Book Broads • Scary Book Month

by Angie Eakley

just a note: Elis was unable to find her laptop cord from moving, hence the late Halloween post just before Thanksgiving :P

I'm always jealous of people in long-running, functional book clubs. In theory, I love book clubs. Especially since leaving my bookstore job, which was essentially a book club discussion interrupted by customers and projects, I don't talk to people about books as much as I used to. Since I always have a book with me, people often ask me what I'm reading, but a lot of the time it's a one-way conversation. I miss spending several hours each week with friends who are also always actively reading, and who are excited to share their discoveries and bond over a shared love of specific authors or individual books. The problem is, it takes a lot of effort to get a book club together, and its success depends on the efforts of all of the members. Also, more selfishly, I like to be able to choose what book I read next; I have literal piles of books to be read, and I am not always in the mood to read a specific book at a specific time, which is sort of the standard operating procedure of a successful book club.

I don't have a specific rubric for choosing my next book, but sometimes I like to choose something related to a specific time or season (Bernd Heinrich's wonderful Summer World and Winter World, for example, are even better reads when what's being described in the books is happening around you). As a recent Joe Hill-related 6-year-old Facebook memory can attest, I've long chosen a "scary" book to read around the end of October. That year it was Heart-Shaped Box, another The Girl Next Door, another Columbine. Fact, fiction, or in between, it just has to be scary. Initially, I was going to read Five Days at Memorial, but recent events made me reluctant to want to read about the government failing to protect its citizens in the wake of a natural disaster. Instead, I chose probably the most famous true crime book of all time, which has long been on my to be read list but that I didn't even own until recently: Helter Skelter.

I know the story; at this point the story of Charles Manson and his "Family" is the stuff of cultural legend. I've listened to the Manson series on both The Last Podcast on the Left and You Must Remember This podcasts in addition to all the general information about the story you'd pick up as someone who grew up watching various true crime shows. Helter Skelter is written by the prosecutor, but tells the story of the formation of the Family and the execution, investigation, and capture of the killers in addition to the story of the trial itself and the immediate aftermath.

I don't know what exactly about this story resonates as much as it does. It may be the same reason stories of any cult situation are so fascinating. The idea of an individual giving up their autonomy in service of a singular person or idea seems insane, but it happens with regularity. Despite the location, time, or culture, people - often young, disaffected, questioning - voluntarily give themselves over to another in service of a larger ideal. In the compressed timeline of a 42 minute procedural or true crime show or book, it doesn't seem plausible. When put in the context of real time, however, and the psychological commonalities among the followers, these things can build. Manson had dozens of followers; only a handful committed murder.

That's what makes this book (and lots of other true crime books) so scary; it's not the specifics of the story itself. It's the idea that at any point people could break in and commit savage murder for seemingly no reason, and with seemingly no remorse. That under the right circumstance, any person can become disconnected enough to go looking for something else. Depending on who they find, they could end up with a better, more fulfilling life; or they could lose themselves to evil - thinking, saying, and doing things they'd never believed possible. And what of those murderous "followers?" Without Charlie, who are they? Could they again commit those heinous crimes? Can a person change?

Evil is something we always want to see. We don't want to look at images of the victims; they could be anyone. They could be us. But the killer - the killer is "other." We want to be able to look into the faces of Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Boston Marathon Bombers, the Columbine killers, and we want to see something there that makes them different. Because if they are just people, people just like us, if evil isn't something inherent, then those people could be us. Or the people we know, the people we love. We want to believe that people are basically good, that life is sacred, worthy of respect. When someone like Charles Manson comes along and not only refutes that, but does it by manipulating others both on a movie ranch in California and from the confines of a prison cell, then we are all at risk. Because evil doesn't have a tell. It's not a look, a mark, a strict dichotomy that is either present or not. It is a part of being human. It is a choice, albeit one that is easier for some to make than others. These true crime stories capture attention because they are shades of us; they don't make us feel safe, but maybe they reassure us that we are not evil. That given a choice, we would not choose violence, revenge, or hate. That for us, dressing up, decorating, and binging on candy once a year, just playing at evil, is enough.

Happy Halloween!

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