I went on the Helter Skelter tour of Los Angeles yesterday morning with Kira and Tyler, a three hour deep dive into the Manson Murders in a little 12 seater van that drives you around to crime scenes and tells you all the information that’s been made available. A few years ago, I went on the Tragical History Tour which was a broad look at the murderous underbelly of Hollywood that exists in the homes and buildings you live near and drive by, if you live in LA. I learned that the Black Dahlia home was down the street from my apartment, we drove by the Menendez house, and to the hotel where Whitney Houston had just died. I live a fairly peaceful life devoid of terrible tragedy, so these tours are eery and interesting for me. Yesterday, a ton of questions were answered and a few new questions were created. In the torrential downpour of the history of this case, these details bookmarked themselves in my brain:

  1. Two or so hours into our drive, tour guide Scott Michaels said something like this: There are two types of people interested in this case, people who are interested in Manson and people who are interested in the victims. In my experience, the people who are interested in the victims are the people who come on this tour. I am in this for the victims, I have no interest in Manson, I have no desire to ever talk to him.

This furrowed my speculative brow but there was too much incoming info to have time for immediate analysis and since the tour was enough stimulation for me to forego party plans last night, I had time to think about it. That sounded to me like a justification that Scott has understandably crafted to explain his endless fascination with the murders, a fascination that has no doubt been questioned by tons of folks. “I do this for the victims” sounds like a headline-worthy, almost laughable PC soundbite as a way to relieve himself of any possible BEWARE OF THIS DUDE’S INTENSE OBSESSION WITH CHARLES MANSON reviews on his public Peeple profile (it’s coming, you guys). He talked about his obsession with the case: he owns the Dearly Departed tour business and gallery, he reads all the books that have been published about these murders, he seeks out and speaks to those who are alive and linked to these murders, he shares these murders with the world, he said it over and over again, “This is what I do.” If it is natural for others to call his devotion an obsession and be wary of it, it is natural for him to have a justification for his fascination at the ready. The very nature of obsession can make people clutch their buttons* no matter what the subject matter; it’s like we all knew that Trevor loved dinosaurs, because of his paleontology career, his tattoos, his t-shirts, his trips, his posters, his shower head and the fact that he owns Theodore Rex on DVD and blu-ray but he did not have to name his daughter Avalonia. There’s a line between fascination and obsession, Trevor, and people are going to call you weird when you cross it.

My run-of-the-mill curiosity about the Manson saga has never brought any perceivable judgment onto me so I haven’t tasked myself with coming up with a justification like the one Scott doles out, and to be honest, it immediately felt unfair for me to adopt his. Yeah, I’m interested in the victims of this case due to the “it could have been me” fascination that is so alluring to the audience of a disaster. Scott played into this allure well, “Here are photos of the items from a victim’s wallet: some coupons, a picture of her daughter, a drivers license…see, she was a normal woman, going about her life just like anyone else.” He drove us down the streets the victims drove down before they became the victims, he took us to the hot spots and houses they had frequented, he played era-appropriate radio hits the victims and killers could have reasonably been listening to pre and post fiasco, he set the whole scene for us and as we sat, parked in front of the houses where the murders took place, we tried to imagine what it sounded like, and tried not to imagine what it felt like. Wow, we’re looking at the house right now, this was a randomly chosen house, our houses could have just as easily been chosen. I read that Kubrick referred to Freud’s explanation of The Uncanny when making The Shining, mixing the familiar with the unfamiliar, turning beloved images a patina of terror, and as a former resident of Los Feliz, that’s exactly what this tour was doing for me, turning my former-daily routes into these terrible memory capsules with my new context of these tragedies that happened right there. Since these victims were recipients of this terror we were exploring, a terror they didn’t put into motion, could we really be “there for them”?

