The Manson murders, 50 years later: The infamous cult, the shocking rampage and why we're still fascinated

PHOTO: Charles Manson, leader of a cult linked to the Sharon Tate murders, is escorted from jail to the courtroom at Independence, Calif., Dec. 3, 1969.PlayAP, FILE
WATCH Two former Manson followers discuss how cult family, 1969 murders changed their lives

It's been 50 years since Charles Manson's followers carried out a two-day murderous rampage in Los Angeles, killing seven people and igniting fear throughout the city and the nation.

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At the height of the late-60s' counterculture, the Manson led-killings thrust him and the "Manson family" into the spotlight.

'A con, a manipulator, an opportunist'

The fame-hungry Manson began building his cult in 1967 after being released from prison for petty crime.

Former Manson family member Dianne Lake -- who said she was "awe struck" when she met the cult leader -- would later describe him as "a con, a manipulator, an opportunist."

PHOTO: Charles Manson is escorted to his arraignment on conspiracy-murder charges in conneciton with the Sharon Tate murder case, 1969, in Los Angeles. AP, FILE
Charles Manson is escorted to his arraignment on conspiracy-murder charges in conneciton with the Sharon Tate murder case, 1969, in Los Angeles.

"He was also very intuitive of people's weaknesses, and he had the uncanny ability to become 100 different people," Lake told ABC News during an interview for the network's "Manson Girls" special, broadcast earlier this year.

Manson manipulated his drug-fueled followers by convincing them of a coming race war and convinced them it was imminent.

Manson "learned racism in prison," Vibe.com editor Desire Thompson said in an interview this year with ABC News for the network's "1969" series -- a look back at a pivotal year in American history.

"Being in jail with black men, he has his mind already made up about who these people are," Thompson said. "He sees them as savages. And although they are organized in prison, he still feels like he has the authority to overpower any of these people... Manson definitely confused the Black Power Movement with the race war."

Lake described Manson's delusionally epic strategy to recreate American culture.

"Charlie started to develop this plan for what we were going to do during this 'Armageddon,' this white race war -- and [then] hide out," Lake said. "He gave me the impression that he was building this family because we were going to -- after the war -- we were going to rise up out of the ashes and repopulate the Earth."

PHOTO: The Spahn movie ranch near Chatsworth, a Los Angeles suburb, Dec. 11, 1969, where Charles Manson and his family lived at the time actress Sharon Tate and seven others were slain. AP, FILE
The Spahn movie ranch near Chatsworth, a Los Angeles suburb, Dec. 11, 1969, where Charles Manson and his "family" lived at the time actress Sharon Tate and seven others were slain.

Manson was also an aspiring musician who tried to impress Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson.

"Charlie’s aspiration to get this recording contract [was] not so much for the fame but for the fortune," Lake explained. "He really wanted money to supply, to get our needs met for this huge exodus to the desert. When that didn't pan out, then I think [the Manson 'family'] started looking to the more criminal."

2 nights of terror

On Aug. 9, 1969, Manson's followers ambushed the home actress Sharon Tate was renting with her husband, Hollywood director Roman Polanski, in the secluded Los Angeles neighborhood of Benedict Canyon.

PHOTO: Police officers stand on the property of actress Sharon Tate where the bodies of five persons, including Tate, were found murdered by members of the Manson cult family, Aug. 9, 1969. AP, FILE
Police officers stand on the property of actress Sharon Tate where the bodies of five persons, including Tate, were found murdered by members of the Manson cult family, Aug. 9, 1969.

The group slaughtered everyone they found at the home that night: Tate, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger and writer Wojciech Frykowski, as well as teenager Steven Parent, who happened to be visiting the property’s caretaker that fateful evening.

Tate, who was nearly nine months pregnant, was stabbed 16 times.

PHOTO: From left, Voityck Frykowski, Sharon Tate, Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, and Abigail Folger, the five victims slain the night of Aug. 9, 1969, at the Benedict Canyon Estate. AP, FILE
From left, Voityck Frykowski, Sharon Tate, Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, and Abigail Folger, the five victims slain the night of Aug. 9, 1969, at the Benedict Canyon Estate.

The followers also wrote the word "pig" in blood on the front door.

On Aug. 10, wealthy grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary LaBianca were attacked inside their home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz.

PHOTO: The Hilltop home in Los Angeles Los Feliz district where Mr. and Mrs. Leno A. LaBianca were found murdered is pictured, Aug. 11, 1969. AP, FILE
The Hilltop home in Los Angeles' Los Feliz district where Mr. and Mrs. Leno A. LaBianca were found murdered is pictured, Aug. 11, 1969.

Manson follower Leslie Van Houten told ABC News' Diane Sawyer in 1994 that she and Manson follower Patricia Krenwinkel "took Mrs. LaBianca into the bedroom" to kill her.

"The sounds of Mr. La Bianca dying came into the bedroom -- horrible, guttural sounds," Van Houten recalled. "She started calling out to him and yelling for him. And at that moment -- for a brief moment -- I realized, you know, these are people that love each other."

Van Houten has said she helped secure a pillow over Rosemary LaBianca's head and held her down while another person stabbed her.

"And then Tex [follower Charles 'Tex' Watson] turned me around and handed me the knife," Van Houten told ABC News. "And he said, 'Do something,' because Manson had told him to make sure that all of us got our hands dirty."

"I stabbed Mrs. LaBianca in the lower back about 16 times," she said.

