Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

If Not a Serial Killer, Then What Is Charles Manson?

A fanatical cult leader, Manson ordered his followers to kill.

Everyone’s favorite boogeyman, the infamous Charles Manson, made it into the news again recently when his 26-year-old girlfriend, Star, announced that she is marrying the 80-year-old convict. Gee, lucky girl.

Manson was also denied parole for the 12th time in 2012 for masterminding the 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others. Manson will be 92 if he lives to see his next scheduled parole hearing. Don’t worry. He will never be released.

The diabolical Manson is often incorrectly referred to as a serial killer. That is simply not an accurate description of his crimes. According to the FBI, serial murder is "the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events," with an emotional cooling-off period between the murders. The FBI previously set the number of victims at three, but its Behavioral Analysis Unit lowered that number to two in 2005.

The emotional cooling-off period is the most important factor in defining a serial killer. Ted Bundy and the “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy are good examples. They both slipped back into their seemingly normal lives in between their murders. That's where the cooling-off period comes into play; their ability to maintain an outward appearance of being completely normal and functioning in society and then, when the urge to kill becomes overwhelming, they strike again.

The misconceptions about Manson began decades ago and continue today. Manson was the charismatic leader of the Manson Family, a quasi-commune (cult, really) that he formed in California in the late 1960s. Manson believed in an impending apocalyptic race war, which he termed "Helter Skelter," after the Beatles’ song of the same name. Manson masterminded two consecutive nights of murder to be executed by his followers to facilitate the race war.

If not a serial killer, then what category of killer does Manson fall into? First, the Manson family murders constitute a killing spree. The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines a spree killing as "killings at two or more locations with almost no time break between murders." The FBI’s general definition of spree killing is two or more murders committed by an offender or offenders without a cooling-off period.

Consistent with a killing spree, the Manson family murders involved separate incidents that took place over two consecutive nights. Significantly, there was no emotional cooling-off period in between the two incidents. The killing spree was cold-blooded, calculated, and planned.

In addition, Manson’s followers are known as “mission killers.” Charles Manson had a grand design or vision—to bring about Helter Skelter—and it led him to mastermind a murderous rampage that he believed would ignite the apocalypse. Stated differently, Manson sent his followers out on a mission to kill for him.

Charles Manson was convicted on seven counts of first-degree murder for his role in the killings.

He never murdered anyone himself during the family’s killing spree. Instead, he ordered his followers to murder for him. This is known as murder by proxy. A proxy murder is defined as a murder in which the murderer does so at the behest of another, acting as a proxy.

Essentially, his family was doing Manson’s bidding when they killed on his behalf and in compliance with his orders. The court ruled that Manson’s family was an extension of him. The judge concluded that when his followers committed murder for him it was the same as if Manson had done it himself.

Manson murdered seven people by proxy.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic.


See “Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.