John Wayne Gacy, Serial Killer’s Mental Status


John Wayne Gacy was a serial killer and a rapist who committed 33 murders in the period from 1972 to 1978. He was also known as “the killer clown,” only because he committed his crimes while being dressed like a clown that was his alter ego. His victims were teenage males whose bodies he buried in his basement. Before the trial, he was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which can be the result of his being abused in childhood.

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In 1980, Gacy was sentenced to death and spent fourteen years on death row before he was finally executed in 1994. Understanding the nature of psychopathy is crucial, as it helps identify serial killers and prevent them from committing a crime (Amirante & Broderick, 2011).

Reasons for Becoming a Psychopath

Certainly, the mental status of Gacy cannot be considered normal, especially taking into account the events that happened to him in his childhood. His father being a psychopath, tortured and insulted all members of the family and, particularly, his son Gacy, thereby depriving him of even a small portion of positivism of life. Therefore, Gacy grew up accumulating hatred towards life and everything in it. Thus, he made the lives of other people near him as hard as his own.

Apparently, he thought they were responsible for all the miseries that he suffered. The rage from getting hit by a swing when being molested by his father’s friend and the lack of appreciation from his family played a crucial role in the actions he committed. Obviously, Gacy enjoyed torturing his victims, as he thought that he was retaliating against the world for his suffering. Later, in his teenage years, he had episodes of losing consciousness, which was probably the consequence of the swing hit (Amirante & Broderick, 2011).

There is a theory that his brain was damaged after the hit in a way that he lost the ability to think reasonably and to socially interact with people, which made him a misfit. Additionally, all his perceptions of the world can be seen in the clownish paintings that he made (Moffitt, 1993).

Although Gacy was eventually declared sane by the jury who sentenced him to death, many psychologists who had interviews with him thought otherwise. For example, Thomas Eliseo described Gacy as an intelligent man who apparently suffered from borderline schizophrenia. This diagnosis was the most probable, as other psychiatrists also claimed that Gacy was suffering from this particular disorder and adding several other mental impairments along with the ASPD. Therefore, it was argued that Gacy, while committing his crimes, was even incapable of understanding that his actions were wrong (Amirante & Broderick, 2011).

There is another theory that every human being can sometimes experience inappropriate sexual desires and fury, but the overwhelming majority has a natural ability to control these desires and feel responsible for them, whereas, serial killers, maniacs, and psychopaths lack this ability and sometimes allow these feelings to control them. Moreover, once tasted it and not feeling guilty, they become addicted, and these desires become even stronger. That is why the more people serial killers have murdered, the more frequently they begin to do it, and no one has ever stopped doing it (Lynam, 1996).

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According to the interviews with Gacy, it is evident that although he behaved normally and did not look insane, he had a mental problem that urged him to commit crimes such as murder and rape, being fully aware of the consequences. He was rational and was confident in the choices he made. Being a psychopath, he was good at manipulating and luring his victims and killed them, understanding that what would be the reaction of society when they found out but still being indifferent to the consequences. Psychopathy can be caused by painful or challenging events that happen in life, and Gacy had plenty of such events in his life (DeLisi & Piquero, 2011).

Anomie (Social Class) Theory

There are many psychological theories that can either directly or indirectly apply to Gacy’s case. All these theories try to explain the incentives for serial killers to commit murders, describe their psychological profile, discover the reasons why they do what they do, and develop strategies in order to prevent these murders from happening. These theories include but not limited to the Social Structure Theory, Cultural Deviance Theory, Strain Theory, Neutralization Theory, Social Control Theory, Labeling Theory, Anomie Theory, and many others (Siegmunt & Wetzels, 2015).

Anomie Theory claims that societal inequity and the feeling of injustice can urge people to commit crimes. For example, the lower class people feel a strain, as their financial situation does not allow them to get things they need. Therefore, they sometimes begin violating the law in order to achieve equality. This theory also includes three derived theories. The first derived theory called Institutional Anomie Theory claims that an institutional arrangement with an economy where the economy is allowed to dominate without the limitations of such social institutions as a family will probably increase the criminal activity.

