Send in the Clown

I’ve been to the Chicago Greyhound station.  My most memorable time there was when we Greyhound travelers were stranded for about eight hours while a snowstorm crippled Oprah’s city.  A person who befriended me on the ride wanted to check out the nearby irregular underwear and sock store, excited that he could purchase some cut-rate essentials for a mere pittance.  I joined him, but not for the deals. I wanted to see some of the city.  I wasn’t impressed.  Chicago, for all its history, reminded me of an aging whore who was trying to maintain some sense of dignity, but her makeup was on too thick, the bruises showed, and she walked with a noticeable limp from the time she was stabbed.

Eventually I returned to the station and sat munching on things from the snack machine, reading, and doing my best to ignore people.  A little more than twenty years earlier, John Wayne Gacy, Jr. had picked up a teenage boy at the same station I was sitting in (unless it had moved, which seemed unlikely) and tried to force him into sex.  Gacy had a thing for teenage boys … and clown makeup … and being an upright citizen.  Of course, his crawlspace later told a deeper, darker tale that ended with a virtual party outside his prison on the night of his execution.  It was a jubilant time for most of those in attendance.  Some were so excited that they donned clown wigs and wore shirts that celebrated the moment when the Killer Clown would be lethally injected off this mortal coil. 

No tears for this clown.  No, Sir.

Gacy, as a serial killer, always struck people as an enigma of sorts.  Ted Bundy could blame porn all he wanted, but the truth was that he was just some sadistic motherfucker.  Jeffrey Dahmer was lonely and had abandonment issues.  Ed Gein’s mental landscape was warped by an overbearing mother and a burdensome lack of money for his desired sexual reassignment surgery.  Gacy, however, was … different.

Not every serial killer gets his picture taken with the First Lady.

Gacy really did lead a double life where nobody suspected what was going on.  He was outgoing (no isolated farmhouse here or a lonely apartment with disembodied hands in the fridge), helpful, a performer in so many different ways.  Sure, he had dabbled in wife swapping and drugs (this on top of his desire for strapping young lads), but who hasn’t?  He was a Jaycee and a Democrat, too.  Can you get any more white bread than that?

Of course, the usual suspects are at play here.  An abusive father.  Molestations by a male family friend.  The inner conflict of hating homosexuals all while being attracted to teenage boys.  (When Gacy was caught he was very concerned people would think he was a homosexual and wanted it known he was really bisexual.  His attitude toward his capture and crimes makes it hard to tell if he was either so far out of touch with reality that he really had no idea what was going on around him, or so in touch with it that he knew how easy it was to get away with all that he did if he just kept up appearances.)  The reasons Gacy liked to slip handcuffs on boys and strangle them to death matter, just as they do for all serial killers.  In the end, however, they don’t bring bodies back to life no matter how well we understand them and recognize the causes.  If doctors and law enforcement were being totally honest and really understood these killers, they would tell the public we can’t stop this sort of thing from happening, and here is why: Murder has a sexual thrill, and we are hardwired to like all things sexual.

Gacy admitted to having an orgasm when he stabbed his first victim to death.  This isn’t uncommon.  Two casual acquaintances from my youth once stabbed a taxi driver.  One of the offenders bragged how he had an erection the entire time.  That bragging got him caught, and don’t even begin to touch on the Freudian aspects of the entire debacle.  The thrill of the kill fits the bill, or so Dr. Seuss would say.  Once the mind starts to equate sex and pleasure and power and murder … well, the term “downward spiral” is more than fitting.

Gacy handled death like he did all other things in his life – nice and clean.  No spilled milk.  He would often stuff his victims’ underwear into their mouths to keep seeping fluids from damaging his carpet.  He had an employee of the company he owned dig a trench for “pipes.”  Little did the employee know that the trench was really for bodies, and his almost ended up there too before all was said and done.  Everything was by the book.  Alcohol, handcuffs, strangulation.  Little deviation.  Deviation meant mistakes.  Mistakes meant capture.  Capture meant imprisonment … again.  If the police found out what he was doing, no amount of being a model prisoner would get him out early this time.  It would be bad.  Very, very bad.  The kind of bad you can’t easily charm your way out of no matter how much backpedalling you do.  The first time he was behind bars was for forcing a teenage boy into sex and then having him assaulted before the trial in order to shut him up.  These weren’t rape, witness tampering and child sexual abuse charges he’d be facing this time.  These would be murders … and plenty of them.

