On August 9 and 10, 1969, members of the “Manson Family” conducted a brutal series of killings in Los Angeles that captivated the country. Now, forty-nine years after the Tate-LaBianca murders and a year after cult leader Charles Manson’s death, two new Manson movies are in the works, and Manson’s presence is felt in television, art, and politics. UMass Boston Professor of American Studies Jeffrey Melnick looks at what he calls “Manson-related cultural chatter” in his new book, Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family.
Q: Why this book and why now?
A: There’s this sense that this is a neat, tied-up story, and that it’s done, and then I started thinking about it some more and I thought, “Why are we still talking about him then? Why is Quentin Tarantino making a movie about him? Why is there a TV series? Why can’t we be done with Manson?” And that was really the animus for the book. … It hit me that he’s just this kind of language that we speak. We use it to talk about all different things, hardly ever about the case anymore, but more about the counterculture, about families, about race, about Los Angeles.
Q: You’ve written a book about race (Black-Jewish Relations on Trial). How does this book tie in with your previous academic research?
A: I’m a cultural historian, and one of the ways I like to talk to students about cultural history is to say cultural history is basically the stories that we tell about how we got here, and different people tell the story differently, and that’s one of the things that I’m most interested in. When I did my book 9/11 Culture: America Under Construction, one of the things I was most interested in was how different communities talked about the same event. … [With Manson,] for a long time we’ve kind of bought this one story, that the prosecutor [Vincent Bugliosi] developed and then wrote a book about, that Manson was trying to kick off a race war. Since that time, the more people who look back at the case, legal experts, cultural historians, critical race theorists, it just doesn’t hold any water. And so I’m really interested in how certain stories get privileged over other stories, and that was a big part of what I was trying to sort out here.
Q: The book’s title has multiple meanings: the pervasiveness in pop culture, and the fact that “creepy crawling” was the Manson Family's practice of secretly entering someone's home and, without harming anyone, leaving only a trace of evidence that they had been there.
A: One of the things that I found fascinating was that at some point I had to stop researching because it wasn’t like I didn’t find every detective novel, every rap song, every pulpy horror movie, but I found a lot that one way or another invoke the Manson Family.
Q: Do you ever get into why he encouraged his followers to commit these murders?
A: For me, what’s more interesting than trying to figure out why Manson did it is why so many people are satisfied with the idea that Manson did it, rather than looking at the complex webs that connected up.
Q: What are you hoping that readers take away from this book?
A: There’s one important thing that I hope that they get, which is that it’s really important to pay attention to the stories that we tell. … I’m really interested in people developing critical skills to just test stories. … More particularly, when it comes to the Manson Family, I want folks to really look back and say, “Why have we been so willing to buy Vincent Bugliosi’s story about race war and hippies gone bad – what’s comforting about that? Who gets served by that? What interest gets served by that?” … Social and economic classes were mixing in Los Angeles and when the crimes broke, the powerful people just washed their hands and said, “I don’t know that guy.” It’s an interesting allegory about class and people staying in their place. Manson was poor … and in jail situations basically from the time he was a young teenager for most of his adult life until he got released in the late 60s and discovered the hippies, so he’s also a story about mass incarceration and what happens if you put people in jail when they’re really young and teach them that that’s where they belong, so there’s all these different threads that I’m interested in pulling out.
Excerpts of the book and essays based on the book have been published by The New Yorker and Salon. Melnick has also put together a Spotify playlist of songs written by Manson, songs that reference him or the murders in some way, and songs of the late 60s.
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