Netflix’s ‘John Wayne Gacy Tapes’ Is a Revelatory Look at the Serial Killer Who Fed Off 1970s Gay Panic
“The people you least expect and most often trust are the ones who do evil in this world,” says Joe Berlinger, whose new Netflix documentary is an unprecedented portrait of the Illinois serial killer.
The split between the public John Wayne Gacy and the private one is among the most chilling in true crime history. Gacy, who lived and killed in Illinois in the 1970s, was the life of the party, a Democratic precinct captain, and an occasional birthday clown who threw backyard barbecues and offered gainful employment to many local young men.
But underneath his veneer of generosity, Gacy was a self-loathing narcissist and psychopath whose largesse was bait for sex with teenage boys, and once he got what he wanted, the threat of exposing his sexuality led him to brutally torture and murder them. Some of their corpses were buried under the very backyard fire pit where he entertained them. Others, in his basement.
Ultimately, Gacy killed 33 boys and young men, with only a few surviving those attacks. One of those survivors was Steve Nemmers, who outsmarted Gacy as a teenager and now, as a traumatized adult ready to tell his story, gets a voice in the new Netflix documentary series from “The Ted Bundy Tapes” and “Paradise Lost” director Joe Berlinger. But Nemmers is just one of several revelations in “Conservations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes.”
Berlinger, who also helmed the “Cecil Hotel” and “Times Square Killer” specials for the streamer, gains access to an astounding trove of new archival materials and shares that audio and video in his latest Netflix serial killer X-ray series. The 60 hours of audio footage comes from a recorded conversation between Gacy and a member of his defense team, whose family came forward with the materials following the success of Berlinger’s “Ted Bundy Tapes” documentary. (It was the No. 1 unscripted program on the platform in 2019.)
In addition to this never-before-heard audio, woven into the film is never-before-seen (and rather graphic) archival footage of the police excavation of Gacy’s crawlspace at the end of his killing spree, where bodies had been decomposing under layers of cement and writhing worms.
“How much of the excavation, how much of the tapes to put in the show, is a very considered decision both,” Berlinger told IndieWire. “How much can the audience handle? How much is disrespectful to victims? I think it’s very important for the audience — so that it’s not just another story — to be grounded in the horror, the fact that there were 26 bodies under the crawlspace and three other bodies on the property, and four bodies in the river. Otherwise, it just feels like another story on television as opposed to finding that balance and emotional resonance for people versus being respectful.”
Below, we spoke with Berlinger about “The John Wayne Gacy Tapes.” All three episodes are now streaming on Netflix.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
There’s been a number of John Wayne Gacy specials and books. What felt revelatory about this documentary is how it situates his story within the climate of prevailing attitudes toward gay men at the time — and of men in general not being thought possible of being victims of rape or assault.
Joe Berlinger: True crime, with some people, has a bad rap, like why tell these stories? Is it fair to the victim? All these things I think about deeply. There’s an opportunity to retell some of these stories in the past precisely because we can look at it through a 2022 lens and analyze, in this case in particular, the massive police failings. It’s astounding to me just how long he went completely unnoticed, the police looking the other way. Back then, to be gay, in the ’70s, it was still being talked about as if it was a sickness. There were TV programs on, “Is your child ill?” People were afraid to come forward, and if they did come forward, they weren’t believed. That kind of unpacking of massive police incompetence was something I felt had to be looked into.
I will say for the record, the cops, once they realized what was going down, took that house apart. You know, I think they acted heroically so it’s not those cops in the show, criticizing per se, but law enforcement in general just had a terrible attitude towards this case.
Aside from police failings, what socially enabled Gacy to thrive for so long? His killing spree lasted half a decade.
There’s a period, from Gacy to Dahmer, of angry white men going on a serial-killing spree in a reaction to the social values of the time. Bundy, for example, women were coming into their own. There was a sexual revolution, and so the ’70s was about the independent and liberated woman, and Bundy took his rage out on these women who were often now alone. Gacy took advantage of the fact that a lot of young gay men had to leave their homes because they weren’t accepted. He took advantage of the fact that when these crimes were reported to the police, they didn’t listen, or they didn’t understand the concept that a man could rape another man. There were all sorts of values related to the gay community that allowed this guy to flourish for way too long.
People like Gacy who are psychopathic are cleverer at social manipulation and concealing the split between their public and private selves.
Serial killers do these horrible things — and believe me, they’re horrible — but it doesn’t mean that they’re serial killers all the time. We take false comfort in believing that a serial killer must be evil 24 hours a day. We think we can protect ourselves because we can see that serial killer across the street. “Oh, that guy looks like a serial killer. I’m going to avoid him.” But the truth of the matter is, in my 30 years of true crime, I’ve learned that the people you least expect and most often trust are the ones who do evil in this world, whether it’s a priest who commits pedophilia or Bernie Madoff using his Jewish connections to milk Jewish people out of billions of dollars.
Gacy had this supposedly traumatic childhood, where there was abuse, there was bullying, all those things that go into the quote-unquote making of a serial killer. But this film isn’t pathologizing him.
That was a big debate in the editing room. To me, it’s a cliché to talk about a terrible childhood and that’s the result. You need to know he had a mean father, and we did try to provide some window into the psychology of how these serial killers operate. It’s a well-worn tire. But I don’t buy that a crummy childhood equals serial killer. For example, Richard Cottingham, who I profiled for “Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer,” truly had a normal childhood, loving siblings and a loving family, and he turned out to be a serial killer. I didn’t have the easiest childhood and I turned out to be a filmmaker. I don’t buy that bad parenting makes a serial killer.
It becomes a stock recipe for these serial killer deep dives: They were bullied, they were molested, they tortured animals.
There were serial killers who didn’t have these kinds of patterns or upbringings, and I don’t think it explains everything. I was more interested in using the tapes to reveal the psychological dimensions of the mind of the killer, while also paying attention to the victims. There’s a balance you have to strike in telling these stories and focus on the victims and the killer.
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