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Psychological Profile of John Wayne Gacy Case Study

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Updated: Sep 19th, 2022


John Wayne Gacy was a serial killer and rapist, who murdered and tortured 33 young boys in the 1980s. Almost all of them he lured them to his house and then strangled them to death. The bodies Gacy buried in his basement. The psychological profile of this criminal could help solve or prevent further crimes by identifying the patterns of his behavior and the nature of his abnormalities.

Case Study: Psychological Profile of John Wayne Gacy

Background, Early, and Middle Childhood

To have a better insight into Gacy’s psychopathic behavior and crimes we need to delve into his Childhood. Gacy was born into a family of a homemaker mother and a father veteran of the First World War and a car repair person. In his young years, Gacy never received enough of his father’s love and recognition. In fact, he frequently became a victim of violence from his father’s side often for no particular reason. The senior Gacy had a problem with alcohol, which has contributed to the complicated family relationships and was often a cause for multiple beatings and humiliations he inflicted upon his son. Despite that fact, according to his statements, Gacy never hated his father and always tried to earn his respect. As a child, Gacy was having problems with excessive weight, which caused him troubles at school, namely, the lack of friends and bullying from peers (Cahill, 1986). Together with the absence of father’s approval, this probably was a reason for his low self-esteem.

Among other childhood experiences that may be considered signs of Gacy’s abnormality was the fact that a family friend molested him at the age of seven. He never told his parents about the incident out of fear of mockery and beatings from his father. A shocking experience of that kind with no help from a trained psychologist or simply an understanding family left Gacy no choice other than to reflect on this event by himself and to decide on the rightness or wrongness of it.

Gacy’s troubled childhood and his later development into a psychopath murderer can be a vivid illustration of dependence on childhood maltreatment and the formation of violent criminal behaviors. According to Caspi et al. (2002), genetic vulnerability, namely the polymorphism in monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), together with bad childhood experiences can trigger the development of aggressive behavior.

This theory is further backed by Raine (2008), who suggests that a reduced prefrontal gray matter as a result of a gene deviation triggers the brain to function atypically, which causes abnormal emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions. According to the researcher’s data, 85% of psychopaths featured the above-mentioned gene and brain deficiencies. This gives a reason to believe that the early life experience, given the susceptibility of the future offender’s mind, among other things, may have triggered the development of his psychopathic behavior.


In contrast to his childhood, in the adolescent period of life, Gacy earned respect and popularity among peers. At the age of eighteen, John Gacy became involved in politics and was even chosen as a Democratic Party candidate. That, according to his own words, was probably a measure to compensate for the lack of approval in early life (Cahill, 1986). Additionally, he spent considerable time in the United States Junior Chamber (Jaycee) becoming one of its honorable members.

At the age of twenty, when Gacy worked at the mortuary he was lovingly touching and hugging a dead body of a young male (Cahill, 1986). This incident shocked him and probably caused him to realize the nature of his sexual attractions that he was secretly trying to grasp at an early age. It also shows low resistance to impulses that are compliant with Häkkänen-Nyholm and Hare’s (2009) theory that identifies it as a psychopathic trait. This can also be an indication of internalizing identified among secondary psychopaths, according to DeLisi (2009). In 1964, his colleague performed oral sex on Gacy after playing him with alcohol. This event Gacy also concealed and did not press any charges, probably not to disturb an image he created in the society. Another reason being that he did not feel any or little emotional embarrassment.

Adulthood and Social life

Gacy was married twice. The first marriage lasted for five years, the second – four years. His first marriage brought him two children whom he never saw after his divorce and imprisonment. He was a successful manager in KFC restaurants owned by his first father-in-law. Later he operated his own contractor company. Gacy always dedicated a considerable amount of time to be an active member of society. Since his adolescence, he was continuously involved with Jaycee and organized parties at his basement. He was generally nice and helpful to his neighbors. Gacy performed as a clown for fundraising events in hospitals. His clown work was where he learned the handcuff trick he would later use to immobilize his victims.

His development as a recognized, high-status, and sociable person could be a reflection of his childhood traumas induced by his father and classmates and an attempt to rehabilitate himself as a decent person. It is doubtful, however, that he built his social position on purpose to establish an alibi for the upcoming crimes, but more likely he felt the need for approval and appreciation for the reasons above. Nonetheless, the trust he gained drove away the suspiciousness of the victims’ relatives and police several times. The fact that he used his authority and influence to lure his victims to his house stands to the notion that deceiving others was one of his traits as a psychopath. The latter is consistent with a theory that manipulation and pleasure of deception are characteristic of many psychopath individuals (Häkkänen-Nyholm & Hare, 2009).


