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How Charles Manson and The Family Can Be Considered a Cult

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Charles Manson and his followers later known as ‘The Family’ killed innocent people in 1969 in order to start a counter-revolution in the US. The details of these crimes that the cult stood trial for are well known and studied even today. On the night of August 8, 1969 five people were brutally murdered, following the next night two more people. Four months later, the cult`s leader also known as Charles Manson and a few women were arrested. Upon investigation authorities found out that The Family`s leader was not even in the room when these crimes occurred. So one begs the question. How was it possible that one man could control his following into murder and made him a cult leader in the eyes of the world? 


Because of these crimes Manson was nicknamed ‘the man who killed the 60`s’ thus people started to associate this period with the end of what was supposed to be a happy and loving time. In the late 60`s young people were more prone to hitchhike across the country or living together freely and this lifestyle was largely associated with California where freedom and the social revolution were taking its stand in the media, in films and even in music. As a result heavy drug use and counter-culture movements spoke deeply with the youth thus as: Atchison and Heide (2011) state: “young people across the nation were rebelling against conservative values and norms by growing their hair long, rejecting traditional dating graces, and demanding rights for minorities, women, and homosexuals. Marches for civil rights and women’s rights were commonplace. It seemed that the youth in the United States were attempting to create a utopia in which their ideals would stand in contrast to conservative values and put an end to war, pain, and evil”. As a result the youth had to carry the burden of making changes worldwide as well as on a national level regarding the society they live in. Unfortunately some of the people fighting to make a change came in contact with Charles Manson and soon joined the Family.

The first victim of Manson and his Family was music teacher Gary Hinman who lived in Malibu in July 1969. The victim knew the perpetrators and the motif behind this was robbery as Manson believed that the victim had inherited money and sent his followers to do the deed. In a sadistic manner the killers had written in the blood of the Hinman ‘Political Piggy’ ont he wall as well as drawing an animal paw print (Bugliosi & Gentry, 1974). Sadly the killings did not stop there. In Santa Monica Mountains, LA Manson had ordered five members to at 10050 Cielo Drive and destroy both the property and any residents.

The next killing gained high media coverage because of the victims. On August 9th, 1969 the same four members made their way to the home of actress Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski. Tex Watson, a dedicated Family member made sure to cut the phone line so that the victims could not call for help. Passing by the house was Steven Parent, a familiar face for the residents. He was stopped by Tex Watson and shot four times. The rest of the members broke into the home and killed all the occupants including Sharon`s unborn child. Just as the case with Gary Hinman ‘Pig’ was written in Tate`s blood on the door (Watson and Hoekstra, 1978). On August 10, 1969 Manson and the same four members picked their next victim. At the home of the LaBianca`s a gruesome scene was left behind. Charles Manson tied up both Leno LaBianca and Rosemary LaBianca but left before the couple was stabbed to death, following Manson`s instructions. However, there was no writing left on the walls but the word ‘War’ carved into Rosemary`s stomach. After the extensive media coverage the killings received the dream of a changing society appeared to be vanishing. After it was uncovered that this cult had committed those gruesome crimes and that some of the most loved celebrities were killed, Manson was the one blame for destroying a loving ‘paradise’ and replacing it with violence and crime.

Although The Family did not follow sacred texts or held religious beliefs as it would be a norm for a cult, people associated Charles Manson and The Family with a cult because of the way this ‘community’ functioned and Charles Manson`s role as a leader. Richardson (1993) explains that cults operate in oppositional term to the dominant society thus as with other cults The Family strongly believed in its cause: ultimately undertaking the leadership of the nations and engage in violence and crime.

Because the Mansion followers were character disturbed young adults who were attracted to a ‘cultish’ lifestyle they were able to be seduced by the charismatic leader (Livsey 1980). These traits fall into what Ellwood (1986) would describe as the necessary ground layers of a cult.

Firstly the leader of the cults is most often authoritarian and charismatic which Charles Manson proven to be when he would show to the world his peaceful songs and gatherings where in fact he would control his following into committing murder and feed his following and vice-versa narcissism and megalomania.

