Society’s fascination with serial killers is deep and unending. The proliferation of true crime media have made these individuals some of our most celebrated villains, and fictional media from Hannibal to Dexter, have even attempted to make heroes of the archetype. The question is why? I won’t pretend to have thought deeply on the subject, but that won’t prevent me from speculating!
Taboo is has always been alluring, as the transgressing of social codes is a deeply tangled emotional issue for most of us, linking powerful emotions like desire with shame. I would liken it on a tamer level to the popularity of deeply uncomfortable humor, or to kinky sex. Murder is very obviously the most transgressive act a person can commit, and it is comforting to pathologize the serial killer, but buried behind the disgust is curiosity, and behind that even, fear. How does one cross that line? Where is it, and could I, in the right circumstance, be pushed over?
If one wants to examine this fascination with killers, Charles Manson is a perfect place to start. The sensationalist nature of his crimes have produced a cottage industry of work surrounding him, his exploits, and his often bizarre statements. Marlin Marynick reached out to the imprisoned Manson to conduct interviews for his 2010 work Charles Manson Now, and NYC-based animator Leah Shore was commissioned to turn a section of the interview into animation. Old Man is the result, just released online yesterday after a lengthy festival run.
Hints of the charisma Manson must have possessed in order to control his murderous cult of personality still shine through, but the conversation is scattered and rambling. Shore’s animation approach however beautifully complements his speech. Vivid in its imagery, schizophrenic in it’s rapid switching of subject, style and form, the film chaotically flits across scenarios and mediums, maintaining but a loose tether to Manson’s words. To listen to Manson is to conclude that the man is likely mentally ill, but to venture into a visual journey of that mindset is fascinating.
The desire to dismiss Manson as mad, and the desire to understand him is a tension that runs throughout the piece and through the entirety of serial killer media. One inclination is towards comfort, the other towards empathy. Old Man doesn’t explain Manson, or the reasons we are fascinated by him, but as a window into a mindset, into the madness, it is perversely attractive, and that, in itself, is unsettling.