Today’s essay is from THEOREL 101/G student, Eve Greensill (pictured left!). Eva has chosen a fascinating topic, considering convicted killer Charles Manson as a ‘popular messiah’ figure. Here’s a little bit about Eva.
I’m from Taranaki, and moved to Auckland at the start of 2018 to study at the University of Auckland. I’m studying a Bachelor of Arts with majors in Psychology and Drama. I don’t have any definite goals for the future yet, I’d like to see what avenues my degree leads me to, and what passions I find through study. Over the course of my first year I’ve developed an interest in Eastern psychologies, and intend to travel to India after my degree to learn more. THEOREL 101 was hands down one of my favourite courses this year, I loved how the assignment and exam provided so much space to explore personal interests in relation to course material. I also really enjoyed how it challenged the way that I had thought about the bible and its place in pop culture.
Sit back and enjoy the read!
Manson: Murder, Madness and… Messiahship?!
When considering contemporary messiahs in pop culture, many think of the heroic and widely adored figures such as Barack Obama, Harry Potter, or Ritchie McCaw. It’s easy to forget the dark underbelly of messiah-types in which people who do unspeakably horrific acts also exhibit an eerie number of the typical features by which we define our beloved heroic messiahs. One such ‘dark messiah’ is Charles Manson. Manson was a cult leader who rose to infamy in the late 1960’s after he was involved with nine murders. His beliefs were based on the biblical apocalyptic texts in Revelation, which he believed indicated an imminent race war between African Americans and white Americans. He also believed that the Beatles were prophets of this race war and named his ideology ‘Helter Skelter’ after a song from their ‘White Album’. Manson promised his cult, the Family, that they would be safe in the desert during this supposed war until the white Americans had been killed, and then the cult would emerge and rule over society. The important factors to consider when examining Manson as a popular messiah are the differing definitions of messiah between the New Testament and Old Testament, the application of the American monomyth, and the typical features of a popular messiah which can be applied to Manson.
This essay will be discussing Manson regarding the New Testament concept of messiah. However, it is interesting to consider how Manson can be viewed, or perhaps how he viewed himself, in relation to the Old Testament definition. A messiah in the Old Testament was a person anointed by God to be a political and military leader, as David was anointed by Samuel – “The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him… and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:12-13). To himself and to his followers, it is likely that Manson did fit the idea of a Hebrew messiah, as his ideology was politically grounded with strong beliefs around necessary war. Manson also claimed to have a unique understanding of the bible, and so despite not having been anointed by God in a literal manner such as King David, Manson’s supposed special relationship with God along with his political agenda does draw strong parallels to the Hebrew concept of messiah. The definition in the New Testament differs from the Old Testament, as the identification of Jesus as a messiah brought the idea that a messiah was a figure who brought spiritual salvation; a more abstract concept than the political salvation associated with Hebrew messiahs.
The American monomyth in relation to popular messiahs is based on the New Testament definition of messiah. The American monomyth as discussed by Jewett and Lawrence focuses on a community under threat, from which a messianic savior-figure arises to conquer evil and restore the community to safety (Jewett and Lawrence 2002, p.6). The American monomyth is mainly discussed regarding fictional superheroes, however, the concept can also be applied to real historical figures, as will be outlined in the case of Charles Manson. The creation of fictional heroes speaks to a deep societal yearning for a real savior to arise who can solve the problems faced by a community or nation at a certain point in time. For example, ‘Superman’ was first published in 1938, at the end of the Great Depression, while America was on the precipice of World War II. As Trimble wrote of the ‘Superman’ creators; “Growing up in one of the most difficult periods in American history, perhaps, to them, the only means of finding the promised American dream was through the intervention of a super-powered strongman” (Lang and Trimble 1988, p.160). When looking at Charles Manson, it is apparent that the 1960s were a time of political unrest, known as “a volatile era of social and political turbulence… The decade was characterized by emphases on psychedelic drug use, sexual exploration, racial equality, and activism through music…” (Altman 2015, p.3). It is highly plausible that such an environment created a longing for a messiah figure of the American monomyth to arise and ease the social unrest, in the same way that such a longing was present at the time of Superman’s creation. Therefore, the Manson Family’s view of Manson as such a figure is not implausible, as his ideology was one that promised social resolution. Manson did also cultivate this idea of him as a messianic figure, even going as far as to model himself as Jesus. Nielsen outlines how the Family developed an idea of Manson as a Christ-figure due to heavy drug consumption, during which Manson would reenact the crucifixion of Jesus (1984, p.323).
