Television

How Midwestern Politeness Let a Serial Killer Run Free

A new series on John Wayne Gacy replaces the killer clown with something even scarier: a sadistic murderer who seemed utterly normal.

John Wayne Gacy, dressed as a clown.
John Wayne Gacy. Marty Zielinski/Peacock

“Clowning has gotten a bad name,” says serial killer John Wayne Gacy during a videotaped interview in the second episode of the six-part documentary John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise. “Because of this thing with me.” That Gacy, who ran a Chicago construction company, sometimes performed as a clown in parades and at children’s hospitals is one of the few things many people know about him, beyond the 26 bodies discovered in the crawlspace of his Chicago ranch home in 1978. Creepy, grainy photos of the pudgy middle-aged Gacy in his clown makeup became instantly iconic, the stuff of punk rock album covers and the urban legends kids use to freak each other out. Even Gacy himself succumbed, raising money after his conviction and death sentence by painting portraits of himself in costume.

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But Gacy’s clown get-up played no role in his crimes: His preferred targets were teenagers and young men whom he lured into his house— not with balloon animals, but with offers of unskilled construction jobs, free beer, and screenings of “stag” films. Devil in Disguise may promote itself with a Gacy mugshot overlaid with colored smudges (reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup in The Dark Knight), but it otherwise emphasizes that what makes Gacy scary isn’t how freakish he was, but how completely and successfully normal he seemed. The series wipes away the notion that this killer was a loner weirdo, lurking in a grubby suburban bungalow and emerging only in full facepaint and satin pants to snare his victims. Instead, Gacy was well-connected in local politics, the operator of a thriving small business, and the host of a very large and popular annual neighborhood picnic. At its best, true crime isn’t the lurid depiction of an inexplicable transgression, but the portrait of a society at a moment in time and how that context made the crime possible. And at its best, Devil in Disguise shows how the climate of late-’70s in Middle America fostered sexual exploitation and self-loathing even as it presented the world with a wholesome face.

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Like most multipart true-crime documentaries on streaming platforms—in this case, Peacock, where it debuts on Friday—Devil in Disguise is too long. The case is complex enough to merit perhaps four episodes, encompassing the investigation, the trial, lingering questions being pursued by critics of the official investigation, and Gacy himself. The most fascinating part of the series by far is its second episode, which details Gacy’s past, including a 1968 conviction in Iowa for sodomy. Gacy claims that his encounter with a state representative’s son was “consensual,” but his 15-year-old victim told his father he’d been abused, and Gacy was sentenced to 10 years, although he served only 18 months at a state penitentiary.

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Devil in Disguise features extensive interviews with Gacy’s sister, who traces his “big change” from the “kind” and family-loving brother of her youth into “a different John” after he and his first wife moved to Waterloo, Iowa in 1966. Certainly the rot had set in long before that, but in Iowa, with newfound power as the head of a nuclear family, Gacy began to set it free. His father-in-law hired him to manage three Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises and he joined the local chapter of the Jaycees, where his tireless volunteering and organizational prowess earned him a spot on the organization’s board of directors. This ability to industriously ingratiate himself into the leadership of any social group, including the prisons where he was twice incarcerated, never deserted Gacy. FBI profiler Robert Ressler, who interviewed Gacy on camera at length not long before his execution in 1994, wrote of how the murderer made a show snapping his fingers to order lunch for the two of them, as if “the guard were a waiter in a fancy restaurant.”

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Ressler’s interviews with Gacy, which apart from a few short extracts have never been shown before, are one of Devil in Disguise’s prime selling points. But the Gacy in this footage—impatient, arrogant, and stubbornly insisting on his innocence despite multiple prior confessions—doesn’t reveal much beyond a fervent insistence that he is bisexual, and not homosexual. If Gacy had any perspective or self-insight he probably wouldn’t have committed the crimes he did. Nevertheless, as Gacy dismisses the psychiatrists who examined him as “clowns” and the police investigation of the murders as “bungled,” the officious, demanding, self-important, and covertly handsy KFC manager becomes all too visible beneath the prison garb.

Gacy also claims in this interview that his success in recruiting for his Iowa Jaycees chapter was the result of him showing stag films, and says that as an added attraction, “we had a girl set up in a room.” His sister recalls visiting Gacy and his wife (who by then had had two children) in Waterloo and being taken to a Jaycees party, after which the Gacys swapped partners with another couple, shocking his sister. Gacy also set up a “club” in the basement of his family home to which the young male KFC employees were invited to drink and watch porn. At the time he was arrested for sodomy, according to Cook Country prosecutor William Kunkle, Gacy was running for Jaycee president and “did lots of inspirational writing for them about how to manipulate people and inject your ideas into other people’s minds.”

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This is the skeeviest episode of Devil in Disguise, which is saying a lot for a docuseries that includes the discovery of over two dozen rotting corpses under the floorboards. The coercive and exploitative bent of Gacy’s performance of sexual “liberation” in Iowa; the stultifying air of the closet; the leering shenanigans behind the oppressive veneer of mid-century small-town Babbitry; the homophobia still evident in the parade of white male authority figures summoned to pronounce on their role in the investigation: It’s all enough to make you crave a hot shower by the time the episode’s done.

Much of what Gacy, his wife, and his Jaycee friends liked to do wasn’t inherently twisted, of course, but it took place in pervasive climate of pretended “virtue,” monogamy, and heterosexuality that belied the underlying reality, a formula for shame, self-loathing, deceit, and manipulation. (We don’t know how sincerely Gacy’s first wife consented to these activities, or to having them exposed to her judgmental sister-in-law.) Unlike the classic pop culture portrayal of the serial killer as a fiendish genius or socially inept lunatic, Gacy didn’t just pass as a normal member of his world, he excelled at it, surely because that world’s idea of normal was itself so stunted.

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After serving his time for the Iowa offense—Gacy started a Jaycees chapter and somehow obtained a miniature golf course for the prison yard during his stint—he returned to Chicago, became a precinct captain for the Democratic Party, remarried and divorced, and started a profitable contracting business. He joined the Moose Club and ran the Polish Constitution Day Parade for three years. (In that capacity he was photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter.) In short, Gacy conformed to most conventional notions of success while luring one young man after another to his doom. He apparently believed that the many influential connections he formed with local officialdom would protect him from ever being caught.

There’s a lot more than this portrait of a smug, glad-handing Midwestern burgher with an abattoir in his basement, including a journalist and former police officer who make strong cases for additional victims being buried elsewhere, and even suggest the possibility that Gacy had accomplices who have never been charged for their roles in his crimes, although those suggestions are not entirely persuasive. But it’s the porn-peddling KFC manager who’s stuck with me. Forget the clown: the true horror of John Wayne Gacy is just how typical he was.

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