With the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and the 50th anniversary of the Tate-Labianca murders, interest in Charles Manson is at an all-time high this summer. Not many people got a chance to correspond with the notorious cult leader, but Calgarian author and documentary filmmaker James Buddy Day was able to interview Manson over the course of the final year of the notorious criminal’s life for his new book Hippie Cult Leader: The Last Words of Charles Manson and award-winning REELZ documentary Charles Manson: The Final Words. Here, we talk to Day about his book and film, the lasting legacy of the Manson murders, and what it was like to chat with one of the world’s most deranged pop culture figures.
When you first got in contact with Charles Manson, he was kind of getting sick. Was that intimidating at all? Was it surreal?
Yeah, it was surreal. We came up with the idea when I was making another TV show called The Shocking Truth and then I had this idea that we’d meet some authors and other people who would talk to him. And they floated this idea of, you know, him being innocent. We just thought, “Oh, there’s no way that’s true but it would be the greatest documentary.” So, then I started writing letters. I never thought in a million years he would call, and then he did call that first time. And I just thought, “Oh this will be this great story.” So, it’s surreal because it was like, “Holy crap! Charles Manson is calling me.” And then he kept calling and obviously we had no idea that would be the last year of his life.
You mentioned there are these people who think he was innocent. And there’s kind of these conflicting narratives out there. I’ve been listening to true crime podcasts and there was the version that he tells and then the version that people like Vincent Bugliosi tell. There are some who see him as a mastermind and some who think he just stumbled into his situation. What’s your take?
I’m not a Charles Manson apologist. I don’t think he was some sort of patsy. Over the years, he attracted a lot of kind of disaffected white men. You know, that’s understandable and he was a notable racist. And so, people would write him and he would write them back. He was in prison, so anyone that would help him on the outside was more than happy to appease. And then they created this community of, like, conspiracy theorists who think think, “Okay, Manson is this completely misunderstood guy.” They almost see him as like a guru or a very knowledgeable and misunderstood man who’s really good, but was cast as something else. So, I’m definitely not that.
So, the new Quentin Tarantino movie kind of revolves around the Manson murders. Do you see people having a renewed interest in this case? Has it always risen and fallen or has the movie kind of brought it back into the culture?
I don’t think the movies necessarily brought it back into fashion. I think the movie is capitalizing on the fact it’s the 50th anniversary of the Manson family murders since they occurred in 1969. So, there’s a lot of interest around the case this year. I think the thing with Manson story is it’s become like folklore like Lizzie Borden or the Titanic — these cases that just take on a life of their own. And then what happens is the people in these, like Manson and the women and Tex Watson, they become caricatures of themselves and the truth just gets totally distorted and lost, so that’s what’s interesting.
Tarantino is a director that always plays with history, like he did with Inglourious Basterds. Would you like to see him play a little bit with the story in the movie?
I mean, obviously I’m conflicted as a Manson historian, for lack of a better word. You know, so much of the Manson story has just been so twisted and turned. So, in the book especially, I’m trying in my own way to set the record straight. On one hand, I hate to see someone twist and turn it more than it’s already been incredibly manipulated. But on the other hand, I’m just fascinated with the story, so I’m excited to see what someone like that will do with it.
Why do you think people are so fascinated with true crime these days?
You know, it’s a dark part of our world. And I think with the Internet and social media and stuff, where you become more aware of kidnappings and murders and things that are going on in our neighbourhoods, people want to know more. And they want to know what’s out there and what’s happening. When a young mother disappeared in 1972 in Ohio, it didn’t make the news in Los Angeles. But now, if a young mother goes missing in the midwest, it’s big news in New York. It’s much easier for a crime to become the focus of natural interest right now — more now than ever and it just keeps growing. Also, you have this access. I mean, people nowadays have access to the police and the victims and even the killers, in some cases, almost immediately. That was almost unheard of 10 years ago, but now if a family member goes missing, they can take to Twitter and Facebook and all these things to get their story out. And the law enforcement could do the same. It just gives a lot more voices to these crimes. And so, people are more interested.