John Waters writes about the people who have inspired him — including Tennessee Williams, Johnny Mathis and Leslie Van Houten — in his upcoming book, Role Models.
John Waters writes about the people who have inspired him — including Tennessee Williams, Johnny Mathis and Leslie Van Houten — in his upcoming book, Role Models. Getty Images
Nearly 40 years ago, in August 1969, Charles Manson and his commune of followers, known as "the family," embarked on a gruesome killing spree in California.
The crimes were followed by a sensational trial in which Manson's followers — several of whom were young women from middle class families — were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. (The sentences were later commuted to life in prison.)
The trial was one of the first big media trials of its kind. Filmmaker John Waters remembers attending it in an effort to find out how Manson's followers could have acted the way they did.
"I wanted to figure out what happened and how these kids, who were very much like my friends from my neighborhoods ... ended up doing something [like this]," he tells Madeleine Brand. "It always fascinated me how these people under the control of one real madman could do this."
Waters, who later went on to direct Hairspray and Pink Flamingos, admits that he saw certain similarities between himself and Manson's followers. Like the cult members, Waters describes himself as a 1960s radical who took LSD and thought the end of the world was coming. But he adds that unlike the Manson family, filmmaking provided him with "an outlet for all the anti-social, angry thoughts I had all the time."
Leslie Van Houten was a teenager when she met cult leader Charles Manson. She is serving a life sentence for her participation in the murders of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca.
Leslie Van Houten was a teenager when she met cult leader Charles Manson. She is serving a life sentence for her participation in the murders of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. Getty Images
Over the years, Waters returned to the Manson story, at one point contacting "family" member Leslie Van Houten in prison in an attempt to interview her for Rolling Stone magazine.
Van Houten, who was 19 at the time of the murders, refused to comment for Waters' article. She said she had no interest in being in a magazine for what she had done, and that she was greatly ashamed by it. Nonetheless, she and the director struck up a friendship.
"[Van Houten is] well read. She's smart. She cares about people," Waters says of the woman who has spent the past 40 years in prison for the murders of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca.
Waters says he was so inspired by Van Houten's patience — she has been denied parole 16 times — and her intelligence and remorse that he devoted a chapter to her in his upcoming book, Role Models. He recently posted an excerpt of the book in which he argues for Van Houten's release on the Huffington Post.
Waters admits that his position isn't popular and acknowledges the gruesome nature of the murders, but he adds: "Leslie has taken responsibility, and she has followed the rules — the rules that they have told her to follow to get parole. ... She's the poster girl for the California prison system.
"I do believe in rehabilitation," he says of Van Houten.