how the cult leader and sex trafficker used LSD to control his followers, break them of their inhibitions and inspired a vision that led to the murder of ten innocent people
Charles Manson took his first hit of acid in the spring of 1967. He had just arrived in the Haight/Ashbury district of San Francisco after serving several years in prison. At a Grateful Dead concert during his first week of freedom, he dropped his first dose of LSD.
LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, a chemical derived from ergot or rye fungus) was discovered in 1938 in Switzerland. The CIA got its dirty hands on it in the Fifties, hoping to exploit its hallucinogenic properties. By ’63, a handful of prominent American intellectuals were advocating its use in consciousness expansion, including writer Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and psychologist Timothy Leary. LSD found popularity as a recreational drug largely thanks to ‘Owsley’, a key figure in the music movement of the late ’60s. Owsley (whose real name was Augustus Stanley III) was an audio engineer who recorded live tapes of the Grateful Dead, a key developer of the band’s signature sound… He was one of the first people to manufacture large quantities of acid (as it became known) spreading it around California and among key influencers in the Bay Area rock music scene…
LSD, in positive experiences, creates a vivid and dream-like trance state. Colors appear more intense and emotions may feel amplified, almost euphoric. There are ‘bad trips’ as well, resulting in sensations of paranoia and anxiety, even dark and frightening visions. But for psychopaths, LSD may be even riskier:
“There was a psychiatrist in the 1960s who felt, rightly, that the problem with psychopathy is that the madness is buried beneath a veneer of normality, but he felt, wrongly, that the way to cure it would be to bring the madness to the surface so it could be treated… He got a bunch of psychopaths and stuck them in a room called the ‘Total Encounter Capsule’ and… gave them huge amounts of LSD and strapped them to each other. Then he… tried to get them to go to their darkest places by turning their world into a sort of living hell… A study was done of their long-term recidivism rates: In regular circumstances apparently 60% of high-scoring psychopaths… go on to reoffend but of the ones who’d been through the naked LSD encounter sessions, 80% had reoffended. It made them worse… it taught them how to fake empathy and made them more adept criminals.”
- The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications including quote from “When You Go Hunting Psychopaths, They Turn Up Everywhere” by Maia Szalavitz ©June 2011 Time magazine
During 1967, Charlie began to attract the first members of what would later be called his Family. These were young women who were either estranged from their families or disenchanted with the status quo. Charlie didn’t introduce these young women to drugs, but he encouraged their use.
By that fall, Charlie and five women were living in an old school bus painted black, traveling the southwest and playing music together. Theirs was a nomadic life that reflected their rejection of society norms.
Dropping out of society was de riguer for many people — but ‘dropping’ acid (taking LSD) was another ‘fuck you’ to the powers-that-be, including the stodgy, controlling parents of these kids.
In a 1994 interview, Pat (Krenwinkel, one of the Tate/LaBianca killers) elaborated on her drug use. “I was smoking a lot of marijuana, hash and… had already used acid a couple times. At that time drinking and using drugs did not seem unusual ’cause I was doing it with my high school friends.”
- The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications including quote from Patricia Krenwinkel from the program “Turning Point” © 1994 American Broadcast Company (ABC)
After Charlie had sex with the 14-year old daughter of his friend Dean Moorehouse, a former pastor, Dean came gunning for Manson (literally, brandishing a shotgun). Charlie talked Dean down, and then slipped him a tab of acid. Moorehouse was noticeably calmer at the end of that tense meeting.
LSD became a critical instrument in how Manson broke each of his followers to his will, a virtual sacrament in the Family’s spiritual, social and sexual life… Dr. David Smith of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic said, “Charlie would take LSD to reinforce the idea that he was magic”.
- The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications including quote from Dr. David Smith, Founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, from the documentary “Charles Manson: The Man Who Killed the 60s” ©1995 TLC (The Learning Channel)
In early 1968, the Family were staying in Topanga Beach in Southern California. It was there that Susan Atkins (aka Sadie, later one of the murderers) became pregnant. Acid had become such a staple of their lives that she continued to take it during her pregnancy, prompting an informal intervention by the other women.
Charlie always had a large number of women around, but largely their purpose was to lure young men. That spring he finally began to attract more male followers. Brooks Poston, a 19-year old Texan, was so high on acid the day he met Manson that he hallucinated that Charlie was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Not that Charlie would have disavowed that notion.
In the summer of ’68, the Family were living at Spahn Ranch, a property in the Santa Susana mountains, just up the road from the Fountain of the World, a messianic cult. Charlie visited their facility and became obsessed with adopting some of their rituals and ceremonies.
Manson stayed at the Fountain for a week. There, he saw his first Messianic Passion Play, where the trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ is relived theatrically. Returning to Spahn Ranch, Charlie (already calling himself ‘Man’s Son’) immediately began his own passion play, with LSD as Eucharist. Mary (Brunner, Manson’s first follower and mother of his son) performed as ‘Mother Mary’, serving in the role of chief mourner during the reenactments.
“ With his long hair and beard, his eyes staring from face to face, he seemed to be Jesus speaking to his twelve apostles…” wrote Susan Atkins. “That’s when I felt he might be Jesus Christ.”
Leslie recalled, “Sometimes he would reenact the crucifixion when we were on LSD and it was very realistic…”
- The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications including quotes from Child of Satan, Child of God by Susan Atkins with Bob Slosser ©1977 Logos International, and Leslie Van Houten from the program “Turning Point” ©1994 American Broadcast Company (ABC)
Manson also doled out acid during orgies, always taking a smaller dose for himself than the others so he could maintain control and orchestrate who partnered with who, and how.