Secondly a cult needs to have a distinct alternative to dominant patterns which can be seen in Charles Manson and the Family in regards to his strong belief in regards to the race wars. Because of the words left at the crime scenes like “Pig,” “Rise,” and “Death to Pigs” Manson`s goal was to pin these crimes on the African Americans to start the war. And once the war began, he believed the African American race would win and the surviving white people would ultimately regain power because the African American could not manage to restart civilization. “In Manson’s mind, his Family, and particularly he, would be the ultimate beneficiaries of a black-white civil war”.

Charles Manson`s obsession with the race wars can be explains by Durkheim`s view on the formation of religion. Even though this cult was not religious this theory can still be applied. A required condition in regards to the development of a religion (in this case a cult) is the member`s nomination of an object, animal or individual as sacred. Durkheim explained the sacred through totems which are seen as either the outside and able to be seen form of totemic principle or a clan, also known as a symbol which is attributed to a society, or a group who is bound together by an oath of kinship regardless of blood ties. Thus the clan has embedded the totem with sacredness, giving it a meaningful symbolic representation (Durkheim 1976).

In regards to the Manson Family the Beatles White Album, more specifically the song Helter Skelter acted as a totem. The sons on the album ‘inspired’ Charles into believing the band was communicating to him thus forming some sort of ‘apocalyptic’ connection. Helter Skelter became the cause of the cult through Manson`s belief on the imminent revolution and the war between the Whites and the Blacks thus he became adamant on preaching and lecturing his following in the ‘coming’ of Helter Skelter (Waldron 1970). There was nothing religiously sacred about this album but it was given a symbolic representation and his followers believed in Helter Skelter, which was understood by Manson as the end of the world.

The Family collectively accepted and held Manson’s philosophy as true because of the consistent preaching of ‘the end’ and Helter Skelter and how upon its coming all of them would need to flee to the desert.

Durkheim (1976) also explains that another condition to forming a religion is a Church or moral community. Although The Family did not attend any church there was always constant demonstrations of their ‘faith’. These demonstrations consisted of Charles Manson`s orders and will and also preparations for the Helter Skelter. Manson will climb on rocks to ‘preach’ and perform many initiations for new members to join the Family through LSD trips and sexual acts. This further proves the level of authoritarian and totalitarian power Charles Manson had over The Family.

But how could Charles Manson control his following into believing in him so blindly? From a sociological standpoint theories of Durkheim and Weber could explain Manson`s behavior and his course of action.

A very important characteristic of the Family is that Charles Manson was surrounded by a charismatic group, including himself thus charismatic fellowship and leadership gave rise to structured collective faith. This faith bound the collective consciousness together by their belief in the remarkable powers that Manson exerted a mystical maestro. Weber`s (1968) concept of charisma and charismatic based communities gives an understanding of the Manson Family. Weber defines charisma as “certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities”. These powers are considered to be exemplary it qualifies the individual to be a leader. Manson`s charisma and authority came from different sources such as his as so-called powers to execute miracles. His followers were drawn to Manson because they believed in his power to perform miracles such as reviving a dead bird, being able to fly their bus to the Ranch or him being able to overcome death (Sanders 1971); or his ability as a sex virtuoso. Sex contributed significantly in the Family and Manson would preach about the necessity of sexual acts especially with him but also with each other. Another source is musical talent towards the counter-culture movement and Manson`s musical ability was seen as extraordinary; or his ‘talent’ for extreme frenzy dancing where he would take the floor and dance in every direction. No one could match him and his followers believed his dance was charismatic full of artistry when in fact his dance was similar to the state of dance possession of religiously inspired groups. Another part of Manson`s charismatic qualifications included previous experience as an ex-convict. Because of that he stood higher that anyone else for he thought that he had experience both as a delinquent and as a captive of the structured and lawful society thus he inspired respect, fear and awe amongst his following (Bugliosi 1974). Another important aspect of Manson`s charisma was his psychological abilities especially women. He was able to identify their problems with their parents, particularly their fathers thus the Family believed his talent was so big that he was able to read minds or to communicate at a distance. Manson took advantage of that and suggested that when the women were engaging in sexual intimacy with him they should imagine their fathers instead. Thus the attachment between them grew even stronger because Manson was now seen as the ‘Father’ of a new family.

