May 10th, 2012
The talented Jeffrey Gardner, Dramaturg for The Gacy Play and also co-creator and Director of the very cool radio drama Our Fair City, blergs directly to discuss the man behind the killer clown, Mr. John Wayne Gacy. Thank you Jeffrey for your contribution to the Sideshow Blerg! The Gacy Play begins rehearsals next Monday!
“Can’t sleep, clown will eat me. Can’t sleep, clown will eat me. Can’t sleep, clown will eat me….”
—Bart Simpson, The Simpsons
“And then the time I was a clown and went to the hospital to visit the children, and I went into a room by myself where a little boy was, and his mother started to cry, and after I visit with the boy I went out and asked the mother if I had did anything wrong. She said no…it just that her son…had been in there for six weeks and that was the first time she seen him smile.”
—John Wayne Gacy, Letter from Prison, 12-79
I start this entry with a pair of quotes: partially because I find them fascinating, and a bit because they lend a more authoritative and dramaturgical air, but mostly because they help set up a really interesting dichotomy that I’ll come back to later.
I’ve written five or six different introductions to this entry, and have quickly discarded all of them. Nothing I lead with seems appropriate, or respectful, or to have the proper gravitas for an entry about the nigh-unimaginable horror that was the Gacy Murders. Then I realized–I was avoiding the subject in a very normal way.
I think we have a tendency to head-fake, look away from, distort, or even magnify events like Gacy’s murders in an attempt to take them out of our everyday world. Some serial killers make it easy for us: Manson carves a swastika into his forehead. The Zodiac killer remains a faceless bogeyman. Serial Killers are “monsters of the week” on Procedural Dramas: appearing, laughing maniacally, only to be apprehended- or more likely shot heroically while threatening the investigating officer’s love interest. Gacy is harder- he was well liked by his neighbors, business associates, and showed very few outward signs of his insanity. He was a home-owner, a member of the community. He even, according to some reports, managed to charm some of the officers of his surveillance detail.
Before the murders were uncovered, Gacy was unremarkable: a minor political figure in Chicago, a democratic precinct captain who was known for getting more voters out than anyone else, throwing great outdoor parties, and chairing the Polish Day parade. He had his picture taken with First Lady Rosalynn Carter…
…and performed as Pogo the Clown for hospitalized Children.
It is the image of the Killer Clown that the larger public has latched onto. 8 out of 15 of the first image searches for “John Wayne Gacy” come back with clown pictures. The moniker graces the title pages of books and the headlines of newspapers. An unsurprisingly large portion of the public believes he committed his murders and sexual assaults while dressed as a clown. If you remember one thing from this blerg entry, I’d like it to be that: Gacy’s clown character was never a component of his killing.
I think Gacy’s albeit strange hobby was an incredibly important part of his story, but not for the reasons we think: again, he did not wear his clown suit while murdering any of his victims (to our knowledge), nor did he use it to lure them places. The average age of his victims was 19 (with the youngest being 14, and the oldest confirmed victim being 21 years old)- not the age at which one has a clown at one’s birthday party.
Gacy, in one of his many letters while in prison, talked about all of the things he was proud of, and the things he had done to make the world a better place. He talked about his parties, and the Polish parade, and of course, Pogo.
So, why do we focus on this aspect?
The “Killer Clown” archetype shows up all over the place- doubtlessly reinforced by Gacy’s killings, but certainly not invented there. We see it in Batman’s Joker, or in the later novel “IT” by Stephen King. The twisting of childish or happy things is a long-standing horror trope. There is also the Uncanny Vally issue: with pale faces, rictus smiles, and overblown emotions, clowns sometimes confuse basic context clues we use when determining whether someone is living or dead.
It seems to me that Pogo was a detail that turned the events from “horrific and awful” to acts of “Pure Evil,” and the “unimaginable” to the “Impossible.” Gacy’s crimes were too much for us to comprehend, so we needed to make him something other than Human– otherwise, we might have to admit that the same impulses could be lurking in anyone we know. Rather than having to ask: “Do any of the people I know murder children?”, we can observe: “None of my friends are creepy, lecherous clowns,’ and sleep well at night. This avoids the central problem, however: despite that fact that his acts were unconscionable, insane, and absolutely inhumane, Gacy was a living, breathing human being.
Go ahead and read the second quote again. I think we’re better served if we stop thinking of Pogo as a manifestation of Gacy’s “Evil,” and instead wonder how a man who would give his time to making young children smile could turn around and murder adolescent males in such numbers. I certainly don’t have an answer there, but I do think it should be discussed, rather than ignored.