Last Friday, May 10, marked the 25 year anniversary of the execution of American serial killer John Wayne Gacy—which was fitting, given the day was clear, warm and blisteringly sunny.
Though, yes, May 10, 1994 marked a triumphant day in American history, it also calls for solemn contemplation: specifically, that popular obsession with the man led to his widespread fame, earning him catchy monikers like “the Killer Clown,” along with a cult following and an (unfortunate) permanent place in Chicago’s storied history (partially due to his involvement in Chicago local politics and eventual position as the Director of the city’s Polish Constitution Day Parade).
It seems as if the cessation of Gacy’s terror calms Chicagoans down, giving them a sense of security and anodyne for their paranoia. As if Chicago is, for some reason, now safe, allowing residents to reflect with the early summer sun setting on northwest side lawns as the bodies are laid to rest—Gacy’s story has been finished; he can no longer speak or contribute anything more to the living world. It instills in the rabid crowds a feeling of justice.
But Gacy has remained, in and around the city of Chicago, a legend.
It is in moments like these that evil transforms from a present truth to an intriguing, almost addictive past.
Gacy (and, really, any other historical villainous figure) has had several times his weight made up, posthumously, by obsessive artifacts—a Wikipedia page, memorabilia, a stray signature, a painting—rendering him more a commodity than a psychopath.
Gacy’s rampage—and, subsequently, people trying to shame him for it—can hardly be approached reserved and respectfully when the concept of unkempt, unrestrained malice captivates the public to no end, causing them to (on the books) resent him for his irreversible impact on 33-plus families, but (off the books) dive into and chronicle every little movement of his life, creating, as is the case with many evil figures and serial killers, a Truman Show–esque level of dedication and obsession that inflates his identity more than anybody (except maybe Gacy himself) ever wished.
It seems to be a somewhat tame version of hybristophilia: arousal in response to others (usually a partner) having performed outrageous or evil acts, and often a large reason for serial killer cult followings.
Scott A. Bonn, Ph.D., refers to this phenomenon in a Psychology Today article as the creation of “celebrity monsters”, which he compares to adults as horror movies are to children. People are, according to Bonn, attracted to them “out of intense curiosity” as learning about the acts “shocks [their] sense of humanity and makes [them] question [their] safety and security.”
It’s the unconventionality of this kind of wickedness that captivates crowds: his effective evasion of justice; that such a “normal, unassuming” Chicago citizen could commit such atrocities; that it could have been any of us and, if so, we could’ve gotten away with it. It’s just thought-provoking and moral-defying, in many ways, and the mundanity of the wicked agent’s life excites crowds even further, turning a disturbing, unattractive John Wayne Gacy into a sexy, desirable character. It makes evil marketable and drives crowds to almost laud such atrocious acts—it’s one figure stepping out of line the way nobody in the “us” group never could.
Such acts that are bewildering enough tend to propagate even more via word of mouth, perhaps out of both fear and the search for comfort: that telling others will perhaps comfort oneself in knowing others share those feelings, too.
It conjures up the question of “If there is a god, why would they do this?” And, beyond that, it instills a shameful fascination of and dedication to observing a supreme deity in all its forms—images of puppies and babies are similar to those of the world’s most evil people in that they are both on opposite sides of the “justice” spectrum: it’s God’s highest and lowest points.
The bewilderment provokes and confuses, and such sentiments further fuel crowds, viz.:
Would God allow this to happen? Does God make this happen? Or is his true presence our possession of free will?
And, in this regard, the public is able to even further dissect and relate to this issue, e.g. fingernails:
Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated with people’s fingernails. Not in a cosmetic sense, though; they’re one of the only completely unique, recognizable parts of the human body (as compared to, say, a patch of skin) that isn’t hidden or altered beyond recognition. Fingernails reveal volumes about people: Whether they’re painted, bitten, long or short, it shows habits, insecurities and, perhaps, even social status. In the case of movies, TV shows, reality television, etc., they’re often just the way the actors woke up with them that morning.
In many ways, they could (cheesily) be labeled a window to the soul—and, in many regards, the most honest part of a human body.
For perpetrators of atrocious acts, fingernails are almost like a small window to the truth. They see through the facade of lies and battered consciences that come with the crimes; the fingernails know what happened. Observing them can be the most insightful part of watching interviews with the people—especially when said people plead innocence.
It allows everyday people to relate to the villains—a small reminder that, even in their more unfiltered, natural physical features, the latter are still the same species as the former. It is, in large part, this that contributes to the earlier-mentioned popular obsession: it’s intoxicating in its ubiquity, marketable to large crowds.
What tends to complement this phenomenon, as well, is the unexpected, almost shocking subversion of the expectations of these people who consider themselves so similar to those abhorrent, malicious agents.
From a psychological perspective, what makes jokes funny is the mismatch between what one expects and the actual outcome of the dialogue.
At the most fundamental level, the unexpected nature of a joke’s punchline is what comes off as comical and intriguing to us. And, in this way, the unexpected malicious, manipulative behavior of average Joes is what surprises and engages hungry crowds.
That is true evil: the mismatch of means, goals in a specific context. Something that, on a wide scale, doesn’t make sense and was performed for one’s gain and another’s loss.
If Agent A agrees to buy from Agent B a sandwich for five dollars, both parties will end up satisfied, as the former received something for the price at which they valued it and Agent B gave something away for a price that, to them, warranted it. But if Agent B sold it for any more than that, Agent A would feel cheated and upset. This would constitute evil, this time, in the form of theft. Specifically, Agent B’s goals and means mismatched with Agent A’s in the specific context of wanting to trade a sandwich for a certain amount of money.
And, also, evil is making people face the unexplored void of death—arguably society’s most commonly-shared fear—before they wish to.
It is those who embrace evil more than anybody else that excites and drives us, much the same way as do sex, drugs, learning, love, etc.
It’s the stepping out of line we envy but never dare do.
As Bonn states in his article on serial killers: “We need them.”