Friday, May 23, 2008

What Lies Beneath

In yesterday's mail I received the copy of Ed Sanders' 2002 update of The Family (Thunder's Mouth Press) I'd ordered, and last night I had the chance to (re)read it, looking specifically for references to any mention of bodies being buried at the Barker Ranch. I'm getting too old to sit up reading late in the night, especially when accompanied by a bottle of good red wine. But I did so, against my better judgment, but I'm happy to report that I did find the information about the Barker Ranch that I was looking for.

Apparently in late March 1971 Sanders flew from New York to California for what he says was his final visit of the year: his publisher, E. P. Dutton, was pushing him to finish the book as soon as possible (it was published in the fall of 1971). On March 31, he and a fellow investigator, Larry Larsen, met in Berkeley with an individual claiming to have "access to Family films made as far back as 1967" (462), taping the conversation. Among the assertions made at that meeting by this unnamed informant was the following:

Vern Plumlee [a Manson associate] had told him, he said, that there were three people who got killed in Death Valley. He said they were buried "in back of the main house--maybe fifty feet in back of it. He said they were buried about eight feet deep." The informant also claimed that he had been up in Death Valley that fall of 1969, a claim difficult to verify because he was not on any arrest record up there. "I have six I.D.'s," he told us, and then rattled off the names. (463)

I'd speculated, based on the news articles published on the L. A. Times website, that perhaps the existence of these graves had only recently come to light, but that is obviously not so--their possible existence has been known about by law enforcement officials for the past 37 years. One wonders, then, whether this week's forensic dig at the Barker Ranch was prompted by other (unpublicized) information emerging that corroborated the decades-old rumor, or whether, more cynically, the dig was prompted simply in order to test the reliability of new forensic technology, as one can infer from this article. One also wonders, if the possible existence of these graves has been known for over three decades, why a serious forensic investigation took so long to occur--unless the possibility was never taken especially seriously by the authorities. Although I've visited Death Valley three times, I've never been to the Goler Wash area. Nonetheless, I doubt seriously whether Manson and his "Family" members had the wherewithal to dig graves eight feet deep in such difficult terrain comprised of such rocky soil. Even if the figure of eight feet is an exaggeration, I suspect the digging of graves in that area would be something of a formidable task. Perhaps for the same reason law enforcement officials thought the graves would be relatively shallow, and hence easier to locate--if there at all.

Given that the possible existence of graves at the Barker Ranch is now revealed to be nothing but sheer legerdemain, it necessarily calls into question the veracity of other testimony by the informant with whom Sanders spoke on 31 March 1971. I'm thinking specifically of the existence of the so-called "snuff" films alluded to by this informant, what Sanders calls in this latest, 2002 edition of his book "hemic films," hemic an adjective meaning "of or relating to the blood." Is his use of "hemic," rather than "snuff" (the term he used in the 1971 edition), a tacit admission that he no longer believes in the existence of so-called "snuff" films? During the same interview I alluded to above, the unnamed individual also reported the following information:

Then he spoke about some short films he claimed to have viewed, one of which he claimed to have stolen from a house not far from the Spahn Ranch inhabited by cultists and bikers. He said he'd seen two movies filmed in a beach locale. One, he volunteered, was on a beach near the Los Angeles and Ventura county lines. (464)

I'll spare you the gruesome details, but essentially the subject of these putative films were, 1) the killing and subsequent dismemberment of a dog, followed by the dog's blood being poured over two naked girls who then engaged in orgiastic sex; 2) "orgy films" with Charles Manson and the members of his "Family"; 3) a cat blown to pieces by an explosive; and 4) a film about five minutes in length "of a woman dead on a beach" (464). Sanders goes on to write that he believed this individual making these claims was involved in making sleazy films in the Berkeley area, and also writes that his associate, Larry Larsen, subsequently interviewed someone who claimed that the said informant had recently made a pornographic film featuring a thirteen year-old girl.

It is a well-known fact that the FBI has been seeking to verify the existence of snuff films for the past several decades, and has never discovered any evidence to verify their existence. I've contended in previous blog entries that the theoretical existence of the snuff film is made possible by photography's automatism, but even if we allow for the possibility that they were actually made, there's an additional, more practical problem: developing the exposed film. Assuming this footage was shot (at the time) on an easily accessible, 8mm home movie camera, how was this footage developed? By whom? If one says that the footage could be developed at the same locations as, say, pornographic films, then suddenly the number of conspirators has grown larger, making the possibility of containment of the conspiracy even more difficult to maintain. Two individuals might be able to keep a secret (although law enforcement officials use the "prisoner's dilemma" tactic, in which two conspirators are separated and then given false information about what the other one said or claimed), but three individuals compounds the problem, four makes it more difficult, five even more so, and so on. In other words, the greater the number of individuals involved, the more precarious the conspiracy becomes to contain. Indeed, the Manson "Family" itself, a rather large group of mercurial individuals, was incriminated by an off-hand remark by Susan Atkins to a fellow cellmate. (As Sanders notes, Inyo County officials had rather flimsy evidence to justify holding Charles Manson following his October 1969 arrest at the Barker Ranch; if things hadn't unraveled quickly in Los Angeles, he might well have had to be set free.)

It is this principle that makes the existence of snuff--or even hemic--films unlikely. Certainly there are films in which animals are killed on camera--Cannibal Holocaust (1980) immediately comes to mind--but if Manson "Family" members had made such films--call them what you will--where would they have been developed? And if shot using 35mm film rather than 8mm, the problem of developing the exposed film is even more daunting. Of course, videotape is a different matter entirely, not requiring development as does camera negative. But in 1968-69, video cameras were rather daunting pieces of equipment--heavy, awkward, and cumbersome, and while portable cameras existed, they were quite unwieldy. Moreover, the only way one could see the footage one had shot with the camera was either to have the proper playback equipment, or the necessary cables to play the footage through a television set (monitor) directly from the camera. Certainly none of this could have taken place at the Barker Ranch, which didn't even have electricity--meaning no television, and no way to recharge the portable batteries. Assuming the "Family" had video equipment at all, the equipment therefore could have been more easily used at the Spahn Ranch, which had electricity, but again, whatever sort of events, how terrible, took place, there still must be some degree of coordination between the camera operator and the action being recorded, the instantaneous reaction that is second nature to a trained cameraman. Would any of these individuals have had the technical skill to film rapidly unfolding events with cumbersome video equipment?

Hence I think the probable existence of these so-called hemic films is very, very near zero, not only for reasons I've explained, but because I also have deep hesitations about the trustworthiness of the informant who claimed to have seen these short films.

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