John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise is a deep dive into one of the most compelling and confounding serial killers in American history. Known as the Killer Clown, John Wayne Gacy assaulted and murdered at least 33 young men and boys between 1972 and his arrest on Dec. 21, 1978.
Peacock’s original six-part docuseries doesn’t limit coverage to the infamous headliner. The victims receive full and detailed histories. Journalists discuss Gacy’s impact on the news. The NBC News Studios documentary team interviews the investigators on the case, and family members of the victims. They also interview Gacy’s sister Karen Kuzma. The highlight of the project is a 1992 interview Gacy gave to FBI profiler Robert Ressler. This is the first time the interview has been shown in public.
Directed by Rod Blackhurst (Amanda Knox), John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise is the first true crime offering from NBCUniversal’s streaming platform. NBC News Studio executive producer Alexa Danner has been on the true crime beat for over a decade. Starting at the Long Form Unit on ABC and producing docuseries like Oxygen’s Killer Motives and MSNBC’s Headliners: Pete Buttigieg. Danner spoke with Den of Geek about uncovering the myth behind John Wayne Gacy, and what may still be revealed.
Den of Geek: What do you think is the biggest misconception the series tackles about John Wayne Gacy?
Alexa Danner: I think the biggest misconception is that the story is over. I think that that is one of the things that we were able to build upon across the six episodes, this notion that the case is completely wrapped up and all loose ends have been tied up, and this is simply not the case.
How familiar were you with the case when you first became involved?
I personally was not very familiar with it. We had members of our team who had been looking at it for years, but personally, I didn’t know the story that well. And when I began to dig into it is when I realized just how expansive and nuanced and complex and far reaching the story actually is. It spans over 50 years. If you go back to Gacy’s earliest history, when he began to exhibit signs of what was to come, all the way through the present day, with some of the issues that still linger around the case, and the fact that there are still six unidentified Gacy victims that are known, and questions about whether there could potentially be other victims in other places.
Do you think there were political reasons Gacy slipped through the system?
Well, certainly there are people in our series who suspect that there were political reasons at play, Gacy was politically very active. He had political aspirations. He was known in the community. Whether that ultimately and definitively played a role in him operating as he did without getting caught for as long as he did, we can’t definitively say for sure that that’s the case, but there are certainly people who have questions about that.
The documentary points out psychiatrists said there was no cure and no treatment for Gacy, and that he’d be a predator for the rest of his life. How does something like this get lost in the shuffle?
I think it’s easy to look back at policing in the late 1960s, early 1970s with today’s lens and say, “why didn’t they just cross reference the computer systems?” But the investigators that we spoke to articulated that it was actually quite difficult to get some of this information sometimes. Now, obviously Des Plaines police, once they were looking into the Robert Piest case, were able to access a lot of this information. So, it’s a question, perhaps he had never been investigated so closely before and just none of this stuff had popped up.
When I say that, I’m speaking in reference to his crimes in the 1970s, when he was actually committing the murders and he was having run-ins with the police on occasion for different reasons, whether it was a couple of assaults that his victims survived, but didn’t seem to get much traction with the police when they went there. Gacy was able to deflect blame from himself.
Similarly, when a couple of the families, their sons ended up being Gacy victims and were found on his property, it seems that Gacy was able to control the narrative with police. Now you can say – did the police really drop the ball there? It’s certainly a question, but then when you watch the Gacy interview, you see how easy it is for Gacy to switch it on and switch it off and alternate between fact and fiction and tell his version of the story. You could see how he could be quite convincing if you weren’t behind bars. He was a businessman, he was a family man, he was popular in his neighborhood, he was throwing parties and was very social. I think it would be hard for any person, including the police, to look at him and say, “Oh, that guy is a serial murderer of young men.”
Do you think there’s more communication now between law enforcement agencies? And do you think long-form journalism is contributing to the increased coordination?
Interesting, good question. I think, absolutely, today there is more communication between law enforcement agencies simply because of technology and new laws and new practices that have evolved over the last 40 years. It’s a different world today. I’d like to think that long-form journalism is contributing in some way, or any kind of journalism. I think journalism is always there trying to hold people accountable, trying to explore the reasons for why things happen. In our series, what we’re trying to do is just shed light on some of these questions around the Gacy case, and see what we uncover in the process.
Why is now a good time to release this?
There are a few reasons. One is, obviously, the benefits of streaming and the way people can view content today, makes telling a story like this in such a comprehensive fashion, much more feasible. The fact that you can watch all six hours at once actually allows storytelling to become richer because people don’t have to wait week-to-week to remember all the details, “what have I forgotten since the last time I watched?” That’s a very practical reason.
A more narrative reason is just the fact that there really still are questions about this person, his story, and people trying to get answers to them. As long as that continues, I think the story lives on, and so it’s important to tell now. Another reason is also that a lot of the players closest to the case are starting to get older, some people close the case have already died. I think any time you’re on the precipice of losing access to some of the firsthand voices related to a really important historical story, then it’s a good time to tell that story.
Why do you think docuseries like these are so popular now? And did you see the Saturday Night Live skit on true crime obsession shows?
I don’t think I’ve seen the SNL skit, but I’ll have to look it up. I think about this a lot, I work a lot in true crime myself, and it’s always interesting to hear why people watch our shows. I think there’s a few reasons I suspect. I mean, everybody probably has their own personal reason.
For viewers, I think that it’s a journey that’s so different from their everyday lives, it’s emotionally engaging, and it’s real. These are real things that happen to real people. In the case of John Gacy, I think part of the fascination is how somebody like this walks amongst us and nobody picks up on it for years and years. I think that’s both chilling, concerning, and also revelatory for people. Maybe they watch to see “if I met a serial killer in my neighborhood, would I be able to recognize them?”
