The Psychology Behind the Case of John Wayne Gacy: Pogo the Clown

The Psychology Behind the Case of John Wayne Gacy: Pogo the Clown


Trigger Warning: The contents of this article can be Disturbing for some individuals

John Wayne Gacy is regarded as one of the most notorious serial killers in the history of America. Due to his evil methods of committing violence and killing multiple victims, he is considered to be an intriguing subject when trying to understand the pathology of a serial killer. 

Wayne Gacy and Pogo ‘the Murderous Clown’ 

To understand his aims in committing murder, Gacy’s childhood must be examined. Gacy’s father abused him physically and mentally during his childhood. Gacy Sr. was disappointed in his son because of his lack of masculinity. Gacy was not involved in “boy activities” rather he was invested in household chores like gardening and cooking with his mother. 

Gacy’s father was an alcoholic and often punished and abused him due to the feminine roles he indulged in. Thus, Gacy struggled with his sexual identity and was most likely conflicted about his attraction towards other males. Despite that, he moved to Illinois got married and raised kids to hide his homosexual urges. 

He committed his first offence when he sodomized a young kid which landed him in jail for 10 years, however, he only served 18 months. While he was in prison, Gacy Sr. died of liver cirrhosis which triggered Gacy Jr. He became even more hostile towards other inmates and repressed his homosexuality even more. It is believed that Gacy must have had the conviction that his father passed away because of the embarrassment that Gacy Jr. caused him due to the sodomy. 

After he was released, he moved to Chicago and worked on his public and community image. He became a wealthy businessman after opening his own construction company and became a well-respected member of his community. He had political connections and became a member of the Jaycees and later the president of the same. He used to dress up as ‘Pogo the Clown’ and throw parties for youngsters to develop trust and respect in people for him. 

Behind this successful and respected public image was a man who used to lure young men and boys to his home. He would restrain, rape and murder these youngsters while dressed as Pogo the Clown. Gacy described Pogo the Clown as his persona which would regress him to an earlier stage in his development. The persona of Pogo the Clown shows Gacy’s ability to manipulate and influence people. He was often described as witty and charming by the members of his community and he was so effective in developing his personality as being trustworthy that parents used to encourage their children to interact with Gacy. 

The serial killing lasted for about 6 years until he raped and murdered a well-known community member. Suspicion arose when Gacy was known to be last seen with the victim. The police obtained a warrant to search his house because of a foul smell coming from underneath. They found 33 young men tortured, sexually assaulted and dismembered buried under his house. Gacy was manipulative, and seductive, committed horrific crimes and had a lack of remorse which led to a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder.

According to Psychologist Dhanashree Prathamesh, “The link between antisocial personality and criminal behaviour is multifaceted. It involves a combination of personality traits, early developmental experiences, neurological factors, and environmental influences. It is also noticed that early signs of anti-social behaviour can be a strong predictor of criminal activities. A few factors that involve ASP are impulsivity, lack of remorse, and inability to conform to social norms, which contribute to repeated behaviour that is socially unacceptable or criminal offences. Their crimes can range from petty fights, and frauds to violent crimes towards a living being. Understanding these connections helps develop interventions and prevention strategies to address the underlying issues contributing to antisocial and criminal behaviours.”

The video-recorded interviews with Gacy demonstrate his feelings of grandiosity, inflated ego and emotional instability. His crimes of binding, raping, torturing and killing reflect his ambitions to grab positions of power. These factors along with his disrespect for other humans are all symptoms of ASPD.

Read More: The Psychology Behind the Chilling Case of Jeffery Dahmer 

Understanding Gacy 

Early Childhood:

It is speculated that Gacy was biologically predisposed to develop an inability to tolerate his frustration or aggressive tendencies. Owing to the contribution of his social and cultural environment, his already low frustration tolerance lowered further. Gacy was exposed to domestic violence which resulted in his lack of resolution of crises. 

Mistrust and Aggression:

Gacy developed a mistrust both in himself and the external environment due to the violence he was exposed to. He was unable to cope with his urges and had poor impulse control and emotional regulation. This led to suspiciousness and paranoia, which was manifested as taking advantage of others before being taken advantage of. Due to this paranoia, he tended to blame his external environment for the actions he took. 

Identity Formation:

The ongoing violence by his father reinforced his belief of others as hostile. His inability to delay his urges and lack of trust became deep-rooted in his personality. He struggled with establishing a stable sense of identity and developed a distorted image of himself. This resulted in superficial and shallow relationships with others and a deep sense of isolation and self-absorption which can be seen as narcissism

Read More: Breaking the Silence: Exploring the Impact of Childhood Trauma


Gacy’s search for meaning and power in his adolescent years led to the development of manipulative behaviours and opposition towards societal norms. He could not develop a sense of moral responsibility and had an underdeveloped conscience. Aggression combined with immoral behavior, thus led to sociopathic tendencies. 

Multiple Personalities:

While in custody, Gacy claimed to have multiple personalities, although this was not confirmed it does indicate his fragmented sense of self. He showed unstable patterns of behaviour, sometimes restrained and sometimes expressive. Due to this incoherence, he could play various roles such as that of a contractor, community member, politician and lastly a sadistic serial killer. 

