Was Charles Manson a serial killer? No, says Doc Bonn.

Charles Manson,Serial Killer, Dr. Scott Bonn

The infamous Charles Manson has once again been denied parole for masterminding the 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and several others.  Manson is now 77 years old.  He will be 92 if he lives to see his next scheduled parole hearing.

The diabolical Manson is often incorrectly referred to as a serial killer.  That is simply not an accurate description of his crimes.  According to the FBI, serial murder is “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events,” with an emotional cooling-off period between the murders. The FBI previously set the number of victims at three, but its Behavioral Analysis Unit lowered that number to two in 2005.

The emotional cooling-off period is the most important factor in determining a serial killer.  Ted Bundy and the “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy are good examples. They both slipped back into their seemingly normal lives in between their murders. That’s where the cooling-off period comes into play — their ability to maintain an outward appearance of being completely normal and functioning in society and then, when the urge to kill becomes overwhelming, they strike again.

Charles Manson, Manson Family, Dr. Scott BonnThe misconceptions about Manson began decades ago and continue today.  Manson was leader of the Manson Family, a quasi-commune that he formed in California in the late 1960s. Manson believed in an impending apocalyptic race war, which he termed “Helter Skelter,” after the Beatles’ song of the same name. He orchestrated a series of gruesome murders on consecutive nights in an effort to help precipitate the race war. In 1969, Manson and his followers were convicted in the slaying of actress Sharon Tate and several others. Initially sentenced to death, Manson’s sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

So, if not a serial killer, then what category of killer does Manson fall into?  I contend that the Manson family murders constitute a killing spree.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines a spree killing as “killings at two or more locations with almost no time-break between murders.” The FBI’s general definition of spree killing is two or more murders committed by an offender or offenders without a cooling-off period.

Consistent with a killing spree, the Manson murders involved multiple incidents that took place over a short period of time.  Significantly, there was no emotional cooling-off period. The killing spree was cold-blooded, calculated and planned.  Moreover, Manson and his followers are what are known as “mission killers.”  That is because the Manson family had a specific purpose (i.e., to bring about Helter Skelter) and that purpose led to a killing spree.

However, an argument that Manson never killed anyone persists despite the fact that he was convicted on seven counts of first-degree murder for

Charles Manson,Serial Killer,Dr. Scott Bonn

his role in the killings. Technically, it is true that Manson never murdered anyone himself.  Instead, he ordered his followers to murder for him.  Essentially, his family was doing his bidding when they killed on his behalf and in compliance with his orders.  The court ruled that Manson’s family was an extension of him.  Thus, when they committed murder for him it was the same as if Manson had done it himself.

What are your thoughts on the legacy of Charles Manson and my argument that he is a mission killer who ordered his followers to commit a killing spree on his behalf?  I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic.  Please submit your comments below or email me directly at docbonn1@gmail.com.  Follow me @DocBonn on Twitter.  


Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq” and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with serial killers. 



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Posted on April 18, 2012, in In the News, Serial Killers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi Dr. Bonn. What are your thoughts on John Douglas’ assessment (from MindHunter, I believe) that Manson never intended for Watson and the girls to murder on the 1st night; that he presumed they’d go do a ‘creepy-crawly’, that it was Watson that took it further and that Manson, not wanting to admit that Watson acted on his own (thus potentially jeopardizing his control over his other followers) had to condone the killings?

  2. Hello Lisa, yes, i am aware of that argument and I believe that it has merit, although it is very clear that murder was ultimately Manson’s goal as he truly believed that by killing the “piggies” he could bring about Helter Skelter. It is possible that Watson jumped the gun, so to speak, on the first night.

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