done. The prison’s warden reminds her that this is the point of incarceration, but Faith has an empathy for the women that Herron says she shares. “These are not monsters, these are not some other species; these are human beings,” Herron said, noting that she has a daughter who, like Van Houten at the time of the murders, is 19. “You imagine someone taking a lot of drugs and being totally isolated and being with a group of people who all seem to believe the same thing. That process by which someone stops listening to their inner voice.”
“What happens in these situations is people have doubts,” she continued. “Everyone around them seems to believe, so they suppress their doubts because they want to belong and they want to be a good member of the team and they stop listening to their better instincts. It happens in war, it happens in political cults, people find themselves doing things that they never thought they could.”