Frustration Aggression Hypothesis 

The frustration-aggression hypothesis says that when we are unable to achieve a particular goal, we experience frustration. Frustration leads to the experience of aggression and is outwardly displayed as acts of violence. In some cases, aggression is directed towards the initial source of frustration, however, that is not always possible. When the frustration is caused by someone powerful, the person may not be able to react against the actual source.

Therefore, the aggression is displaced onto a convenient victim group of people which causes a feeling of catharsis. Even though it isn’t desirable to act violently towards others, members of prejudiced groups become the target of such hostility. Thus, the victim itself is blamed because of the projection that the perpetrator displays onto the disadvantaged group. 

Gacy was psychologically and emotionally abused by his father since childhood because he was not involved in more stereotypical “manly” activities. This is the period when Gacy was in the path of discovery of his sexuality and sexual desires. He was inherently attracted to the boys, however, he was unable to express his sexual desires let alone act on them. 

According to this hypothesis, frustration arose because Gacy was unable to accept his sexual identity and desires. This contributed to his aggressive complex along with his father’s disapproval of him, thus resulting in him suppressing his aggression. Thus, the aggression was displaced to more convenient targets, young men and boys, who could not fight against him. 

Read More: The Psychology Behind Manipulation

Not only through physical violence but also through manipulation and projection, Gacy found temporary relief from feeling powerless and frustrated. By the acts that he committed, he projected his vulnerabilities and inadequacies onto his victims. He used to manipulate young men and boys with promises of work or friendship, thus taking advantage of their vulnerabilities just like Gacy’s father did to him. He would commit brutal acts of violence to achieve a false sense of power that he could not achieve in his interactions with his father. 

His inability to resolve this frustration and aggression healthily led to a cycle of violence since the relief he experienced was always temporary. To sustain the feelings of power and control, he kept displacing his aggression onto the victims which ultimately defined his life. 

Psychosexual Aggression Perspective 

The current research about serial killers holds the perspective that the murders they commit are sexually motivated. In Gacy’s case, he restrained, tortured and raped his victims. The motivation behind such sexual aversions was the thrill he got from the fear and control he held over his victims. His career as a serial killer began as a sex offender like most sexually motivated serial killers. 

Knight (2006) stated that the sexual nature of the offence reflects an aggression that is destructive and pathological. These violent fantasies are acted out on the victim, the nature of which is perverse and sadistic. The typology of Gacy’s murder methods is of a similar kind wherein he stuffed his victims’ underwear and other clothes in their mouths as he sodomized them with various sex toys. (“John Wayne Gacy Biography,” 2015). He eventually suffocated them with the use of a tourniquet.

These pervasive and sadistic acts provide a sense of cathartic release to the killer. Eventually, the need and desire for this release becomes so intense that it leads the killer to achieve this high again and again. Research indicates that it is not the lack of impulse control but rather the desire of the offender that leads to murder. There is a moral responsibility within the offender of right and wrong, however it is disregarded to satisfy his sexual desires. Thus, Gacy was a killer who willingly committed these acts of violence with total awareness of right or wrong. There are, however, some psychological factors as well as trauma that led to his murderous actions. 

Who is a Serial Killer? 

Serial killing is described by the FBI as a series of two or more murders that are committed as separate events, although not always but usually by one offender alone. The offender who commits such a crime is called a serial killer. Serial killers often have a “cooling off” period, wherein after a killing they stay inactive. They differ from mass and spree killers as they kill within a short period and in higher numbers. 

The history of serial killers is considered to go back to the medieval period. Back then, people used to attribute serial killings to mythological creatures such as vampires and werewolves. The period between the 1970s and 2000s is known as the ‘Golden Age of Serial Murders.’ Serial killers such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Richard Ramirez were significantly famous during this period 

Research has shown that serial killers often use a specific method that is used by them. This dictates how they will select their victim and how the killing will be performed. This is called modus operandi, which is a Latin word for ‘a way of operating.’ 

Factors that may contribute to the making of a Serial Killer 

It doesn’t come as a surprise to friends, family or acquaintances of some serial killers that they committed the acts they did. Considering the theory of triad of violence, wherein engaging in bedwetting, fire setting and animal abuse as children are predictors of criminal behaviour. It becomes clear that there is some indication of unusual or violent behaviour. However, for others, it may come as a complete surprise since the killer appears to be so charming and respectable member of society, leading a normal, healthy life. 

Psychological factors

Mental/Physical Illness:

Serial killers usually show signs of a mental illness or have a mental health diagnosis. Many of them, due to traumatic experiences in their childhood, manifest symptoms of mental disorders. Mental illnesses prove to be the most prevalent factor for their criminality. Another factor that could be the cause of their unusual or criminal behaviours is head injuries or physical illnesses that these serial killers may have experienced in their lives.

Lack of remorse:

It has been evident in the study of these killers that they tend to show no remorse for their criminal behaviour. Instead, they experience pleasure and sexual satisfaction from committing these acts. One of the factors that is important to highlight is their lack of remorse even when they realize what they are doing is wrong. They simply do not experience any empathy for their victims. 


