Ours is a golden age of serial-killer entertainment. Anyone with a healthy victim list has books, docuseries, T-shirts, video games, and untold tchotchkes produced to burnish their legend. Stuck at home, we gorge ourselves on fact-based horror. Now the Peacock Network has brought back the granddaddy of self-aggrandizing murderers, the pride of Chicagoland, John Wayne Gacy, for Devil in Disguise, a six-part series that promises new revelations but mostly reinforces what has long been known.
Gacy, a contractor, Chicago Democratic Machine functionary, and part-time party clown, was convicted in 1980 of killing 33 men and boys, burying many in the crawlspace beneath his home in the unincorporated suburb of Norwood Park. Crowds gawked around his home in 1978, as the remains of his victims were excavated and removed, and we’ve been gawking and speculating about the man, his motives, possible accomplices, and likely additional victims, ever since.
Growing up in the 80s, Gacy’s porcine mugshot grin was a mainstay of punk band flyers. His horrible jailhouse paintings—many portraying him in his Pogo the Clown makeup—gained a following among the connoisseurs of outré art. He had so many penpals that an underground press published a collection called They Call Him Mr. Gary (a copy is currently up for $700 on eBay). But back then, interest in serial killers was mainly confined to the underground and the fringes. Reveling in blood and gore was for horror movies and weirdos rather than primetime entertainment. In art school in the early 90s, a classmate of mine made a serial killer board game as a final project. It was only a matter of time before this subject matter became commonplace. Now, not a month goes by without a posh production about Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, or Jack the Ripper premiering. They’re accorded the same type of marketing push as comic book superheroes, a gruesome flip side of the same coin. We wonder how they did what they did and imagine ourselves inside their skin, whether flying over buildings or burying bodies.
The centerpiece of Devil in Disguise is a 1992 interview with Gacy, conducted by a retired FBI profiler. The interview was facilitated by another man, who was a longtime correspondent of the killer. Bits and pieces of this tape are doled out sparingly over the 4.5-hour running time of the show. Frustratingly, excerpts are often repeated for emphasis, episode to episode—a regular strategy reality shows use to pad out thin material. Parts of interviews with police, victims’ families, reporters, and assorted investigators are rehashed as well. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t trust viewers to remember what was said an hour or two earlier. The network knows how many ad breaks it will insert and wants to maximize the salacious details to get us to tune back in.
All along there is a promise of new developments and revelations, but very little is established beyond doubt. The last two episodes spend a lot of time speculating on the burial of additional victims, but due to law enforcement hesitance (or cover-up, depending on which interviewee one believes), none have been found. Six of the 33 victims remain unidentified, while one of the 27 named is believed by his family and others to have been misidentified. It’s not quite Geraldo opening Capone’s vault, but there’s little here in terms of hard facts that wasn’t previously reported elsewhere.
Devil in Disguise isn’t the kind of bottom-feeding tabloid fodder that passes for documentary on most true-crime networks. The archival footage is compelling as a window into the way our city and environs looked and functioned in previous decades. Some of the family members, former cops, and dogged independent investigators have convincing evidence and insight to share. Many disturbed me by smiling while recounting the worst of it. But after 4.5 hours, I was no closer to knowing why Gacy did what he did, whether he acted alone, or if there were indeed more victims. I can see no reason, aside from commercial considerations, why this show couldn’t have been an hour and a half long. An uninterrupted airing of the 1992 interview with the killer, with some analysis and footage added for context, would have made for a powerful portrait of humanity at its most horrifying. Instead, the show keeps replaying and remixing old material. It left this viewer wary, rather than shocked or haunted. Product tie-ins aren’t far behind if this show is a hit. If there’s an afterlife, a killer clown is laughing all the way to the bank. v