Charles Manson, one of the lingering boogeymen of the 20th Century, has died. A failed songwriter, cult leader, and convicted murderer, Manson successfully forced himself into the pop culture landscape of the latter half of the century, both directly, through his bizarre association with the Beach Boys and his followers’ murder of actress Sharon Tate along with several others, and indirectly, through the way his story has influenced any number of stories about human beings on the irrational fringe.
Manson’s biographical details and crimes are the subject of, roughly, a billion books at this point, so it seems futile (possibly even perverse) to go over them again. (Briefly: Shitty childhood, lifetime in and out of jail, Manson Family, Dennis Wilson, Tate-LaBianca murders, imprisonment, death.) He’s been played in TV and film by several actors over the years (and will be again, if rumors that Quentin Tarantino’s working on a film about his killings are true). And his songs—which, outside of one Beach Boys B-side credited only to his brief associate Wilson, gained notoriety only after he was convicted for his crimes—have been covered on occasion by bands looking to borrow some kind of transgressive mystique, from Guns N’ Roses and GG Allin to (unsurprisingly) Marilyn Manson, who intentionally invoked the killer’s name as part of his fascination with freaking out the squares.
More generally, though, Manson is one of those bizarre figures who achieved a kind of transcendent fame not through talent, but through sheer infamy. To children growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, “Charles Manson” was the monster under the bed, a symbol that there were “Bad People” out there who could make you do Bad Things. (Indeed, his ability to coerce others to kill has always been part of his mystique as a still-living folk character, divorced from his actual, failing flesh and blood.) For all that, though, Manson was also still just a man, one who orchestrated the killings of a pregnant woman and six others and who spent the last 46 years of his life in prison, periodically applying for a parole that everyone involved almost certainly knew he was never going to get. He was hospitalized last week and, according to TMZ, he died earlier tonight, at the age of 83.