His first offense Gacy committed by forcing 15-year-old Donald Voorhees to have oral sex with him. He brought him to his place by the deceit of showing him pornographic movies. He also similarly tricked his other young victims by telling them about the research he was doing on homosexuality and paid them for participating (Cahill, 1986). In the course of charging, trialing, and convicting he never admitted his guilt and tried to plead innocent. The latter could be a manifestation of externalizing guilt and pathological lying exhibited by egocentric psychopaths (Häkkänen-Nyholm & Hare, 2009). Additionally, during his trial, two psychiatrists examined and diagnosed him with antisocial personality disorder (Cahill, 1986). That condition overlaps with psychopathy in symptoms like disregard of other’s rights and freedoms, weak sense of remorse, and guilt denial. The disorder is considered to be driven by lower gray matter volumes in the prefrontal cortex (Raine, 2008).

His first murder, although not premeditated, was the final push that his mind needed to acquire a taste for it. As he later stated in his interview “that’s when I realized that death was the ultimate thrill.” He wrestled his victim to the floor, stabbed him in the chest and buried him in the basement pouring concrete over the body. As he claimed, it was a mistake as the boy accidentally had a knife in his hand and Gacy misinterpreted his intentions (Cahill, 1986). His first experience with murder allowed him to feel the ultimate arousal from violence and he could not resist anymore. This event was the last step for his turning into a murdering psychopath. It seems to be a piece of evidence for Raine’s (2008) theory that certain brain regions are underdeveloped because of a gene malformation cause deviations in emotional response towards an action or a situation. Therefore, an act of killing could have triggered an abnormal absence of fear or remorse and brought enjoyment or arousal instead.

Most of the cases included the victim’s suffocating or choking that indicates that the killer took pleasure in a slow death to prolong the thrilling sensation. To this observation speaks the fact that after catching and cuffing his victim Gacy often voiced his intentions of rape, beating, and murder. Therefore, it can be concluded that the resistance and fear gave him additional pleasure.

The fact that his victims were different in height, build and appearance but always young looking and ranged from 14 to 26 suggests that the age was the primary factor that influenced Gacy’s choice. The fact that his victims were sometimes capable of considerable physical resistance speaks to the point that his brain deficiency, among other things, included high levels of boldness that stands for the lack of fear and danger (Donahue & Caraballo, 2015). The methods of killing featured choking on gags, strangulation by hand or ligature, rope hanging, and drowning. To deliver his victims to his house he, practiced various forms of deceit, sedation with chloroform, compelling, and money offering. This shows that Gacy was also interested in exploring new ways of killing. The underarousal that stems from hypoactive nervous system pushes a psychopath to seek new sensations in violence because typical sources of arousal do not give that much reward (DeLisi, 2009).

However, when the body disposal is concerned, his ways were more practical than inspirational. Most of his victims Gacy buried on his property, mainly in his basement. He used various scent deodorizers, plastic bags, and concrete to hide the evidence. Nonetheless, he paid little attention to detail and kept personal things of his victims. The occasional character of such actions can doubtfully speak in favor of a fetish collection pattern. Gacy also left evidence or witnesses, who could testify against him, which ultimately led to his conviction. All this can evidence the compliance with Psychopathic Personality Inventory, namely with disinhibition that stands for the lack planning or caution (Donahue & Caraballo, 2015).

Conclusion and Implications for Prevention and Intervention

According to the presented data, the psychological profile of John Wayne Gacy characterizes him as a secondary psychopath. He showed little remorse for his victims, though, exhibited signs of emotional internalizing. He possessed most of the traits attributed to psychopathy in accordance with Psychopathy Checklist-Revised and Psychopathic Personality Inventory. These included superficial charm, need for stimulation, desire to deceive, impulsiveness, lack of foresight, guilt externalization, underarousal, and versatile nature of the criminal conduct. The nature of Gacy’s development as a psychopath is consistent with the theories of Raine (2008) and Caspi et al. (2002) on the genetic origin of psychopathic and antisocial behavior and environmental factors that trigger them.

As for the implications for prevention, there could be several measures introduced to practice. For example, by raising parents and neighbors’ awareness of the traits and behaviors that can identify the psychopath. There could be the obligatory psychiatric observation in schools, colleges, and universities. As for interventions, psychiatric evaluations should become an ordinary practice for all law-breakers.


Cahill, T. (1986). Buried dreams. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Caspi, A., McClay, J., Moffitt, T. E., Mill, J., Martin, J., Craig, I. W.,… & Poulton, R. (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science, 297(5582), 851-854.

DeLisi, M. (2009). Psychopathy is the unified theory of crime. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 7(3), 256-273.

Donahue, J. J., & Caraballo, L. J. (2015). Examining the triarchic model of psychopathy using revised Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory. Personality and Individual Differences, 80, 125–130.

Häkkänen-Nyholm, H., & Hare, R. D. (2009). Psychopathy, homicide, and the courts: Working the system. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36(8), 761-777.

Raine, A. (2008). From genes to brain to antisocial behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(5), 323-328.

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