Last Saturday, to get ourselves in the mood to see a play about John Wayne Gacy, my friend Randall and I paid a visit to the site of Gacy's northwest-suburban home, where he buried many of the 33 young men and boys he tortured and killed in the 70s.
Gacy's old neighborhood, out by O'Hare in Norwood Park Township, is full of modest working-class houses set off by the odd castle. A vacant ranch house stands on the remains of Gacy's razed bungalow, apparently built by someone who could live with the site's freaky past.
I knew Gacy was the creepy clown with the crawl space and a penchant for brutal gay sex, but that was about it. I didn't know about the pedophilia. I didn't know that he stuffed his victims' underwear or socks into their mouths to silence their screaming as he tortured, raped, and strangled them. Randall, who's done quite a bit of research into famous serial killers, filled me in on some of those tidbits and more. Randall has a theory about Gacy: that he was more spider than human. With a chilling efficiency he lured victim after victim to his lair, where he didn't just kill them but first sucked them dry. He wasn't mean; killing was simply his nature. I'm not sure what I think of that theory, but thinking about it makes me more than a little scared of the human race. Not excluding Randall.
We went there to be creeped out, like from ghost stories around a campfire, but being there sent me over my fear threshold. One step onto the wet, mushy ground of Gacy's old backyard and I was paralyzed. I imagined I was walking on bodies that were never found, my feet sinking into viscera.
Even the driveway felt ominous. As soon as I forced myself to walk the length of it I regretted it. I saw a couple forlorn trees, a shovel leaned against the back of the house, a window slightly ajar. I couldn't look inside very long for fear of what might look back at me.
A delirious terror took control of my brain. I imagined some pervert Gacy fanatic waiting for idiots like us to come along so he could do heinous things to us. I imagined the yard was loaded with traps, that my next step would land me in a lasso that would tighten around my ankle and next thing I knew I'd be hanging upside down by one leg from a tree.
Meanwhile Randall was bounding through the yard like a possessed archaeologist, armed with a spoon from my kitchen and a small plastic MAC bag from my eyeliner purchase the day before. "Come back!" I whimpered. "I'm scared!"
He crouched in front of some low shrubbery and dipped the spoon into the earth. Finally my refusal to be outdone overcame my inner chicken. "Wait for me!" I hissed, running over to him.
"Three scoops," he muttered. "Like Raisin Bran."
Randall was starting to scare me more than the evil vibes from the place, but scariest of all was the thought of being alone, so I grabbed his arm. Spaced-out on fear, I didn't notice that he was scanning our surroundings intently, searching for something. When I snapped out of it I was being jerked across the yard.
"Feel it out, feel it out, feel it out," Randall chanted under his breath, pacing the lawn. Suddenly he dropped to the ground. "Right here!" he exclaimed, and stooped to jab the spoon into the grass.
Nothing matters, nothing matters, nothing matters, I told myself. I took a deep breath and forced myself to study the yard.
"Over there!" I whispered, pointing to a circular patch of dirt near the garage. I yanked the spoon out of Randall's hand and deposited our third soil sample into the bag.
Nothing matters, nothing matters, I repeated in my head as we walked back to the car, both shaking.
At midnight we went to No Exit, a cafe and performance space in Rogers Park, for J. Scott's play 33: A Question of Doubt, which presents Gacy as an innocent victim framed by the FBI. Barrette Schugart played the lead, wearing a clown suit and greasepaint. She began with a soliloquy that floated between third and first person, playing the narrator and the protagonist. The rest of the five-person cast played multiple roles throughout, changing costumes while sitting in the audience or even onstage.
The play makes Gacy out to be a regular joe, the guy at the market, the pal who paid the check at the pub. "But who would listen to a a man draped in a prison jumpsuit?" Schugart laments. "Milieu and interpretation often mislead identification."
The action starts with Gacy as a young lad fishing with his father in Wisconsin, both sitting with their backs to the audience. "Gimme one of them worms, you faggot," the father says, then prattles on, the stereotypical homophobic alcoholic, calling his son "chickenshit," "nancy," "pussy," and so on because he likes Superman and is afraid of worms.
The father leaves to take a leak and we quickly see how his cruelty has transferred: "I'll put you on a fuckin' hook," Junior says angrily to no one. He leans back in his chair, legs splayed, and daydreams aloud about having a hard body, lifting weights, learning karate, getting scars, and growing a beard, his arm pumping ever more fervently, the squeaks of the chair gradually growing louder. "I'm gonna come buckets till I bleed," he announces at the denouement of his lakeside jerk-off. "I hate you, daddy!"
The play, which ended its run last weekend but will be remounted in the near future, is full of cheap tricks and bad-taste punch lines. I couldn't follow the most important part of the plot, where a detective devises some cockamamy scheme to plant dead bodies in Gacy's home, rationalizing it by somehow drawing clues from the text on the back of a Rolling Rock bottle. But the scenes that use events from Gacy's life not to educate but to shock--such as a prison cell visit from GG Allin in which Allin, played by Scott himself, apparently shoots something up his arm after physically attacking the most vulnerable-looking people in the audience--were well worth the confusing lulls in the half-baked dialogue.
It was a terrible play, but I was totally entertained. Gacy's story is so undeniably horrible that attempting to memorialize it respectfully would actually be worse than making light of it. Theorizing Gacy's innocence is less offensive than just plain ridiculous. Obviously Gacy was guilty. But what kind of sicko would want to see an honest portrayal of what he did?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer, Bettmann/Corbis.