As Weber noted in regards to authority, law is divinely inspired by the judgement of the charismatic leader. In regards to the Family`s structure it was clearly patriarchal and authoritarian. Manson`s word was the law and the women were ideologically and factually submissive. He would direct his following by orders, violence, fear, intimidation often through the means of lecture, story or example (when he showed his authoritarian stance by reenacting the crucifixion of Jesus).

On the same tone Weierter (1996) argues that the leader plays and important part in a cult, especially by the means of his charisma. He describes the concept of leader in two ways: negative charismatic leader and positive charismatic leader and makes comparisons between the two. Charles Manson falls into the category of negative charismatic leader and Weierter defines what that means but emphasizing the base characteristics of what makes a leader negative. Firstly he looks at the leader message and cause which is underlined by internal orientation, emphasis on self-interest and personal identification. Meaning in regards to Charles Manson his cause is his own perception (Helter Skelter) and for his own interest. Weierter also argues that negative leaders are impelled by the need to please personal needs and goals, are inherently narcissistic and aimed to re-design the world regarding his own personal model. All these traits can be seen in Charles Manson persona as a leader.


Charles Manson also known as ‘the man who killed the sixties’ and his Family can be considered a cult. Although his cause and message about Helter Skelter do not have any religious underlying but political and social features, Durkheim`s theory on the formation of religion and totem theory can resonate regarding this cult. Although Helter Skelter has no religious meaning it still acts like the central belief of the Family. Charles Manson would often preach about the impeding wars just like a priest would preach the Word of God.

Weber`s theory on charismatic leaders and also Weierter`s theory also resonates to this cult. Charles Manson exhibited many characteristics that Weber and Weierter state that are necessary for a leader or negative charismatic leader. Charles`s narcissistic, authoritarian, manipulative and patriarchal nature made it possible to be seen by his following as a leader, as a divine being, as a new Father.

All these traits and characteristics assert to the fact that the Family and Chalres Manson were a cult.

Reference List

  • Atchison, A. J. and Heide, K. M. (2011) ‘Charles Manson and the Family: The Application of Sociological Theories to Multiple Murder’, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 55(5), pp. 771–798.
  • Atkins, S., & Slosser, B. (2005). Child of Satan, child of God. CA: Menelorelin Dorenay.
  • Bugliosi, V., & Gentry, C. (1974). Helter skelter: the true story of the Manson murders. New York, Norton.
  • Nielsen, D.A. (1948) ‘Charles Manson’s Family of Love: A Case Study of Anomism, Puerilism and Transmoral Consciousness in Civilizational Perspective’, Sociology of Religion, Volume 45, Issue 4, Pages 315–337
  • Durkheim, E. (1912/1976). The elementary forms of the religious life. London: Allen & Unwin
  • Geis, G. and Huston, T.L. (1971a) ‘CHARLES MANSON AND HIS GIRLS: Notes on a Durkheirnian Theme’, Criminology, 9(2-3), pp. 342-353. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1971.tb00775.x.
  • Livsey, C. (1980), “The Manson Women. A “Family” Portrait. New York: Richard Marek Publishers, 1980
  • Rosen, G. (1968) ‘Madness in society: Chapters in the historical sociology of mental illness’. The University of Chicago Press.
  • Sutton, D. (2018), ‘Durkheim, Totemism, and The Manson Family: Theorizing on the Relationship Between Religion and Violence’, Deflem, M. (Ed.) Homicide and Violent Crime (Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Vol. 23), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 63-79.
  • Watson, C. and Hoekstra, C.R. (1978) ‘Will you die for me’ Published April 28th 1978 by Fleming H. Revell Co.
  • Waldron, M. (1970a). Cyclist describes ‘family’. New York Times, September 12, 1970. Retrieved from
  • Weber, Max (1968) Max Weber on Charisma and Institution Building, ed. with an Introduction by S.N. Eisenstadt. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press
  • Weierter, S.J.M. (1997a) ‘Who wants to play “Follow the leader?” A theory of charismatic relationships based on routinized charisma and follower characteristics’, The Leadership Quarterly, 8(2), pp. 171-193. doi: 10.1016/S1048-9843(97)90015-1.

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