John Waters on Leslie Van Houten, or the Downside of the New Flesh

12 August 2009 at 18:00 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Monday’s Fresh Air featured a compelling interview with filmmaker John Waters about Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten, a woman whom Waters describes as “a really good friend.” In both the Fresh Air interview and a chapter of his new book (available online at Huffington Post), Waters describes how he and the former follower of hippy cult leader Charles Manson became friends through years of written correspondence and prison visits. Almost twenty-five years after his first letter to Van Houten, Waters writes now as an advocate for her parole, and I must say he makes a very compelling case for her release.

Without dismissing the horrific and disturbing nature of Van Houten’s participation in the LaBianca murders, Waters points out that Van Houten has been a model prisoner by continuing her education, volunteering, and working in the prison system. Furthermore, she’s received drug and alcohol treatment along with psychological therapy. More than a dozen psychiatric reports claim that she poses no threat to society, and she has expressed remorse for her crimes at parole hearing after parole hearing, but remains behind bars despite her demonstrated efforts at rehabilitation and contrition. I agree with Waters: Van Houten’s continued imprisonment defies any legal rationale, and the public has nothing to fear should she be released.

What interests me most about Van Houten’s situation is the way that pop culture has played such a strong role in stoking public anger against her and other Manson family members. Waters himself admits to sensationalizing the Manson Family in his low-budget film Mulitple Maniacs, in which Divine makes reference to the murder of Sharon Tate. Here’s the clip featuring that quote:


Other references to the Manson Family abound in music, films, and television. Coincidentally enough, a graphic for Monday night’s Daily Show about the town hall health care meetings referenced the family with the title “Healther Skelter!” And while, of course, it’s not only natural but I would argue necessary for cultural texts to contemplate the impact that the Manson Family had upon the culture at large, such representations of the murders dehumanize followers like Van Houten. The mediation of her testimony during the initial trial and subsequent portrayals of Van Houten signify a particular kind of madness inextricably linked to Manson. Below, for example, is a clip from the 1976 TV film Helter Skelter based on the book of the same name.

Van Houten’s inability to be paroled has more to do with what she signifies as a cultural text than anything else. It’s as if what she signifies transcends her actual being. For me, this resonated with my recent re-viewing of Videodrome, a film written and directed by David Cronenberg that follows a sleazy local TV programmer played by James Woods. Here’s the trailer:

What fascinates me most about Videodrome is the way it blurs mediated experience with reality, particularly through the figure of Dr. Oblivion. The character, speculated to be modeled off of media scholar Marshall McLuhan, insists upon conducting interviews on TV on a TV, thus his is an image twice mediated. It is later revealed that Dr. Oblivion technically died months prior to the action in the story but continues to conduct interviews through a backlog of recorded videos. He lives on as mediated text in spite of lacking corporeality.

As the film progresses, James Woods’ character becomes obsessed with becoming “the new flesh.” I interpret this to be the mediated version of the self–the self that lives through mediated texts. I think of the explosion of Michael Jackson videos and products following his death, and the fact that for many in the public, his death is of no real consequence given that his records, music videos, posters, etc… remain as an extension of Michael Jackson as signifier–in other words, being mediated is the closest thing we have to eternal.

But even as someone lives, her mediated image–what that individual signifies in the public discourse–can compete with who she is today, and that’s where Leslie Van Houten comes in, given her overwhelming notoriety as a particular kind of cultural icon. Luckily for her, she’s still alive to shape her public image, but how much control she and advocates like John Waters have over that process remains to be seen.


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