John Wayne Gacy: A Killer’s Mind

John Wayne Gacy - Mental Health

Between 1972 and 1978, John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994) killed at least 33 boys and young men by luring them into his home under the pretense of offering them money, work, or a place to stay if they were homeless. Gacy buried most of his victims in a crawl space under his house in Chicago. Other bodies were buried on his property or thrown into a river near his home. Detectives suspect Gacy killed more than 33 victims but their bodies have never been found.

John Wayne Gacy was tried, sentenced to death, and executed on May 10, 1994. He was put to death by lethal injection at the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois.

According to various statements made by prison officials, when Gacy was asked if he had any last words, he reportedly scowled at them and said: “Kiss my ass.”

Who Was John Gacy?

What do we know about Gacy and the man behind these atrocities? A good place to begin is with his childhood….

The Making of the Mind of a Killer: Gacy’s Childhood

Gacy’s father was an alcoholic who subjected Gacy, his two sisters, and his mother to physical and verbal abuse. He routinely berated John Wayne with derogatory insults, calling him “dumb and stupid.” He also told John Wayne that he was a “mama’s boy,” a “sissy,” and that he would probably grow up to be a “queer.” Gacy later told detectives his father favored his sisters over him.

When Gacy was seven years old, a male family friend began molesting him. Gacy kept the sexual abuse a secret because he was terrified that his father would blame him for the abuse. Gacy avoided playing sports in school because of a heart condition that may have been responsible for Gacy experiencing periodic blackouts. Occasionally, Gacy was hospitalized for these blackouts. However, his father did not believe Gacy had heart problems and said he was faking his illness to get out of doing chores and going to school.

In 1967, at the age of 20, John Wayne Gacy sodomized a 15-year-old boy. He denied the accusation and failed a polygraph test. To prevent the boy from testifying against him, Gacy paid someone to intimidate and assault the boy. However, the boy escaped from his attacker and identified the perpetrator to the police. Gacy was arrested again, this time for intimidation of a witness and assault.

Following a psychiatric evaluation in 1968, Gacy was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder but found mentally competent to stand trial for sodomizing a minor, witness intimidation, and assault.

Gacy was granted parole with twelve months’ probation on June 18, 1970, having served eighteen months of his ten-year sentence.

The Killer Clown Years: 1972-1980

John Wayne Gacy acquired the “Killer Clown” moniker due to his frequent appearances as “Pogo the Clown” at children’s gatherings and charitable functions. This seemingly innocent alter ego provided him with the opportunity to approach and subsequently abduct and kill young boys and teenagers. Gacy’s unsettling dual identity as both a clown and a serial murderer forms a disturbing facet of his criminal background. The stark contrast between his outwardly cheerful and amusing clown persona and his evil and sadistic criminal actions significantly contributed to the infamy surrounding his case and the epithet “Killer Clown.”

Gacy’s killing spree during this time went unnoticed until a missing person’s report was issued for a young teenaged boy in early December 1978. The 15-year-old had last been seen leaving for a job interview with Gacy, who had promised him a job at his construction company. After being under surveillance for several weeks and exhibiting suspicious behavior, Gacy confessed to murdering the teen and other young boys. He was arrested on December 21, 1978.

Applying Serial Killer Psychology to John Wayne Gacy: Monsters Do Exist

Although Gacy had not been clinically diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) until he was in his 20s, it is likely he developed early signs of ASPD as a boy that were ignored or overlooked. Whether receiving treatment in childhood for sociopathy would have prevented the development of a serial killer like Gacy remains debatable.

ASPD is defined by a lifelong pattern of dismissing the rights of others, engaging in deceitful behavior, acting impulsively, demonstrating irrational and violent outbursts, and showing a deficiency in empathy or remorse regarding harmful actions towards others. Individuals with ASPD engage in behaviors that violate societal norms and typically have a history of legal problems and interpersonal difficulties. However, not every individual diagnosed with ASPD is destined to become a sociopathic serial killer. While many people with ASPD have high rates of recidivism and often engage in violent criminal behavior, they do not become serial killers like John Wayne Gacy.

One perplexing aspect of serial killer psychology revolves around their lack of an appropriate emotional response to another person’s pain and suffering. Throughout Gacy’s trial and incarceration, he never showed regret, remorse, or empathy to the psychiatrists evaluating him. Quotes attributed to Gacy also reveal a complete absence of empathy and distorted sense of entitlement (narcissism) that fueled his compulsion to murder young men:

  • “A clown can get away with murder.”
  • “That mother (he was talking about the mother of one of his victims) that gets on TV and says I should get 33 [lethal] injections–I think she ought to take 33 Valium and go lay down.”
  • “Girls are no fun to kill. Guys are more interesting to kill.”

A conclusive imaging study examining the brain activity of individuals with sociopathic tendencies discovered impaired connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for interpreting signals from the amygdala, a brain organelle that processes fearful reactions and negative stimuli. Consequently, this dysfunctional connectivity may be one of several reasons why serial killers are unable to experience guilt, sympathy, regret, or compassion when torturing and murdering their victims.

Criminal Profiling of Serial Killers

Serial murderers frequently display a disturbing capacity to dehumanize their victims, perceiving them as inanimate objects that can be tortured, dismembered, and murdered. Profilers interviewing serial killers often find them to be intelligent, composed, and seemingly “normal.” However, underneath this veneer of normalcy lies a raging maelstrom of deep-seated insecurities rooted in an intense fear of rejection and abandonment.

In Gacy’s case, the traumatic experiences of being abused, emotionally neglected, and belittled by his father may have driven him to kill boys he felt attracted to. Gacy married two women before his final incarceration and claimed he was bisexual. However, psychiatrists believe he suppressed his homosexuality because of his father’s homophobic views and was never comfortable with being strictly heterosexual.

Gacy may have believed that by extinguishing the objects of his desire—his victims—he could shield himself from threats of being abandoned, humiliated, and dehumanized. (These were experiences that he endured as a child.)

There can be a link between childhood abuse and later displays of aggression and violence by the abused child, according to research. Gacy and other serial killers who were physically traumatized as children also seem to be more inclined to commit acts of “overkill” in their actions toward their victims. For example, Gacy did not just strangle his victims. He forced them to have sex, tortured them, and then strangled them to death before hiding their bodies in the crawlspace or burying them in his backyard.

Gacy in His Own Words

In a 1992 interview with Robert Ressler, Gacy made a number of comments that fit the classic criminal profile of a serial killer. He described himself as a victim, for example, saying “I consider myself the 34th victim.” He also characterized his murderous actions as “self-defense.”

In the end, even the worst, most traumatizing aspects of Gacy’s childhood cannot explain how he could go on to take the lives of at least 33 boys and young men. Many people have experienced as much trauma or more in their childhood and have not gone on to become serial murderers. Gacy’s diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder helps to provide at least some understanding for the cruelty of his actions and his sociopathic behaviors. If you suspect that someone you love may have antisocial personality disorder, gently encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional.