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?
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.
Above left: Gacy as "Pogo." Right: Tim Curry as "Pennywise."
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"
"Clown and Skull"