I think, also, the human stories of the victims are incredibly powerful and compelling, and people are drawn to real emotional content. And then also I think there’s always a mystery and a journey associated with any investigation, whether solved or unsolved, there’s always a path to follow. So, people want to follow that path along with the people who are trying to crack the code, who’re trying to solve the mystery. I think part of what’s helping it as the wide accessibility of content. People just have more access to it than ever before, and it seems to be what they’re drawn to.
You mentioned you wonder if you’d notice a serial killer walking through your neighborhood. When you’re watching the footage, do you see the killer in Gacy?
Having watched the interview probably dozens and dozens of times through the course of production, you have to really compartmentalize. Certainly, what we go through as producers of true crime is nothing in comparison to what victims go through, victim’s families. It’s not to compare it on any level, but there is a level of emotional effectiveness that you experience, and so me personally, when I was watching the Gacy interview, I began to see just small tics, like you see him touch his face, you see him sneer, you see him change the subject really effectively. When you watch that over and over again, you see the patterns and it’s pretty disturbing.
When you’re parsing through this kind of brutal footage, does it have an emotional impact or does it become depersonalized because of the cinematic possibilities?
Well, I think for everyone it’s different, but we do have to keep a level of distance ourselves emotionally from the content because we’ve spent over a year with this material, and some of the other folks on the team spent years and years with it, but this was a very intense focused year of just working with this material and talking individuals who had really horrific stories to tell, and going on that journey with them. It does have an impact, but if you weren’t able to separate yourself to some degree, then I don’t think you could work in this field because it would just eat you up.
Are you personally fascinated by the psyche of serial killers? And are you becoming more of a psychological expert?
I don’t know that I’m a psychological expert, I think certainly the psyche of anyone who does anything aberrant is fascinating. I’m not personally obsessed with that psychology, but I can understand why people are. To me, some of the most interesting parts of this series are really the historical aspects and the twists and the turns in Gacy’s life path and the horrific things that he did, and the impact that it had on people.
Those are the people who survive, and those are the people we as producers spend time with getting to know listening to their stories, and so those are really the ones that stick with you. You can set Gacy aside, you can stop thinking about the interview, but when you’re meeting real people and talking to them and hearing their really tragic stories, that’s very impactful.
You mentioned his facial tics, and things like that. Gacy was a world-class liar, and very good at it. So, is it harder to reach a conclusion on him when so much of the myth behind him comes from him?
Certainly, you see it in the series, investigators were completely split on whether Gacy had more victims, on whether he might’ve been telling the truth when he said he did or, whether he was lying when he said he might’ve had help. It’s really hard to know because he is such an unreliable narrator, absolutely.
Do you think he had accomplices?
There is no evidence that we were able to uncover that Gacy did or did not have accomplices, no one was ever charged as an accomplice. There are definitely people in the series who speak to having suspicions that Gacy had help. You can understand why they would believe that, but there’s nothing definitive that we know of one way or the other. There’s suspicion, but there’s no firm evidence.
Between the swinging and the stag films, which worked on both the teens and the political system, do you think Gacy was a product of his time period?
Well, I was not alive during that time period. It’s hard to really go back and know for sure. Obviously, the late sixties were a time of sexual liberation, I think that varied in degrees, depending on who you were and where you were, what your life was like and what your lifestyle was like. Obviously, there were going to be people who were more open to that in the sixties, and that there were still going to be plenty of people who weren’t.
I don’t think he was a victim of anything. I think he was a creation of his own making. I can’t even now explain how he became what he became and did what he did, but certainly he was able to utilize some of the more open-minded tendencies of the sixties to hide behind them and, and cast a different light on his own behavior.
This series gives very detailed backgrounds on the victims. How was that to put together, and how do you balance telling the story of the killer and the stories of the victims?
Well, we always are striving to be respectful of the victims, and honor their stories, and honor their experiences. And it is a delicate balance to have this tremendous interview that is of Gacy himself, while juxtaposing that with the victims’ stories, and the investigator’s stories, and all the people who really were impacted by Gacy. It’s a creative decision that you have to make as you’re producing the documentary, and we tried to achieve a fair and respectful balance of storytelling.
The documentary dives very deep into the unidentified victims. Do you think they ever will be identified?
One can certainly hope that they’ll be identified. It’s hard to know after all this time, without knowing who these victims are, it’s almost impossible to say, but perhaps as a result of this documentary, if it’s widely viewed, perhaps there’s somebody out there who will come forward, who didn’t know this story. It’s entirely possible that someone could have a son who, or a brother who’s a Gacy victim, have no idea to this day who John Wayne Gacy is, that’s entirely possible. You never know what can happen.
What do you think is the biggest question that still lingers about the Gacy case?
I think the biggest question encompasses a lot of other questions, and it’s basically how much of what we see in Gacy’s interview was the truth and how much is fiction, because there are a lot of things that he claims in that interview that if they had legs are pretty damning, but we can only report on what we’re able to corroborate. So, we have to present questions, so have to present the suspicions of folks who appeared in our series, and it’s our job to tell that story, not to draw conclusions where we can’t be certain about them. I think the biggest question is what is true and what remains unknown that could be known about this story.
Do you think this documentary effectively puts Gacy’s relationships with clowns in perspective?
Well, I think one of the biggest myths around Gacy is that he murdered while dressed as a clown, or utilized his clowning makeup or costumes in his crimes, and it’s something that just got intermingled with his story over the years. It’s just not the case to our knowledge. However, it makes it maybe no less chilling that he was dressing up as a clown hiding behind this mask as a metaphor for what he was doing in real life, and also interacting with children and interacting with the community in this seemingly innocuous friendly way, when he was really underneath it all a monster.
John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise is available to stream on Peacock now.