One of the studies that studied serial killers highlights that they killed for a variety of reasons. It includes revenge, hatred, pleasure, etc. however, the overall intent for killing was to gain something. Serial killers usually have a type of victim that they choose and sometimes a ritual that they follow preceding the killing. They may pick victims based on a symbolic value, for example, a victim that looks like the person who abused them. 


Another pattern that is observed among serial killers is the sense of shame they experience for their homosexual tendencies. Serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy targeted gay boys and men to help them cope with their homosexuality. It is evident that he was gay, especially when he performed a homosexual act with his victims, he was angry and wanted to harm the other person. 

Read More: Paving the Way for Gender-Neutral Parenting and Acceptance in Society

Need for Power:

Serial killers often make it a point to choose victims who are weak and unable to defend themselves. They choose people they can exert power over and can easily have control over them. For example, some may target prostitutes, drug addicts or young children as their victims. 

Parental Mental Illness:

Research shows that the parents of some of the killers had a history of mental illness and criminal behaviour. Jeffrey Dahmer’s mom was ill and depressed when she was pregnant with Jeffrey which could have led to his emotional and behavioral issues. Similarly, John Wayne Gacy’s father was an alcoholic and abused him psychologically and emotionally. 

Other factors:

According to research, 56% of the serial killers had been through childhood trauma and 40% had a history of substance use. 60% of them had a previous criminal charge in their lives although the type of crime varied. Substance use is another psychological factor for serial killers as it causes them to alter their minds, thus contributing to their criminal behaviours. 

According to Counseling Psychologist Damini Grover, “Childhood trauma can have a profound impact on criminal behaviour. It can increase the likelihood of engaging in criminal activities as individuals may develop maladaptive coping mechanisms, struggle with emotional regulation, and have difficulty forming healthy relationships. Additionally, trauma can contribute to the development of mental health issues, such as depression or PTSD, which can further increase the risk of criminal behaviour. Individuals who experience childhood trauma, particularly in the form of physical or sexual abuse, may be more likely to perpetrate violence themselves later in life. This can perpetuate a cycle of violence within families or communities. However, it’s essential to note that not everyone who experiences childhood trauma will engage in criminal activities, as individual resilience and support systems also play significant roles.”

Biological Factors 

The biological factors that contribute to psychopathic traits of lack of empathy and remorse or guilt include the amygdala and the frontal cortex. It is shown by research that there are anatomical abnormalities as well as a weak connection between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This is responsible for emotional dysfunction and questionable moral judgment among serial killers and psychopaths.

Read More: What’s the Difference Between a Psychopaths and a Sociopaths?

Psychiatrist Helen Morrison corresponded with John Gacy for 14 years and obtained the right to his brain after his death. While he was alive she did a forensic evaluation of him and believed his claim of having multiple personality disorder. However, when his brain was analyzed for abnormalities, none were found. Researchers argue that in 1980, several advanced medical tests and methods would not have been present, because in the 1990s, when brain scans were performed on 41 murderers’, they found significant abnormalities. 

Since then several researchers have confirmed that there are structural and functional impairments in the brains of psychopathic and antisocial people. Significant abnormalities were found in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions. Because the amygdala activation was dysfunctional, these individuals displayed a lack of empathy and guilt. 

Gacy suffered damage to his head at a young age due to which he suffered blackouts, and seizures and later a blood clot was discovered as well. We also know that Gacy was verbally, sexually and psychologically abused as a child. When biological abnormalities are combined with physical or sexual abuse, the possibility of becoming a serial killer increases. 

“Corporate Psychopaths” 

Researchers have claimed that psychopathy doesn’t need to turn into criminality. They say that the probability of criminality increases but there exists such a thing as a “corporate psychopath.” According to Boddy et al. (2016), psychopaths usually hold jobs in the position of a CEO, lawyer, police officer and others. However, they do not turn to criminality despite fulfilling all the other criteria of psychopathic traits. Corporate psychopaths may contain the same lack of empathy and functional conscience, however, their manipulative and aggressive tendencies are acceptably displaced into society and highly rewarding careers. 


Psychopaths make up 1% of the adult population who have no functional conscience and are unable to feel love or empathy for other people. Thus, social circumstances along with biological abnormalities and genetic inheritance combine to direct our total functionality. John Gacy did not turn into a criminal just because he had psychopathic traits. Severe physical, verbal and sexual abuse combined with biological predisposition and abnormalities contributed to his criminal activities. Sometimes it is also the ability to make competent personal choices that separate the criminal from non-criminal in many instances. 

References +
  • Suman, O., Thanushree, M. N., Tejaswi, P., Pooja, Nayak, T., & Dorjee, J. (2023). A study on the relationship between childhood trauma and antisocial personality disorder in the formation of serial killers. International Journal of Indian Psychology, 11(3).
  • Pieterse, J. (2012). John Wayne Gacy: A psychobiographical study (Master’s thesis). Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. 
  • Brennan, T. (2019). Identification of psychosocial factors in the development of serial killers in the United States (Honors thesis). Salem State University. 
  • Sandefur, B. (2020). Applying criminological theory to John Wayne Gacy.

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