“Beauty and decay: the unhappy conjoined twins of progress.”
morbidSix Feet Under
Charlie’s legacy intrigues me because it fully captures a pivotal moment in history through the lens of Hollywood glamour. It is horror as much as it is gossip, as cinematic as it is nauseating. I take a deep breath and imagine L.A. in the late 1960s. The Vietnam War machine, chaos at Altamont Speedway, ongoing racial unrest, particularly since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—and here again we have the Stonewall riots, backlash to police brutality directed at queer bar patrons in New York City—fear and death already soaked through ’69, and now this. I marvel at how so many earth-shattering events date back to that year, an era filtered through so much media—so much entertainment—that I can’t help but see it in melodramatic sepia.
Charlie had his “crazy” act, a defense mechanism he perfected in his troubled youth, to scare away threats, theatrics he employed from his trial all the way through to sentencing. However Brian Hugh Warner chose to assume the Manson name, I can be certain the macabre theatre of Marilyn Manson is how I first became familiar with Charlie. I was a closeted gay kid in the ’00s, with no access to the stage but a casual relationship to Hot Topic franchises. I’ve never cared for Marilyn’s music, much like the world never cared for Charlie’s, but from my sheltered religious upbringing, the Marilyn character seemed dangerous. Maybe I understand his cultish allure better in retrospect because Lana Del Rey does for me what Marilyn never could. I identify with Lana because I, too, have imagined dark, tragic romances culminating in death. Her theatre is not unlike Marilyn’s in that sense. Or Charlie’s for that matter: “death is psychosomatic,” he kept telling his devotees. But while Marilyn and Lana found success in their music, Charlie only managed to cultivate a small following—but they killed at his command, something that cannot be said of the others. Nevertheless, looking around at the crime scene photos, autopsy notes, and original art by the convicted felon (serial killers love drawing; they’re also tremendously bad at it), it looks like Manson finally got what he came for: recognition.
If that sounds defeatist, I would warn that there is something worse about forgetting him. I’d like to believe that those paying attention to Charlie are smarter for it, and more prepared to thwart future Charlie Mansons. Furthermore, it’s those who are paying attention to the victims, like Amber Tamblyn, that I consider wiser. Of Sharon Tate, in the elegiac collection of poetry Dark Sparkler, Tamblyn imagines the actress’s unborn child seeing “blades like ships crash through her vessels,/ a celestial pattern,/ the deep peepholes of God.” Provocatively, the poem faces a sinister illustration by Marilyn Manson, commissioned for the book, and Tamblyn seizes the recognition Charlie grasped for, re-appropriating it to the mother and baby he killed. Dark Sparkler stands vigil for Hollywood’s lost daughters—women who died young, their memories quickly fading from the public consciousness—and subverts the machine by drawing attention to its castoffs. It invokes the very kind of woman Lana Del Rey channels in her performances.
Too often in death we remember the killer and not the killed. Activists urge us to say the names of women brutalized and murdered by police: Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Miriam Carey, Michelle Cusseaux, Shelly Frey, and Kayla Moore. And I’m still thinking about those boys in Gacy’s basement. In our own ways we are grasping for emblems of dignity to apply to mutilated corpses, invoking a coda on lives cut short, refuting the loudest stories by telling the truer versions.
Truthfully, I want to believe that the Museum of Death aims toward the revolutionary act of remembrance, but it’s less apparent. It certainly doesn’t condone the actions of vicious murderers, but there’s a little too much voyeuristic gratification involved for me to see any particularly noble intentions either. That said, I’m complicit; I am here, on my own dime, and not exactly hating the experience. I think it’s completely normal to have a curiosity, even fascination, with death. It is, after all, a fact of life, and a life fully lived should be rewarded with its unburdening. My grandmother came into this world in 1924, and she went on to become a nurse, marry, raise four children, devote countless hours to her community, and enrich the lives of seven grandchildren before passing on. Though her finish on this earth had been relatively gentle, in many ways flawless, my memory of her can now fully reside in the occasion when she finally met Nick, rather than my bearing witness to the pain of her final months. Leaning toward me to observe how handsome he is, she put to final rest that ghost that had haunted me for decades. It is a piece of her that I can carry with me forever.
Her memorial service, the day following the interment of her ashes, was plentiful with anecdotes like that, a ceremony for her excellency. Say Her Name protesters and Amber Tamblyn’s poetry declare that the act of remembering—and speaking out—in the face of death is powerful; it can be an indictment. Survivors solidify their relationship to the grieved, whether coming to harmony with the loss or in righteous anger over it, but to remain silent feels like a second death. Fatality is a fact—how we respond to it determines its lasting effect on the living.
Maybe the same can be said of this museum. As I gawk at the Manson exhibit, I wonder, How does someone like this happen? Jeff Guinn is succinct in his concluding analysis: Charlie Manson was “the wrong man in the right place at the right time.” But coming to that realization requires more than a quick dismissal of the study as morbid, depraved, or depressing. One must reconcile with devastation to have any hope of recovering from it. Death—and its museum, I must now admit—offers itself in an irksomely neutral way. Its causes may be legion, but its effect is simple and unique. We may rage, or weep, or deny causes of death, but at some point we must reconcile with its nature.
And it’s easy to get waylaid by the gruesome details, violent struggles, secretive plots, inhumane policies, legal paperwork, and urns too small to fit what remains. In the avalanche of events begun by a death, how quickly we can forget who it was that lived.
When I eventually wander back into the lobby, I’m in a haze. More tourists have stumbled in the front door and are laughing with the woman behind the counter over her latest shipment of souvenirs—squirrel taxidermy, I think. It seems like a small detail, but their glee troubles me. Emerging from my tour of the exhibits, I am in a solemn mood strangely akin to the one I was in at my grandmother’s interment. And yet, hadn’t I been laughing shortly thereafter, too? It takes me a few moments to relax again and appreciate their rapport for what it is: people reconciling with death.
Nick rejoins me in the lobby, and then his sister. As we drift around the gift shop area, we quietly reminisce about our experiences, careful not to let the woman behind the counter overhear in case we thought the museum crass or tacky. Our consensus, however, was one of enjoyment, and so we take our time shopping. But I want to talk more openly. I want to debrief fully and share what made me sick and what made me sad and what made me laugh, and so I suggest getting another round of drinks. Somewhere in that dark, glamorous city Lana Del Rey is always singing about, a small watering hole is calling my name. The night outside the museum is still young, still beautiful. And when we finally quit this place, it feels like a mercy.
Dave Wheeler is the author of Contingency Plans (TS Poetry Press). He has written for The Morning News, The Stranger, The Other Journal, Glitterwolf, The James Franco Review, The Monarch Review, and others. He earned his BA in Creative Writing from Western Washington University and is now associate editor for Shelf Awareness in Seattle.