In 2019, the Manson Family murders will reach their 50th anniversary, and filmmakers are already getting their reels ready.
Hilary Duff wrapped up filming on The Haunting of Sharon Tate, an actress who was killed by Charles Manson, and Leonardo DiCaprio is in talks to star in a Quentin Tarantino depiction of the cult leader and mass manipulator.
Because of the anniversary and Manson’s death in November 2017, Lauren Wright said it is a prime time to make a movie about the cult killings.
“When you come up on an anniversary like that, it’s just ripe with money-making opportunities,” Wright, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, said. “It paves the way for people to romanticize something that happened in a life that might not be as factual or accurate as it could be.”
When making films about real-life serial killers, directors run the risk of romanticizing them for the sake of entertainment purposes.
“A lot of these movies and TV shows take a lot of liberties,” Wright, who graduated from Ohio University in 2010 with bachelor degrees in psychology and criminology and a master’s in sociology in 2014, said. “People will take the stuff that they see at face value when really they shouldn’t.”
Movies about serial killers are not uncommon. Last year, a film titled My Friend Dahmer showed the life of Jeffrey Dahmer before he started killing. The film showed his tendencies to kill animals, an aspect Wright said adds to the entertainment value.
People don’t want to see normal people when they watch a movie about serial killers, Wright said — people want to watch a movie with an unusual person.
Producing a film about serial killers before they started killing comforts viewers because they want to know if they would be able to spot those people in everyday life situations.
“You can’t really pick these people out of a lineup. You can’t just walk down the street or walk into an elementary school classroom and say that person is going to be a killer,” Wright said. “It sort of gives us a false hope that we can predict when someone is going to be a bad person when in reality we really can’t.”
Alex Kamody, director of The Athena Cinema, screened The Shining for the Science on Screen series. At the event, a psychology professor spoke about why people like those films.
“We like to watch things that scare us in a safe, protected environment,” Kamody said. “There definitely is a fixation with … these people who have a dark side.”
The thought that goes into casting the people who portray killers also adds to the romanticization, Wright said.
Zac Efron will play Ted Bundy in an upcoming film about Bundy, but Wright believes the casting fits Bundy’s personality. First-hand accounts describe Bundy as a charming, attractive person — characteristics Efron shares with the killer.
“Picking someone like Zac Efron, who is Zac Efron, that makes sense. You’re trying to find someone who for the most part everyone can agree upon is charming and attractive,” Wright said. “People want to watch things with attractive people in it.”
When it comes to watching films based on true stories, Wright said doing research on the people is important because the movies are not completely factual.
“With the general public, a lot of people lead relatively normal, mundane lives,” Wright said. “A lot of times these things allow us to remove ourselves from that mundane life and allows us to escape for a moment into a world we won’t likely experience.”
The Manson movies might allow audiences a look into a cult mentality, Wright said, and how someone can go from being a regular person to a charismatic leader.
“But when you have it in a cinematic film form versus like a documentary, it becomes more of an entertainment venue than it is a factual venue. That doesn’t go to say that these films don’t have factual aspects to it, … but you can’t take them at face value,” Wright said. “It goes back to doing your research and knowing what you’re actually watching versus reality.”