Books for the News

Manson Family Matters

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Last weekend marked the fortieth anniversary of the grisly Tate-LaBianca murders perpetuated by the followers of Charles Manson. In the early morning hours of August 9, 1969, four members of the “family” entered the home of Sharon Tate and brutally slaughtered the pregnant actress, her three house guests, and the groundskeeper. The next night, six of Manson’s devotees selected their next victims at random, gruesomely executing Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.
Four decades on, the shocking crimes—and the disturbing madman behind them—continue to fascinate. This week, Newsweek magazine dedicated its issue to exploring the appeal of true crime. On the anniversary of the Manson murders, we find ourselves once again asking why such luridly transgressive and horrific individuals are so bewitching. And what compels us to look more closely at these figures when we really want to look away? David Schmid sets out to answer these question and more in his 2005 book Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture.
Considering how serial killers have become lionized in American culture and exploring the consequences of their fame, Schmid ranges from H. H. Holmes, whose killing spree during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair inspired The Devil in the White City, right up to Aileen Wuornos, the lesbian prostitute whose vicious murder of seven men would serve as the basis for the hit film Monster to unveil a new understanding of serial killers by emphasizing both the social dimensions of their crimes and their susceptibility to multiple interpretations and uses. He also explores why serial killers have become endemic in popular culture, ultimately arguing that America needs the perversely familiar figure of the serial killer now more than ever in a post-9/11 world.
Put on the Beatles’ White Album, cue up track number 23, and read an excerpt of Schmid’s book here.