LSD is effective at switching off the neurons in the brain that control behavior patterns. Normally, we have emotional connections to our belief systems — they are wedded to our past experiences and those who demonstrated them to us at primal ages (parents, siblings). We’d feel guilty, under normal circumstances, throwing away those beliefs but under acid, those feelings of guilt can be subtly removed. But when you break down the ego/id/self of an individual, it is with the purpose of filling the space with something new. Manson’s programming was designed to make his followers submissive enough to satisfy his appetites and those he wished to curry favor with.
- The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications
But one night, their drug-taking turned dark:
“Sandy freaked out on acid — started screaming about death. Sandy was always sensitive and high-strung. Charlie… went to Sandy and knelt beside her. ‘Look at it. Don’t avoid it.’ Gradually her breathing calmed down.”
- My Life with Charles Manson by Paul Watkins with Guillermo Soledad ©1979 Bantam Books
Another Family member recalled the night of the acid freakout and how violent it became:
“Everybody took megadoses of acid and probably some mescaline… Things got really out of hand… I remember Little Paul Watkins hit me that night… Charlie… said to me, ‘I can’t stay here, because there’s no love here anymore.’ He said, ‘Tomorrow you have to tell them that they drove me away.’ And the tears were just flowing down his face.”
- Joan Wildebush, interviewed in 1984 by Win McCormack, reprinted in “The Dichotomy of Evil: The Manson Girl Who Got Away” ©November 2017 Tin House magazine
In November 1968, Charlie was tripping on acid when he heard The Beatles’ White Album for the first time and had an apocalyptic vision: a global race war between blacks and whites. He imagined that he and his Family would survive Armageddon by hiding in a crystal cavern under Death Valley, where there magically was oxygen to breathe and water to drink and fertile soil to grow fruits and vegetables. His delusion became a snowball from hell for the next ten months, engulfing everyone he met and destroying many of their lives.
He continued using acid to fuel these dark fantasies, and doling it out to the others to reinforce his control over them.
In June 1969, musician Mike Deasy was at Spahn Ranch to record the Manson Family in his mobile recording studio, the Family dosed him with some balls-trippin’ LSD.
“I had a trailer with a four-track unit that I was going to use to record… (but then) I felt this great fear of the evil that was there… I took so much acid, I couldn’t get down. I was having so much difficulty with my own mind.”
- Mike Deasy quoted in the blog http://dawneden.blogspot.com by Dawn Eden Goldstein
Weeks later, the Family got hold of $30,000 and they spent the money on musical instruments. Then they gathered together at Spahn Ranch to make music, got shit-faced on acid, and destroyed all the instruments.
And before the August 1969 murders at both Cielo Drive (Sharon Tate’s residence) and Waverly Drive (where the LaBiancas were killed the next night), the killers were using both acid and speed (methamphetamines).
“Before we left, Charlie gave me a light tab of acid. While people were getting things together, Sadie and I… hit our speed bottle and I gave myself three good snorts in each nostril. I knew now I’d need it for what was to come.”
- Will You Die For Me? by Charles Watson and Chaplain Ray Hoekstra ©1978 Fleming H. Revel
“All of us had taken mild hits of acid; not enough to space us so far out that we would leap off buildings or jump in front of speeding cars, but enough to make us feel invincible, enough to make us feel the world was totally ours and that there was no right, no wrong. We were free of guilt.”
- Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press
But not free from the law. The Manson Family ultimately murdered ten people during the summer of 1969. They evaded suspicion from law enforcement for several months, but it all crashed down that November when Sadie snitched to some inmates at a Los Angeles jail and the killers were arrested and indicted for the murders.
LSD was later used during the trials to try to dissuade a witness from testifying. Former Manson Family member Barbara Hoyt was being pressured by the Family not to snitch on Charlie, and they threatened her family. She agreed to take a vacation with another women, Ruth Ann Moorehouse if she would consider keeping silent. The two flew to Honolulu for some rest and relaxation. Days later, Ruth Ann abruptly left, and Barbara accompanied her to the airport. Ruth Ann suggested they have lunch while waiting for the plane to board, and ordered Barbara a hamburger from an airport café. While Barbara went to pay the bill, Ruth Ann was alone with Barbara’s meal.
She then joked to Barbara about how wild would it be if there were ten tabs of acid in that burger! She got on the plane moments later, it took off, and suddenly Barbara began to feel ill.
“All of a sudden I was feeling really weird, very high, and I realized there were ten tabs of acid in the hamburger. I got to a bathroom and made myself throw up. I don’t know how I did it, but I got to the steps of the Salvation Army building… A man asked me, ‘Are you all right?’ I said no. I told him to call Mr. Bugliosi (lead prosecutor). They took me to a hospital and gave me Valium by IV to bring me down…. That’s when I lost consciousness.”
- Barbara Hoyt quoted in “Manson: An Oral History” by Steve Oney ©July 2009 Los Angeles magazine
But not a conscience. Barbara defied the Family attempt to sicken and silence her by becoming one of the most ardent opponents of her former friends. She returned to Los Angeles to testify at two separate trials, and later spoke passionately against release during recent parole hearings for the convicted.
Charles Manson was an ex-pimp, a sex trafficker and a serial abuser of women. He would have been a dangerous man no matter when he lived, but LSD made him delusional, and gave him a power that allowed him to destroy the lives of others — including the young people who believed in him.
You can learn more about the Manson Family and their crimes at MansonFamily.net.
You can read more about Charlie’s time in San Francisco here:
Charles Manson and Flower Power
how the ex-con got out of jail just in time to take advantage of San Francisco’s burgeoning counterculture movement
And more about the Manson Family as counterculture figures here: