#bloodbath: how social media might have changed one of history's most infamous crime sprees

Date Published 09.20.12

Saturday, August 9, 1969, but there, on the grass outside the Westlake School for Girls it could have been anytime, for camp-outs with schoolchildren aren’t period-specific; it’s always been fun to sleep outside in the summertime.  That this group was camping in the canyon above Hollywood at possibly the very moment Jim Morrison was falling across his bed in a drunken stupor in room 32 of the Alta Cienega Motel, that the 70 campers whispered in the dark to each other just as, maybe, a caravan of hippies barreled down Sunset Blvd. singing “Marrakesh Express” at the top of their lungs, meant nothing.  They couldn’t see the Sixties from their sleeping bags.  Only later would it become clear that lying there they had been downhill and less than a mile south when, as everyone would eventually agree, an era came to an end.

Timothy Ireland was one of the five counselors supervising the Westlake camp-out.  At approximately 12:40 a.m. he heard a male voice from what seemed a long distance away, to the north or northeast.

“Oh, God, no, please don’t!  Oh, God, no, don’t, don’t, don’t…”

The scream lasted for about 10 seconds before coming to an abrupt end, followed by a silence that suggested that somewhere out there a man begging to be spared had not.

Ireland was disturbed.  Unsure what to do, he took out his cell phone and accessed his Twitter account.

@timireleand: “Someone screaming just now around Cielo in B. Canyon.  Anyone? #freakedout”

Up the hill Mrs. Seymour Kott, at 10070 Cielo Drive, parted the drapes and listened.  Hearing nothing more, she crossed the bedroom to her desk and turned on her laptop.  She went to Twitter and, after thinking for a moment, searched “Cielo.”

@MrsKott: “@timireland No scream heard, but poss 3 or 4 gunshots?  #calling911”

Emmett Steele, a neighbor to the east of Cielo at 9951 Beverly Grove Drive, knew Mrs. Knott and followed her on Twitter.  Steele chimed in that the mad barking of his two hunting dogs had just awakened him.  In his experience this only happened when they heard gunshots.

Phones lit up.  Fingers tapped.  Random observations, short and stripped of conversational fat, ricocheted, flew together, the questions and concerns narrowing in an ever-smaller circle around 10050 Cielo Drive, the big house behind the high gate on the narrow, dead-end street, the house draped in Christmas light year-round, the merry, secluded twinkling visible from all the way down on the Sunset Strip. 

It didn’t happen this way, of course.  As detailed in Vincent Bugliosi's excellent book Helter Skelter, after the counselor, Timothy Ireland, heard the man’s scream he went immediately and checked on the sleeping kids.  There was no 4.8-ounce rectangle in his pants pocket that he could touch to instantly convey his impressions.  Cell phones hadn’t been invented yet.  There was no Twitter.  The need to communicate instantly with unseen people hadn’t been awakened --- some would say created --- yet.

What happened was Mrs. Seymour Kott thought she heard the gunshots and, hearing nothing more, went to bed.  The barking of his hunting dogs awakened Emmett Steele.   A small curiosity, nothing more.

Ireland was disturbed enough that he got permission from his supervisor, who’d been sleeping inside the school, to drive around and see if someone needed help.  He heard nothing but an unusual number of agitated dogs.

It was warm that night in Los Angeles, but not muggy, a relief after a three-day heat wave, and many people in houses along Benedict Canyon Drive slept with their windows open.  Some likely had sleepy half-impressions of a disturbance somewhere --- the barking dogs, a man’s scream.  Later, when news of the murders on Cielo Drive hit, whatever observations the peripheral players had evaporated once they left their mouths, unlike today, where, if you commit it to the Internet, it lives forever.

The pace of information flowed differently then.  You waited for someone to pick up the phone; sometimes, when they didn’t, you forgot what it is you meant to say.  The shelf life of a rumor was much longer because it took more time to be debunked.  At first everyone thought drugs were the motive behind the murders.  So many Beverly Hills toilets were flushing, it was infamously observed, that the sewer system was stoned.  Depending on your particular hang-up you either believed the hood over victim Jay Sebring’s head was white (KKK), or black (Satanists).  It wasn’t a hood at all, in the end.  It was a towel.  It meant nothing.

Had today’s technology existed then, a stranger in say, China, who, unable to sleep, was following the concerned Tweeters around Cielo Drive could have Google mapped the ear witnesses, decided 10050 Cielo was the source, called up publicly available party pictures revealing film director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate, as the tenants, noted that earlier hair stylist Jay Sebring had indicated on foursquare that he, Tate, Abigail Folger and her boyfriend Voytek Frykowski had “checked in” at El Coyote, a Mexican restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, read Folger’s Tweet about a nightcap back at the house, calculated the amount of bullets and concluded that something terrible had happened to the four friends, all before Ireland was back from his drive through the canyon, its silence punctuated by barking dogs, in vague search of a man in need of help.

#CieloDrive and #goodbyesixties would be trending topics on Twitter within 24 hours.

Social media, had it existed, would have changed the way we learned about what happened on August 9, 1969.  But, more controversially, I want to suggest that the existence of social media might have helped to avert what are now known as “the Manson murders” altogether.

For those rusty on the details:  Charles Manson was a fringe player in the late ‘60s Los Angeles music scene whose powers of malevolent persuasion far exceeded his songwriting skills.  Possessing a radar for vulnerability Manson fixed his charged gaze on damaged souls, particularly young women, and gave them new names and a new purpose: pleasing him.  From the outside the Family resembled a typical Sixties commune.  They dropped LSD together.  They arranged flowers in their hair and frolicked in the woods while Manson played a flute.  But Manson, the neglected child of a teenage prostitute who’d been in trouble most of his life, had bigger, nastier plans.  An apocalyptic race war was coming, he insisted, as foretold by the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter.” 

