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A Serial Killer Expert Analyzes Mad Men for Links to the Manson Family Murders

During season six of Mad Men last year, theories linking Megan Draper to the infamous Manson murders spread quickly after an episode in which Don’s wife wears a star T-shirt identical to one Sharon Tate was photographed in for a 1967 Esquire spread. Along with Megan’s short-lived pregnancy, the image of Peggy stabbing Abe, the Draper children being held hostage by an intruder, and later episodic references to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, obsessive viewers saw that wardrobe choice as evidence that Megan was totally going to die — something creator Matthew Weiner did his best to quash, while also leaving open the possibility of her demise in the show’s final season.

The action has moved forward in time to late January 1969, roughly six months ahead of the date of the grisly murders that capped off the era of peace and love, and Megan Draper is now living all alone in an insecure home overlooking Hollywood. Given those similarities and a few other loose parallels we’ve noticed (e.g., Megan and Don hear a coyote howling outside her house; Tate’s last meal was at a restaurant named El Coyote Cafe), we thought we’d circle back and see if that theory about the Manson murders will figure prominently into season seven, after all. To help us in our quest, Vulture spoke with Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and the author of The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation. Topics discussed: Megan’s continued Tate-like wardrobe choices, Folgers coffee, and whether a production logo involving tarot cards means anything.

I combed over the episode to look for anything that might possibly reference the Manson murders. Megan’s still dressing like Sharon Tate, for starters.
That dress, absolutely. That was the first thing I thought. And whatever canyon Megan lives in — Don makes that reference to Megan that she’s isolated, that he’s disturbed by that, and that he’s not sure that she’s safe there. I’m not sure they’re setting her up to be murdered, but she certainly might hear the shots in the night.

And then there’s Megan’s career. The pilot she was auditioning for, Bracken’s World, was a real show about starlets trying to make it in Hollywood.
You could link that back to Valley of the Dolls, which Sharon Tate was in. And that was sort of that lifestyle. Though Megan hasn’t started taking drugs yet. [Editor’s note: Bracken’s World was created by Dorothy Kingsley, who co-wrote the Valley of the Dolls screenplay. Eerie!]

Okay, here’s the big one: Folgers coffee. Peggy and Ted have this big conversation about coffee while Peggy is holding a Folgers can, and then Stan walks in and says something like, “That was not about coffee.”
And Abigail Folger was one of Charles Manson’s victims. She was the heiress to the Folgers coffee fortune and was a friend of Roman Polanski, so she was staying at the house. I think that’s probably a good catch on your part. Because why would they have that coffee room debate?

Last season, the show made pointed references to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby: Sally was reading the novel, four of the characters saw a screening of the film, and Peggy and Ted pitched an ad campaign based on it. I guess that ties into the general theme of innocence being corrupted in the late 1960s?
Not just corrupted — invaded. And also, advertising is about mind control, and Rosemary’s Baby was all about mind control. If only someone was living at the Dakota! [Laughs.] But advertising, everything they do is about manipulating people through subliminal imagery, and getting them to behave in a certain way. At the beginning of Mad Men, the characters were approaching the ad business like, “We’re doing good things for people, bringing these products into their lives.” But now it’s getting darker and darker, as they realize, this is really just manipulating people and making them do what we want them to do.

You used the word invaded. There was also that strange woman who invaded Don’s home last year and held Sally hostage. And Peggy stabbed Abe because she thought he was a burglar.
Yes, you have a lot of imagery of invasion on Mad Men. There's a line that Betty had last year, when Sally was suspended from school; she told Don, “The good isn't beating out the bad.” For the first time she realizes, no matter how hard we try, the bad is winning. And I thought, Oh, is that ever a Manson-esque reference. Because that was the feeling after Manson: How do we protect ourselves against the deranged people who will invade our homes and take our lives? Where’s the protection? It was only when Manson and his group did the home invasions that the whole hippie thing became very dark. And that was right around Woodstock time, which was supposedly about all this peace and love and everybody getting it on. And then Manson happened, and then the concert at Altamont. So really, there’s this whole sense after the Beatles landed, from the mid-'60s on, that things are getting unsafe. And you see that in all the relationships on Mad Men unraveling, that everybody is trying to connect and the connections aren't working. And that was really the feeling of, how do we put this back together? And nobody has an answer.

You've written a lot about the psychology of psychopaths. One of the traits is living a double life — but that applies to everyone on Mad Men!
There are all kinds of themes about doubles. Megan played twins on the soap opera; Don is referred to as bicoastal constantly. And so he and Megan could be doubles for Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, because Polanski was much older than her, he was cheating on her, there she was trying to be an actress and to be who she wanted to be, but at the same time she's also trying to be the good wife to this philanderer, essentially. So you have kind of the doubles imagery between the two couples.

Does anyone on Mad Men have the potential to be a psychopath? Is there a character who sets off alarm bells for you?
Oh, Bob Benson. [Laughs.] He’s such an odd duck in terms of his obsequiousness, and his inserting himself into everything — kind of being under the radar, but always present, you know? And Pete Campbell is the one who figured him out — of all people to spot him. Pete Campbell, with all his deviances and deceptions!

I used to think Pete had the potential to be violent, but now I think he's just sad.
He’s so sad and pathetic. And even with his whole thing in California, there’s this kind of nervous quality about him, and I don’t think it’s just because he’s around Don. I think he’s a misfit. And in this episode, you saw everybody kind of realizing that the lives they've been leading have brought them into paralysis. Like that image of Don at the end where he's sitting outside in the cold, alone; I think he and then Peggy and Pete and Roger, they’re all butting up against their own lives all of a sudden, and finding that what had been working and moving them along has brought them to a standstill, and they don't really know how to make this work. And that was definitely the feeling after Manson — and again, Manson didn't happen until August, so they're a ways away from that — but this feeling of, how did we arrive at the juncture? What we've always thought works, doesn't. And that is, in essence, the feeling after Manson. Things don't work. Which is different than, say, Betty shaking out all her trash at the picnic in season one and leaving it in the park. The attitude in the early sixties was that somebody would always come around and make it all better.

There’s one other thing that I saw, right as the show was ending — and maybe this is on every episode, but it’s the first time I noticed it: There was a tarot card.

Oh, yeah, it’s one of the production company logos. Why is that important?
Okay, because there was the tarot card massacre in 1970 in California, during the time when Manson’s trial was going on. So when I saw the tarot card, I went, whoa! But no, I think they would have used a different tarot card, because that one looks like The Sun — not dark enough.

Photo: AMC