The inclusion of Sharon Tate in this case– a B movie actress, wife of Polanski, pregnant at the time of the murder, conveniently marries the “it could have been me” fascination with the “tell me more about celebrities” impulse making the victims in this case take the spotlight more so than in any other case of this nature, at least that I’m aware of. I think it’s fair to say the overall fascination with the Manson Family victims, if we were to measure by Google searches, could be ordered like this: Charles Manson, followed by Sharon Tate, followed by The Beatles’ involvement, followed by The Beach Boys’ involvement, followed by the rest of the victims’ involvement since we’re already Googling the subject. I’m just speaking about this American crime from my American brain and my American brain tells me that if we care more about the victims than the killers in this case, it’s because of the glint of the glitter.

Here’s the thing, I too could divide the takers of a tour like this into two camps as Scott did and since my division is not reactionary, neither of the two camps would be elevated above the other. The two camps by my division would be the It Could Have Been Mes, those people really into imagining the randomness and freaking themselves out about the possibilities and the How Could Theys? the people who try to understand the minds of the psychopaths. Had I time to think this through immediately, I would have told Scott I was most definitely part of the latter category. It’s not typical of me to get caught up in the Why Not Me head space. I tried to freak myself out at the locations and I couldn’t. I am more interested in trying to figure people out, how could so many people be led to believe and do these things. How does the brain work, what are the experiences in a human life and the makeup of a brain that creates the capability for stuff like this. Yesterday I read that “Modern geneticists have pointed out that a nature-nurture dichotomy is clearly untenable, incorrect, and meaningless. The subject has to be discussed in terms of the continuous and complex interactions between an organism and its environment, and the relevant contributions of both sets of variables in determining the behavior of the organism.” This is where the fascination is for me, the equation that equals monster, the equation that, for a time equals monster, and then changes to equal someone remorseful for their monstrous acts! Oh man. This is where the gold is. What are people and why? And here’s my main thing with Scott’s justification, if the tour actually existed to honor the victims first and foremost, 10 solid minutes of Sharon Tate jokes would have to be cut from his repertoire.

2. I couldn’t help but wonder if Manson were given the recording contract he so craved, would he have been fullfilled enough to avoid seeking notoriety in this way? He himself was not blood thirsty in the way serial killers who make couture skin suits for themselves are blood thirsty. We learned that he would leave scenes that were too gruesome for him to handle! He left the dirty work to The Family and palled around Laurel Canyon with Hollywood Hotshots and tried and tried to find his in. He wanted fame and power and influence and he had no idea how else to get it, like so many current mass-murderers whose minds, in the form of blogs, we have access to now. They want to be remembered, and mass murder is a way to be remembered, if you’re broken and desperate in very specific ways. I’m filing Manson in my Danger of Broken Dreams Inquiries along with the questions “What if Hitler Had Been Successful in Art School? and “What if Hubbard Had Been More Noteworthy As a Writer?” Please no feedback on my filing system.

3. It was strange to take this tour after the national conversation about no longer giving media attention to the loads of mass shooters has arisen. I thought about how any one of them would love to know that there was a full-blown LA tour about their legacy and I wondered why our romanticism of the Manson Murders hasn’t led to more copycat Families. And it was even stranger to take this tour on Halloween and see, across from the historical homes where these people were mutilated, plastic severed limbs painted to look bloody, dangling skeletons, and Realistic-Looking! severed heads. It stirred up my curiosity over our impulse to create false horror in the absence of real horror more so than it’s ever been stirred up before. Ain’t no way the victims’ families were hanging bloody skeletons over their doors to scare kids or watching slasher flicks for fun following their horrific losses. Ain’t no way. Our fun with horror comes from the fortune of having not experienced it. A singular type of fortune is required for enjoyment of the most well-produced elements of this holiday. Actually two kinds of fortune are required because a perfectly produced Halloween Party costs a lot of bloody money.

*this is a phrase I made up to describe the way someone, in my mind an elderly and conservative woman, might reactively pull the front of her sweater together while gasping Well I Never in the face of someone who has startled or disgusted her. You may use it for a fee of $5, I’m saving up to buy a new life!