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My Favorite Monsters: Gacy

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Over the past few weeks, I've dissected three major horror-movie types: the vampire, the zombie and the Thing Without a Name. This week I thought I'd take a little detour and examine a real monster using the same rubric as I've been developing here. (Not that he's really my "favorite," mind you; having a "favorite" serial killer is pretty gross.) For some reason I've found myself thinking a bit about John Wayne Gacy -- due largely to the fact, I think, that I've had Sufjan Stevens' Come on Feel the Illinoise stuck on repeat in my car. The haunting track "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." is an apt introduction to today's topic, via an unauthorized (an unexpectedly affecting) music video for it:

For those of you unfamiliar with the basic facts of his case, Gacy summed it up himself once when he told a friend, in a kind of half-confession: ""I do a lot of rotten, horrible things, but I do a lot of good things too." Those "good things" included dressed up like a clown ("Pogo") to entertain kids in hospitals, throwing huge block parties in his Chicago neighborhood, chairing a local Street Lighting District and serving on his local Democratic Committee. Before moving to Chicago, he managed a KFC in Waterloo Iowa. Here's an incredible -- mundane, but creepy -- interview conducted with Gacy at his restaurant:

But if the "good things" were many, the "rotten, horrible things" were far more numerous: between 1976-1978 he raped and murdered 33 young men and buried them in a crawl space beneath his house, making him at the time of his 1979 arrest one of the most prolific American serial killers to date.

So what kind of monster does this make him?

The vampire
In classical terms, the vampire is a perfect gentleman whose fatal flaw is a horrible addiction -- to blood. That unfortunate trait makes the vampire an archetypal serial killer, forced to plot his killings, execute them under cover of night and always come back for more. So too Gacy, who seemed to his neighbors like such a model citizen, but was actually a ghoul in disguise, unable to curb unspeakable urges.

The Thing Without a Name
The most easily-recognizable Thing Without a Name is probably Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King's It, who, let's face it, is modeled after Gacy. It is a shape-shifting entity who appears as a clown to children and young boys in order to lure and kill them; Gacy in effect shifted shapes every time he peeled off his clown mask. In Silence of the Lambs, there's a scene where someone asks Clarice about Hannibal Lecter: "What is he, a vampire or something?" She responds: "They don't have a name for what he is." So too with Gacy: all you can do is list his symptoms and his crimes; there's no one word for what he was.
clowns.jpgAbove left: Gacy as "Pogo." Right: Tim Curry as "Pennywise."

The Werewolf
Another way of talking about his "shape-shifting" is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story -- to many, Gacy was the ever-pleasant Dr. Jekyll; to others, especially those he picked up hitchhiking, he was the horrible Mr. Hyde. The classic werewolf trope.

Perhaps this is why Gacy, of all serial killers, has so pervaded pop culture -- besides the songs, books and films made about him, there are also the paintings he created himself while in prison. Collected by some for their novelty value (and purchased by others just to destroy them), filmmaker John Waters owns one, which he says hangs in his guest bedroom "so people don't stay too long." Despite Gacy's crudeness, their creepiness is undeniable:

"Handprint and Clowns"
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"Mickey"
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"Clown and Skull"
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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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