Gacy was found guilty of 33 murders.  Twenty-six of those murder victims were buried under his house, festering, rotting and stinking up the joint.  (That stench is what got him caught … that and overconfidence.  While under surveillance, Gacy invited the two police officers keeping tabs on him into his home.  One officer noticed an odd smell coming from the heating duct.  His instincts on the stink were spot-on.)  Gacy was an unstoppable sexual killing machine, and when he realized he was about to be caught he confessed to his lawyer in typical Gacy fashion.  Neatly.  Without fuss.  “Let me tell you a story …” type of thing.

The numbers seem high.  Thirty-three in a fairly short period of time of about six years.   There were people who disbelieved it then and now.  Gacy later claimed he was framed.  He said ex-employees committed about 28 of those murders.  It’s a sloppy story, and quite unlike Gacy.  Of course, he tried to talk his way out of the death penalty, and when that didn’t work out, became belligerent.  That’s to be expected for most, but for Gacy it also seemed somewhat out of character.  The guy who could charm a teen into handcuffs couldn’t charm his way out of the needle and it pissed him off.

Before he died, Gacy became somewhat of a celebrity and did clown paintings that are still sold in various markets.  A record store I used to go to had one on the wall.  They aren’t special, but they do qualify as the ultimate outsider art.  Memorabilia from the hands of a man who got his kicks forcing teenagers into sex before squeezing the life out of them. 

After Gacy died, his brain was studied in the hopes of finding some kind of explanation for his behavior.  Thorough examinations of the sliced and slabbed gray matter have turned up nothing out of the ordinary.  No weird tumors.  No misshapen sections.  As it was, Gacy’s brain looked a lot like yours and mine, and for many that is a terrifying thing.  For those people, the excuse of an overbearing father, sexual molestation, or even repressed sexuality are all reasonable explanations of unreasonable behavior.  They make sense to many.  They can understand that.  They can sleep better knowing that could never be them.  They would never do such a thing.  Couldn’t dream of it, in fact.

Except they are wrong.

You never really know what could trigger such urges inside you.  Perhaps it is that look in someone’s eyes once they think they are about to be prey.  Perhaps it is the feeling of becoming God.  For some, that is a terrifying thought -- the idea that you are so vulnerable to being something so hideous.  For others, like Gacy, it can be addictive.  Take a repressed bit of sexuality and throw in a feeling of unlimited power with no consequences and suddenly the whole world opens up in an explosion of adrenaline the likes of which few people know.  To think that couldn’t be you under the right circumstances simply says you don’t know yourself all that well.  That’s the scary thing.  Not that there are people like Gacy trolling our streets looking for a little luck and gullibility.  No.  That is the nature of predator and prey.  What is really scary are the people who think they don’t have it in them. 

Right on, Cowboy.  And you never sneaked a peek at something you shouldn’t have.  Something taboo.  And you never copped a feel when you shouldn’t have.  And you never had impure thoughts about someone.  And you never wondered what it would be like to hit the gas instead of the brakes and tell the officer you just stepped on the wrong pedal.  (That fucker was on his cell phone anyway and not paying attention when he walked in front of your car and slowed down!  The light was green and you had to get home to see the game.)  You never played a little too rough during sex and liked it.  You were, are, and always will be a perfect angel.  And if you believe that, your lack of understanding and ignorance makes you not only a potential time bomb, but also the perfect prey.

Sure thing, Mr. Gacy.  I’d love to see a magic trick with those cuffs.  I know all of this is a little strange.  You kind of remind me of that creepy gym teacher all the other guys say stare at them in the shower.  But you’re kind of big, kind of friendly, and why would you ever want to hurt me?  Do I want a drink before you show me the trick?  Sure.  I mean, I’m too young to drink legally, but I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.  Thanks, Mr. Gacy.  Okay, after this third drink you can show me the trick.  What kind of a trick is this, mister?  Why are your eyes all funny and why are you growling?    

Predator or prey.  We all have the capacity to be either, but only the ones who understand that can keep both at bay.

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