In further analysis of Charles Manson as a messiah figure, it becomes clear that he does fit a majority of features attributed to contemporary messiahs by Jewett and Lawrence. These features are generally based off characteristics of biblical messiahs, or Jesus in particular. One such feature is unusual or unknown origins, which aligns with Jesus’ unusual birth to a virgin mother (Matt. 1:18-25). Manson’s childhood was unusual in the fact that it was a difficult one. His mother was fifteen when she gave birth to him and went to prison when Manson was only four. By thirteen, Manson had been involved in auto theft and armed robbery, which resulted in him being sent to juvenile detention for most of his adolescence (Arledge 2017). Another feature of a contemporary messiah which Manson can claim is that of being an ‘outsider’; somehow set apart from others. While Manson made it his mission to be surrounded by other people, he was set apart from them by his psychology; as a psychopath he would be unable to feel empathy or remorse.Therefore he could not truly connect with and relate to those around him, making him an ‘outsider’. Manson also shows the feature of rationalization of violence, as he justified the nine murders by claiming that it was necessary to start his imagined race war. Tex Watson, one of the Family members wrote in his autobiography that Charlie told them to commit murder to “do what blackie didn’t have the energy or the smarts to do – ignite Helter Skelter and bring in Charlie’s kingdom” (Watson 1978, p.67).
Additionally, Manson exhibits ‘extraordinary powers’, another feature of popular messiahs. However rather than supernatural powers, his abilities lie in his manipulation of people through his charisma and reasoning, which combined with the use of drugs, essentially allowed him to brainwash people. Furthermore, the messianic feature of thematic death and resurrection is apparent in how Manson promised his followers safety from the supposed apocalyptic race war. He told the Family they would escape to the desert during the war and live in the ‘bottomless pit’ from Revelation 9:1 – “a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit”. It is interesting that in theology, the ‘bottomless pit’ is commonly understood to refer to hell, and so perhaps Manson saw the idea of taking shelter in this pit as type of death. He also made his followers believe that once the African Americans were victorious, the family would emerge and rule the earth, which fits with the idea of resurrection. Another feature of a contemporary messiah which can be applied to Manson is the idea of a loyal band of iconic followers. Comparative to how Jesus had his disciples, Manson had his Family, many of whom would have been willing to die for him (Mark 3.13-19).
Another potential feature of a popular messiah that Manson could be argued to adhere to is that of remaining collected under pressure. Even though Manson was renowned for exhibiting bizarre behavior during his trial and in subsequent interviews, it could be argued that this was an act for Manson to manipulate how the court and the rest of the world saw him, which would suggest that underneath all the insanity, he was in fact, collected. This idea is supported by how, even as a child, Manson would use similar methods to protect himself, something which he called the ‘insane game’ – “This ‘game’ consisted of Charles using noises, erratic gestures, rapid movements, and any other means at his disposal to convince potential threats that he was crazy and not worth their time” (Altman 2015, p.21). The only two messianic features which Manson does not fit is that of having a selfless passion for justice, and of renouncing sexuality and withstanding temptation. Objectively, Manson’s actions cannot be described as just in any righteous sense, and his use of drugs and sex were instrumental in the manipulation of his followers.
It is indisputable that Manson is a widely recognized figure in pop culture. His recent death has only served to cement the intrigue surrounding his life, and filmmakers are scrambling to capitalize on this and capture the essence of Manson on screen. However, Manson can not only be defined as a pop culture icon, but also as a contemporary messiah, in relation to both Hebrew and New Testament definitions, the American monomyth and by conventional features attributed to messiahs. This creates interesting reflections around human susceptibility to evil when it is masked by a charismatic leader, and just how far people can be willing to go to fulfil someone else’s vision. Manson was not the first messianic figure to use his power over others to commit unthinkable atrocities against others, nor unfortunately, will he be the last.
All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version
Altman, Robin, “Sympathy for the Devil: Charles Manson’s Exploitation of California’s 1960s Counter-Culture.” Undergraduate Honours Theses, University of Colorado (2015) https://scholar.colorado.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2017&context=honr_theses
Arledge., Roone, creator. “20/20 Truth and Lies: The Family Manson”. Aired 17thMarch 2017; USA, ABC Networks. Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqL70yz65B4
Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. “The myth of the American superhero.”Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (2002).
Lang, Jeffrey S., and Patrick Trimble. “Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An examination of the American monomyth and the comic book superhero.” The Journal of Popular Culture 22, no. 3 (1988): 157-173.
Nielsen, Donald A. “Charles Manson’s Family of Love: A Case Study of Anomism, Puerilism and Transmoral Consciousness in Civilizational Perspective.”Sociological Analysis 45, no. 4 (1984): 315-337. doi:10.2307/3711297.
Watson, Charles (Tex), Chaplain Ray Hoekstra. “Will You Die for Me?”New York, Fleming H. Revell Co. (1978).