Charles Manson: The Cult of Personality Surrounding a Killer

Can psychology explain why so many are attracted to murderers?

Posted Nov 20, 2017

Notorious murderer Charles Manson has died aged 83 after serving four decades in a Californian state prison for a series of killings which were perpetrated by members of a cult/commune referred to as the 'Manson Family.'

Manson has stood out as being of particular psychological fascination and revulsion because of his alleged ability to exercise such a mental hold over others, getting them to perform brutal slayings under his influence.

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Source: This work was created by a government unit (including state, county, and municipal government agencies) of the State of California and is subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act. It is a public record that was not created by an agency which state law has allowed to claim copyright and is therefore in the public domain in the United States.

This power over others appeared to endure up until nearly the end of his life; he was granted in 2014 a marriage license to wed Afton Burton who was 26 years old at the time. The marriage license expired in February 2015. Yet their relationship had allegedly lasted almost 10 years, with Afton first writing to him as a teenager.

Because he was serving a life sentence, the two were not allowed conjugal visits.

Manson orchestrated a group of followers who went on a murder spree that took place between July and August 1969. They killed actress Sharon Tate, who was eight and a half months pregnant and married to movie director Roman Polanski but was stabbed multiple times as she begged for the life of her unborn child.

Four other people at Tate's home were also savagely murdered while the very next day, a couple in Los Angeles, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, were also slain by Manson's followers. The killings became known collectively as the Tate-LaBianca murders.

Manson was not there at any of these killings but was nonetheless convicted of murder for directing his followers to murder. Does such ability to control others lie within a particular personality, or is it more the result of particular psychological needs in followers which get manipulated and exploited by a devious personality?

There is even a term within forensic psychology referred to as 'hybristophilia,' variously defined as being attracted to or even being erotically stimulated by dangerous individuals. Some specialists believe this is a kind of disturbed attraction in much the same way people can become fixated on other fetishes, often termed perversions or paraphilias. 

This phenomenon of women becoming drawn to and even eventually marrying infamous killers is well known.

Sheila Isenberg proposed various intriguing psychological theories in her book "Women Who Love Men Who Kill." She interviewed 30 women who were married to death row inmates. She contended that such women had been abused in their earlier lives, so that a relationship with a man behind bars becomes, paradoxically, perhaps the safest possible relationship.

Sheila Isenberg suggests that marriage to notorious serial killers like Charles Manson offers some women suffering from low self-esteem the thrill of fame. Perhaps a killer's notoriety provides a sense of worth. The bigger the impact of his crime, the more important she feels.

Charlyne Gelt, a Californian psychologist, has studied in depth 26 women, who started relationships with prison lifers and death row inmates after they were incarcerated.

Her study was not of high profile mass murderers, such as Charles Manson, a crime which is relatively rare. Gelt's research has been published as a book entitled 'Hades' Angels,' probing the hidden forces behind such a magnetic draw and demystifying destructive relationships.

Dr. Gelt found these women were often successful, educated, nurturing, and confident, not fitting the popular stereotype of being 'dysfunctional.' They experienced, in their view, genuine love and emotional intimacy from the prisoner, and this was the first time they had such attraction. Many of the women explained that when they met the prisoner, they had the sense of connecting with their soul mate.

Dr. Gelt argues that all the restrictions in prison to physical contact seem to unintentionally contribute towards an even more intense previously unmet intimacy. She proposes that some women are driven by strong unconscious forces to fix or save a criminal from their flaws because this is one unconscious way of dealing with a childhood emotional wound within the women themselves.

Dr. Gelt contends that the prison environment may, in some way, even replicate the emotionally charged, sometimes dangerous atmosphere of these women's early childhood family environment.

Others will argue that becoming apparently indispensable to someone who is completely dependent on them, just perhaps like a baby, means that this very primitive drive in some women is how they become healed from a childhood trauma.

Perhaps these women are often 'groomed' even from prison, or seduced, by the imprisoned men's apparent vulnerability, and the prisoners can be very manipulative, explaining that the case against them is flawed, which brings out the maternal and rescue instinct in some women.

Micael Dahlén and Magnus Söderlund, from the Stockholm School of Economics, propose that murderers can be idolized and found attractive precisely because of their homicidal behavior.