The second derived theory, called Relative Deprivation Theory, states that the division between lower and upper classes causes feelings of suspicion and envy, which in turn, cause criminal behavior. The third derived theory called General Strain Theory states that people who experience stressors or strains frequently become upset, which can be an incentive to committing a crime (Siegmunt & Wetzels, 2015).

Thus, John Wayne Gacy is a perfect example of Anomie Theory. He grew up in a strict family. He wanted to be approved by his father but had a very bad relationship with him. He had problems with health such as a head injury from a swing and problems with the heart. He was also bisexual and could not reveal that because of his father. Thus, negative childhood experiences and the feeling of being abandoned and not appreciated were the main reasons for Gacy to become a serial killer (Siegmunt & Wetzels, 2015).

Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theories

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories include the ego, superego and id, psychosexual stages, the life and death instinct, and the unconscious mind. According to Freud, the superego is a particular part of personality that is responsible for internalizing ideals and providing standards for future aspirations and judgment. Since Gacy suffered from ASPD, he simply did not have the superego and, as a result, did not feel remorse towards the murders themselves and the families of the victims (Boothby, 2014).

As for the unconscious mind, Freud claims that it is a reservoir of the most unacceptable wishes, thoughts, memories, and feelings. In Gacy’s case, he collected them from his childhood. Therefore, all those negative memories and feelings of his unhappy and abusive childhood are reflected in his ego and murders (Boothby, 2014).

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In Freud’s opinion, the id is a reservoir of psychic energy on a subconscious level that strives for satisfying aggressive and sexual urges. After his first victim, Gacy realized that sexually assaulting and then killing men gave him pleasure. Therefore, he continued killing in order to satisfy his id (Boothby, 2014).

According to Freud, the death instinct compels people to behave aggressively, to seek for thrills, and engage in destructive and risky situations that can lead to death. Gacy sought for thrills when he satisfied his desire for raping and killing young males. The death instinct urged Gacy to continue committing crimes even though he knew about the consequences (Boothby, 2014).

Prevention and Intervention

In order to prevent serial killers from committing crimes, it is crucial to discover the reasons why they act in that way. Thus, the intervention would consist of the three main stages. First of all, it is necessary to scrutinize all possible incentives that can provoke people to kill other people. Second, it is important to learn how to identify the potential serial killers. For this purpose, people should be obliged to go through an extended psychiatric examination at once in a couple of years. Third, when potential psychopaths are identified, they must be put under close supervision, provided with a special therapy that would control their behavior, and in difficult cases, isolated from the society.

Thus, in Gacy’s case, if such interventions had then be put into practice, he would not have been released from prison in the first place, and almost all his murders would have been avoided (DeLisi & Piquero, 2011).


In conclusion, it can be mentioned that John Gacy suffered from ASPD due to his difficult childhood and probably a head injury. Many psychological theories can be applied to his case and explain his behavior, the most prominent of which are Anomie or Social Class Theory and Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. The prevention and intervention methods include research of psychopaths’ traits, their identification, and therapies that help them control their behavior or in difficult cases, isolation from the society.


Amirante, S. L., & Broderick, D. (2011). John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.

Boothby, R. (2014). Death and desire (RLE: Lacan): Psychoanalytic theory in Lacan’s return to Freud. Abington, England: Routledge.

DeLisi, M., & Piquero, A. R. (2011). New frontiers in criminal careers research, 2000–2011: A state-of-the-art review. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(4), 289-301.

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Lynam, D. R. (1996). Early identification of chronic offenders: Who is the fledgling psychopath? Psychological Bulletin, 120(2), 209-234.

Moffitt, T. E. (1993). Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100(4), 674-701.

Siegmunt, O., & Wetzels, P. (2015). Institutional anomie theory: An empirical test. Sociological Studies, 4(4), 78-87.

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