A couple of weeks ago in this space there appeared comments about how Woodstock '69 was, in effect, the last great communal gathering where hippie lifestyle and philosophy took center stage.

In reality, the close of that era had been foreshadowed just beforehand by the Tate-LaBianca murders that horrified the nation and the world.

Over the previous year and a half or so, the country had experienced the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

The Vietnam War had escalated to unprecedented proportions and the tide had turned unfavorably with the Communists' Tet Offensive.

Despite all this, and worsening racial unrest, the hippie movement persisted with its idealized demands for utopia, absolute peace and harmony, and individual freedoms that don't necessarily promote social advancement.

All that came crashing down because of what may be the most shocking murders of the 20th century, shocking because they were so utterly ghastly, involved at least one high-profile victim (actress Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski and eight months pregnant at the time), revealed criminals who appeared to be hippies themselves and an evil mastermind (Charles Manson) claiming to be the second coming of Christ and the devil in one.

Thirteen at the time, I recall the murders as weirdly frightening and casting a dreadful pall over the country. When the story of Manson and his followers started to emerge after their arrests, it just got creepier.

Whereas most mass murderers are individuals who pursue their own disturbed fantasies or objectives, here was a Svengali ringleader, highly charismatic and intelligent, supposedly a respectable musician and composer, whose control over followers led them to commit acts (under Manson's orders) that were drastically counterintuitive.

The murders appeared random with no discernible conventional motive. When it later became known that they were politically based and meant to escalate racial tensions and promote racial warfare, everybody who had a stake in the '60s movement was dumbstruck and bewildered. The killings were furthermore so very brutal and savage -- 169 stab wounds and seven gunshot wounds -- as to permeate an eerie sense of unreality and paranoia.

According to a recent interview in Newsweek with Vincent Bugliosi, chief prosecutor in the case, the Los Angeles scene where the murders were committed changed overnight. The mysterious nature of the crimes made everyone a suspect. Names were dropped from guest lists and parties were canceled, and the sale of guns and guard dogs rose dramatically.

Perhaps most disturbing of all was the demographic information about the killers that would emerge over ensuing weeks. These were young people who, by all appearances, were from average American families with fairly good, middle-class backgrounds. There was a feeling that they could be our children, or those of the neighbors down the street.

One of Manson's lieutenants, Tex Watson, was nearly an "A" student in high school and was a star in football, basketball and track. Leslie Van Houten was a homecoming princess at her high school in L.A. Patricia Krenwinkel, daughter of an insurance executive, sang in the church choir, did well in school, and at one time even wanted to attend a Jesuit college in Alabama.

Manson, unlike most mass murderers, was not of low intellect, was not a drifter or a loner. His mesmerizing, hypnotic control over "family" members, over people who seemed to have fairly conventional upbringing, makes him one of the most unusual and talented (if that's the right word) minds in the annals of criminology.

Another interesting thing is that mass murderers tend to commit their murders by themselves. Manson manipulated people and got them to do horrible things with blind faith and without question, as if they were brainwashed automatons.

Well, that's just what they were. Between Manson's personality, the pervasive use of drugs and breakdown of societal norms, the groundwork was laid for some of the most terrible criminal activity of the 20th century, activity that had some people wondering if we weren't on the verge of Armageddon.

The impact of the Tate-LaBianca murders and the visage of Charles Manson bother people to this day. That old picture of Manson staring madly into the camera can still deliver a tingle down the spine. It's about the only mug out there that makes Rasputin look like a choirboy.

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@comcast.net.