To help precipitate the war, after which the Family would reign supreme, they must undertake a murderous rampage.  It’s a testament to Manson’s power to control that this confusing hogwash was all the explanation his followers needed to sneak into 10050 Cielo Drive and, sober as judges, savagely murder five strangers, including one who was eight months pregnant.  Manson joined in the next night, when they murdered again, this time a wealthy grocery store owner and his wife, Leno and Rosemary La Bianca.



Manson’s followers were an assembly of broken parts consisting of the socially isolated and emotionally wrenched.  Take Patricia Krenwinkel, who, as a chubby teenager with an endocrine condition that produced excess facial and body hair, grew up in Southern California, an outcast amongst the trim, blonde, hairless goddesses.  When she was 17 her parents split.  She knocked around aimlessly for a while.  One night at her half-sister’s Manhattan Beach apartment Krenwinkel met Manson.  They had sex that night.  He told her she was beautiful.  That word, long hoped for, awakened in Krenwinkel a hypnotic devotion.  She left to join Manson and the Family.  Eighteen months later, on Manson’s orders, the previously diffident Krenwinkel dragged Abigail Folger from her bed and began repeatedly stabbing her as Folger pleaded futilely for her life.

It’s unlikely someone like Manson would be able to mesmerize disciples to that degree today.  The nature of social isolation has changed since the late ‘60s.  Today Patricia Krenwinkel would still struggle with self-esteem, but because her physical appearance was the cause of her self-consciousness she’d likely find a source of community and acceptance on the Internet.  She’d be exposed to a wider-range of perspectives there.  Maybe, having reinvented herself in Second Life, she might have even fallen in love.

Information is power, so the saying goes, and in that respect Manson was all-powerful to his Family, in a way that would be difficult to pull off today.  Like all dictators big and small Manson was obsessed with controlling the flow of information. 

“Never ask why” was one of his mantras.

He spun stories.  He invented details that supported his apocalyptic worldview.  He told the Family there was a secret city underneath Death Valley where they would hide out during the impending race war.

Today people are a Google search away from verifying pretty much everything, from answering every “why,” but those resources, the breadth and immediacy of information, didn’t exist then.  

Manson had tricks to strengthen the impression he was all knowing, that he had, as family member Linda Kasabian reported she’d heard, ”all the answers.”  He’d hand out LSD to the group, but always take a much lower dose than everyone else.  While they were addled he’d remain lucid, often dispensing pithy observations about members’ hang-ups that seemed remarkable to them in their hallucinogenic haze.  

Another of Manson’s tactics was to cut his followers off from the past.  Patricia Krenwinkel became “Katie,” Susan Atkins was anointed “Sadie Mae Glutz.” In giving new names parental power was transferred to him, the new father, who would help them obliterate past pain and start anew.

Few of his tricks would work now.  His power lay in his physicality, in his ability to stare into the eyes of someone desperate to be even glanced at.  Nearly everyone who’s ever interacted with Manson talks about the effect of his penetrating gaze.  It was observed that he had only to change his expression in the most miniscule way and his followers would fall silent.

But today even the most powerful gaze has trouble competing with the lure of a glowing computer or phone screen.  Manson’s influence would be debilitated.  Alienated young people have more options.  They have more information.  It’s harder to cut people off from the past.  The ascendance of social media means that the past is always being filled in, expanded, that picture of you in tenth-grade with your friends just keystrokes away. 

A breaking crime story like the Manson murders used to have a well-worn narrative progression, with significant breaks between details.  That’s all changed.  The four-day Los Angeles arson rampage, last January, could be tracked on Twitter, hashtags furiously lighting up as soon as the first flames shot from a carport.  Tweeters posted photos and addresses, so that one could track in real time the mysterious fire-starter as he wound through West Hollywood.

Social media has changed not only crime reporting, but the criminal as well.  The more interconnected the world becomes the less chance malevolent control freaks like Manson have to isolate and control.  They thrive by keeping their victims in the dark; the Internet is a seductive light, a siren song of connections and constant reminders of who you are.

Charles Manson wanted to be the last word to his followers, but the last word doesn’t exist on the Internet.  The conversation is endless and ever changing.  Today he’d be that guy on a message board who keeps returning despite his “this is it” threats.

Today Manson, a mediocre troubadour whose inability to break through consumed him, would probably post his songs to MySpace.  He would track the number of listeners obsessively.  When he meets a lonely, deeply insecure young woman at a random gathering in Manhattan Beach she warms to his gaze.  She listens attentively as he rambles about his music.  During an interruption in their conversation she sneaks into the bathroom and whips out her phone.  She looks him up.  His profile is disjointed and strewn with mistakes.  That stirring stare is less stirring on the screen.  Hardly anyone at all has listened to his songs.

Still, it’s attention, what she craves, and she intends to make her way through the party back to him.  But a ping alerts her to a Facebook update from an old friend.  A calendar reminder pops up about an upcoming Meetup gathering.  A group in the dining room is forming around a laptop, watching a YouTube clip, and their laughter is intoxicating.

She never makes it back to him.  Later she is aware that somewhere in one of the rooms a man with a guitar is singing about the devil.  But it’s hard to make out, because everyone is talking over him.










The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.