“[S]ome day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall … go mad from the revelation …” — H.P. Lovecraft
“Total paranoia is total consciousness.” — Charles Manson
Like a certain recent Quentin Tarantino movie, The Fall of DELTA GREEN juxtaposes the romance of the Sixties with their deeper horrors, very much including spree killings along with the various institutional heinousness of the era. Like all horror, both Tarantino’s film and Fall of DELTA GREEN perhaps perform a certain exorcistic function, allowing us to confront the real world through a ludic lens and ritually or fictively rectify some wrongs. By the way, if you haven’t seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood yet, it provides a lyrical time capsule to the Los Angeles of 1969 that Handlers and players should slurp up like one of Rick Dalton’s margaritas. Its Spahn Ranch scene, meanwhile, may be the best short horror film inside a larger film since The Devil’s Backbone, and should give Handlers lots of ideas for cults and cultists. This column offers only the mildest of spoilers.
So how do we use Charles Manson in a Fall of DELTA GREEN game? Before we answer that question, let’s ask the question before that: “Should we use Charles Manson in a Fall of DELTA GREEN game?” That, of course, is up to you and your players to judge: whether the murders of nine people happened too recently (or remain too memorious) to have become history instead of tragedy. If so, then replace Charles Manson with some fictitious cult leader: Louis Maddox, let’s say. Growing up poor and abused in rural Massachusetts, “Louie” drifts in and out of prison, where he encounters the Church of Interlife (FoDG, p. 302) or the True Love Study Group (FoDG, p. 305) and gets turned on to the Unnatural. (Another possibility: Maddox is one of the Annealed (FoDG, p. 302), the child of Kathleen Bishop, a witness to the 1928 “Dunwich Horror” incident, who raises her son to listen for the noises under the hills and the sound of whippoorwills.) He uses Liao instead of LSD, perhaps, to brainwash his murderous Flock. Stumbling on Maddox’ “little birds” soliciting and begging in the streets of whatever warm city the campaign visits regularly slowly leads the Agents to investigate him. Just as happened with Manson, when the authorities (in this case, the PCs) close in, Maddox goes apocalyptic and sends his Flock on a killing spree.
The trouble with using “Maddox” or the equivalent is that you don’t get the immediate ludic charge of the demonic true name, while still leaving yourself open to accusations of gamifying a real-life murder. At some point, however, gamifying murder sort of goes with the horror-mystery territory. Fall of DELTA GREEN, and the Delta Green universe in general, already make use of a lot of specific horrible things in the real world from the quotidian cruelties of MK-ULTRA to the mass-scale horrors of the Vietnam War. If we can fictively re-direct USAF napalm strikes, I would argue that we can fictively or ludically treat a murder cult that, as it happens, seems to spring straight out of Lovecraft’s nightmares: “laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy.”
One advantage of using “Maddox” or the equivalent is that you get to move the murders around from their inconveniently late date (August 1969) to suit your campaign. Another advantage is that you can make up a bunch of wild stuff about “Maddox” — although plenty of people have done the same about Charles Manson, as it turns out, starting perhaps with the prosecuting attorney who put him away for seven murders he didn’t actually commit himself. Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter” theory of Manson’s motivation makes a superb Lovecraftian plot: a work of art (White Album, King in Yellow, six of one …) initiated Manson into a secret understanding of the world. Once enlightened with the aid of drugs and occultism, Manson plotted to release his own poisonous artwork, trigger an apocalyptic race war, and emerge in the new aeon as its ruler. Lots of people, from the Family on down, have described this as a prosecutorial fantasia.
But it gets wilder still. In the “weird stuff” part of Fall of DELTA GREEN‘s Sources section, I recommend two works, Sinister Forces by Peter Levenda and Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon by David McGowan, which both confidently assert (among other things) that Manson was the creation (accidental or intentional) of the CIA via its various mind control projects. (I personally tend to doubt this theory, not least because if the CIA had programmed Manson, they would surely have sent him to Roger Vadim’s house, not Roman Polanski’s.) Comes now investigative journalist Tom O’Neill, whose new book CHAOS makes the same argument in a slightly less unhinged tone. O’Neill turns up a dubious character named Reeve Whitson in Polanski’s orbit and hints he’s CIA; he notes that former MK-ULTRA psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West worked at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic while Manson hung around there in 1967. Levenda, characteristically, brings in former OSS psych-warrior Hans Habe, the father of the murdered Marina Habe who some have called another Manson Family victim, and also notes that the Beach Boys recorded a Manson song on the B-side of “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” a clear reference (if you’re Peter Levenda anyway) to the MK-ULTRA precursor Project BLUEBIRD. So is Manson, or “Maddox,” an accidentally-Annealed MAJESTIC killer?
Or is he serving Something Else? Levenda, nothing loth, recounts Manson’s youth in Ashland, Kentucky, in the shadow of the ancient Adena mounds around and under that town. Do we detect the psychic hand of K’n-Yan, or a Serpent Folk fledgling? Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski both made movies involving Satanism, and the hippie-magician crowd they ran with included plenty of Children of Chorazin (FoDG, p. 304) types. Manson’s Family had its own satanic survivors, from Susan Atkins (former Anton LaVey dancer) to Bobby Beausoleil (star of Crowleyite filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising). Lurid tabloid reports at the time morphed into sensationalistic works such as hippie bard Ed Sherman’s The Family and investigative journalist Maury Terry’s Ultimate Evil, which both fingered the Satanic-Gnostic Process Church as part of Manson’s process. Terry’s book further tied Manson to the Son of Sam case and the Mafia (or the Fate? (FoDG, p. 288)) and eventually a vast cult network that more resembles the Cult of Transcendence (FoDG, p. 298) than anything in the real world. Such total paranoia has no place in the real world, of course. We must relegate it for our own sanity to a game we play, a tale we tell ourselves that begins “Once upon a time … ”
The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.