Their study, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, is titled, 'The Homicidol Effect: Investigating Murder as a Fitness Signal.' 'Homicidol' being a merger of 'Homicide' and 'Idol.'

Micael Dahlén and Magnus Söderlund point out that surveys find 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had vivid fantasies about killing someone and that human beings probably have an evolved adaptation for carnage because in our ancestral environments, the ability to commit murder could be considered one kind of genetic or evolutionary 'fitness' in terms of survival.

In ancient times, murder could enable acquisition of rivals' territory, sexual access to a competitor's mate, protection of one's own resources, cultivation of a fierce reputation deterring mobilization of enemies, and prevention of interlopers from mating with one's partner.

If the ability to commit murder is a kind of genetic fitness, Dahlén and Söderlund tested a prediction that a murderer is perceived by modern observers as a fit competitor and, thereby, as an attractive partner. This is because our brains evolved to survive in ancient conditions, not in those of the much more recent modern world.

In two experiments a total of 460 subjects rated their perceptions of a person, where half of the descriptions included information about a committed murder in the form of one single sentence: "some time ago, John (Jane) murdered a person."

The extraordinary study found that killing enhanced observers' attitudes toward, and even inclination to interact with a person. Opposite sex observers were found more inclined to associate benign intent with the act of murder, such as thinking that the homicide was not the person's fault.

The researchers found that opposite-sex observers evaluated a murderer’s intentions more favorably than same-sex observers, pointing out this finding may have important implications for judicial processes. They also suggest their findings explain why high-profile killers achieve an idol-like status, which they term the 'homicidol' effect.

Micael Dahlén and Magnus Söderlund point to numerous examples of the 'Homicidol Effect' in their paper.

Amanda Knox became "Foxy Knoxy" with teens everywhere and received fan mail from across the globe after she was accused of murdering her roommate in Italy in 2007; the "Japanese Cannibal" Issei Sagawa, who after committing a high-profile murder in the 1980s launched a career as a popular author and TV talk show host; and Charles Manson inspired musical artists such as Guns n' Roses (who recorded one of his songs) and Marilyn Manson (who took his name).

But Russil Durrant, from the Institute of Criminology, University of Wellington, New Zealand, points out that the evolutionary psychology idea that we somehow evolved to kill is problematic.

In his study entitled 'Born to kill? A critical evaluation of homicide adaptation theory,' Russil Durrant argues that amongst many problems with the theory, is the question of just how common killing was in our evolutionary past.

His analysis, published in the journal 'Aggression and Violent Behaviour,' quotes figures that globally, approximately 520,000 people were at the time of publication of that study (2009) victims of homicide every year. According to a 2013 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), between 2005 and 2012, the average homicide rate in the U.S. was 4.9 per 100,000 inhabitants compared to the average rate globally, which was 6.2.

Based on data for the United States at that time that Russil Durrant published his study, the overall then annual rate of homicide was about 5.6 per 100,000 individuals, translating to a lifetime risk of being killed of approximately one in 225.

From that perspective, maybe homicide doesn't seem that rare an event.

Michael Spychaj from Wilfrid Laurier University in a recent thesis and dissertation titled “Serial killers are interesting, they’re not heroes”: Moral boundaries, identity management, and emotional work within an online community,' explores various theories as to how it is serial killers today attract fandom through burgeoning online communities.

His study published in 2017 explores various theories, including that killer 'fandom,' allows fans to vicariously experience something far outside of the boundaries of normal everyday life. He also considers a theory that serial murderers can act as “idols of destruction”, representing a kind of ultimate rebellion against law and order and society in general. This serves to pique a thrill and sense of freedom by proxy.

Some say that the innocence of the hippy counter-culture revolution of ultimate freedom that started in the 1960s, ended, partly because it was killed by Charles Manson. 

A version of this article was first published in The Huffington Post.


Micael Dahlén & Magnus Söderlund (2012) The homicidol effect: investigating murder as a fitness signal. The Journal of Social Psychology Volume 152, 2012 - Issue 2.

Durrant R. (2009). 'Born to kill? A critical evaluation of homicide adaptation theory', Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 14 , pp. 374-381