PHOTO: Charles Tex Watson, center, is led back to jail from a courtroom after he was convicted of seven counts of first degree murder and one of conspiracy to commit murder in the Tate-LaBianca slayings, Oct. 12, 1971, Los Angeles. George Brich/AP, FILE
Charles Tex Watson, center, is led back to jail from a courtroom after he was convicted of seven counts of first degree murder and one of conspiracy to commit murder in the Tate-LaBianca slayings, Oct. 12, 1971, Los Angeles.

Leno LaBianca was stabbed multiple times and the word "war" was carved with a knife on his stomach.

The killers also used the couple's blood to scrawl on the home's walls the phrases "Rise," "Death to Pigs" and "Helter Skelter" -- a reference to The Beatles' 1968 song, and the phrase Manson adopted as a part of his race-war propaganda.

Manson thought writing these phrases at the crime scenes would serve to frame the Black Panthers -- a then-controversial political organization founded in 1966 to challenge police brutality against African Americans -- and ignite the race war, said Thompson.

The Manson "family" killed two others in the weeks before and after the Tate-LaBianca killings: musician Gary Hinman and horse wrangler Donald "Shorty" Shea.

The Tate and LaBianca killings went unsolved for several months, until Manson follower Susan Atkins, who was arrested in October on an unrelated charge, told a cellmate she stabbed the pregnant actress.

Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Watson were charged with the crimes and went to trial. Manson's followers flocked to the courtroom to show him support, in an event that captivated the media.

PHOTO: Three female defendants in the Manson court case,, from left; Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, March 29, 1971, return to court to hear the penalty ending a nine-month trial in the Tate-LaBianca murders of Aug. 1969. AP, FILE
Three female defendants in the Manson court case,, from left; Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, March 29, 1971, return to court to hear the penalty ending a nine-month trial in the Tate-LaBianca murders of Aug. 1969.

While Manson did not carry out the grisly killings himself, he commanded his followers to do so.

"He created this atmosphere and this delusion where people did his bidding," said Lake, who became a witness for the prosecution. Follower Linda Kasabian, who served as a lookout at the Tate house, was given immunity in exchange for her testimony against Manson and the others.

Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, Van Houten and Watson were convicted in 1971 and sentenced to death. The death sentences were commuted to life sentences when a California Supreme Court ruling abolished capital punishment in 1972.

Atkins died in prison in 2009.

In 2017, after decades behind bars, Manson died from natural causes at the age of 83.

Watson, Krenwinkel and Van Houten remain behind bars. They have all been repeatedly denied parole.

A mirror on modern day America

The Manson saga continues to strike a chord with Americans today because the issues he was obsessed with -- mainly race relations and white supremacy -- remain relevant, said Thompson, the Vibe.com editor.

"Sadly, Manson's ideas for a race war have survived," Thompson said. "There are plenty of, like, neo-Nazi groups and white supremacy groups online that look to him as a beacon of inspiration. His album [and] his songs are on iTunes, and some of them are pretty popular."

PHOTO: Charles Manson, leader of a cult linked to the Sharon Tate murders, is escorted from jail to the courtroom at Independence, Calif., Dec. 3, 1969. AP, FILE
Charles Manson, leader of a cult linked to the Sharon Tate murders, is escorted from jail to the courtroom at Independence, Calif., Dec. 3, 1969.

Manson was an inspiration for the neo-Nazi group connected to the 2018 murder of college student Blaze Bernstein in California, said Thompson. Bernstein, who was gay and Jewish, was stabbed to death in an alleged hate crime.

The suspect, who is awaiting trial, was a member of a neo-Nazi group inspired by individuals including Manson and Hitler.

The members of that group "want to inspire race wars and ethnic cleansing of black people, of the LGBTQIA community, of Jewish people," said Thompson. "The internet is definitely full of Mansons and that’s something that he would be very happy about."

Fifty years later, Manson also remains a pop culture obsession: The murders are a major plot line in Quentin Tarantino's new film "Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood," which premiered last month.

To journalist Lizzie Goodman, our obsession is rooted in the way America glamorizes serial killers, including fame-hungry Manson, and the introduction of mass media into the culture through the growth of television.

"We're fascinated by the pathology that creates that, and also horrified by it," Goodman told ABC News for this year's "1969" special.

PHOTO: Susan Denise Atkins, defendant in the Tate murder trial, mimics a television film cameraman while on her way to court in Los Angeles with fellow defendants Patricia Krenwinkel, left, and Leslie Van Houten, hidden by the camera lens, Sept. 22, 1970. AP, FILE
Susan Denise Atkins, defendant in the Tate murder trial, mimics a television film cameraman while on her way to court in Los Angeles with fellow defendants Patricia Krenwinkel, left, and Leslie Van Houten, hidden by the camera lens, Sept. 22, 1970.

"What's particularly important about the Manson trial is just the sheer number of televisions that are in people's houses at that point," she explained. "It was the first time that that many people could have this, sort of, like, a daily playback of this event unfolding in their living room on that magnitude."

"During the trial, the media kept coming back because he kept giving them a reason to come back," added Thompson. "Whether it [was] his outfits, or the songs that he had the [followers] sing... He even cut a cross in the middle of his head, and then later turns it into a swastika," she said. "His followers did the same thing."

"There wasn’t cable back then," Thompson continued. "You couldn’t change it to a different channel. You had to care about this very interesting guy with a swastika on his face and how he had these women."

Today, Goodman said, media and society often still treat killers, including school shooters, as if they're celebrities.

"If you want fame bad enough, [crime] is one entry point to that," Goodman said. "That's a lesson that continues to get learned now, and it's one that Manson represents."

"When you look back on Manson at that time, he didn’t get the music career that he wanted, but in between these murders and in between the trial, he got the fame that he wanted," Thompson said.

"He created his legacy."