Netflix’s ‘John Wayne Gacy Tapes’ Is a Revelatory Look at the Serial Killer Who Fed Off 1970s Gay Panic

John Wayne Gacy, who lived in Illinois during the 1970s, was a local man who offered many young men gainful employment. He occasionally threw backyard barbecues and birthday parties as a clown, and he was the captain of the Democratic precinct. However, behind this seemingly normal life, Gacy committed chilling crimes that have become some of the most infamous in true crime history.

Underneath the veneer of his generosity, Gacy was a self-loathing psychopath and narcissist, whose largesse was a bait for teenage boys with whom he wanted to engage in brutal murder, torture, and sexual exploitation, exposing his threatening sexuality. In his backyard, some of their corpses were buried under a very entertaining fire pit where he kept them in his basement.

“Conversations with a Murderer: The John Wayne Gacy Recordings” showcases various disclosures, with Nemmers being merely one of them. Director Joe Berlinger, recognized for “The Ted Bundy Recordings” and “Paradise Lost,” introduces a fresh Netflix documentary series in which Nemmers, an emotionally scarred adult prepared to share his narrative, gains a platform. During his adolescence, Nemmers outwitted Gacy, an infamous serial killer responsible for the deaths of 33 boys and young men, with only a handful managing to survive his assaults.

The 60 hours of audio recordings originate from a documented discussion between Gacy and a member of his legal representation, whose relatives stepped forward with the materials after the triumph of Berlinger’s “Ted Bundy Tapes” documentary. (The program was the top unscripted show on the platform in 2019.) Berlinger, who also directed the “Cecil Hotel” and “Times Square Killer” specials for the streaming service, obtains entry to an astonishing collection of fresh historical materials and presents that audio and video in his most recent Netflix series that delves into the psyche of serial killers.

In addition to this, the film incorporates never-before-seen archival footage of the police excavation in Gacy’s crawlspace, where decomposing bodies had been found, with worms squirming and layers of cement. The film also includes never-before-heard audio.

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“IndieWire told Berlinger that it is very important to think about how much the audience can handle, as it is very disrespectful to the victims to put too much of the horror in the show. Otherwise, it just feels like another story on television, opposed to finding emotional resonance and balance for the people. The fact that there were 26 bodies in the river, four bodies on the property, three bodies in the crawlspace, and the excavation of the tapes, shows how grounded the horror is. Both decisions are considered very much.”

Below, IndieWire interviewed Berlinger regarding “The John Wayne Gacy Tapes.” All three episodes are currently available for streaming on Netflix.

This interview has been revised for better understanding.

John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne GacyCourtesy of Netflix

The documentary about Wayne John Gacy reveals how the story is situated within the prevailing attitudes towards gay men, where the climate of thought regarding the possibility of assault or rape towards victims is being considered. There have been a number of books and specials about Wayne John Gacy, highlighting the significance of his actions.

Joe Berlinger: True crime, with certain individuals, has a negative reputation, such as why disclose these narratives? Is it just to the victim? These are all things I contemplate deeply. There is an occasion to reiterate some of these narratives from the past precisely because we can examine it through a 2022 perspective and scrutinize, specifically in this instance, the enormous police shortcomings. It is astonishing to me just how extensive he went completely unnoticed, the police disregarding the situation. In the 70s, being gay was still discussed as if it were an illness. There were television programs asking, “Is your child unwell?” People were hesitant to come forward, and if they did, their claims were not trusted. I believed it was crucial to investigate this type of extensive police incompetence.

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I know you think that the cops acted heroically in this case, but the general attitude towards law enforcement was just terrible. Once they realized what was going down, they took down that house, so I will say that for the record, criticizing those cops in the show is not justified.

In addition to the limitations of law enforcement, which societal elements enabled Gacy to thrive for an extended duration? His spree of killings endured for a period of five years.

There were all sorts of related values to the gay community that allowed this guy to flourish in the long way. When these crimes were reported to the police, they took advantage of the fact that the concept of one man raping another man was not understood or listened to. He took advantage of the fact that a lot of young gay men had to leave their homes because they were not accepted. Bundy took out his rage on these women who were often alone, and the ’70s was a time of sexual revolution and women’s liberation. For example, Bundy was a reaction to the social values of the time, and there was a period of angry white men going on a serial-killing spree, from Dahmer to Gacy.

People like Gacy, who display psychopathic characteristics, have a heightened level of cleverness when it comes to manipulating others socially and hiding the gap between their public and private identities.

Serial killers are often the ones we trust the most and expect the least in this world, whether it’s a Jewish person using his connections to milk billions of dollars out of people like Bernie Madoff or a priest who commits pedophilia. In my 30 years of true crime, I’ve learned that the matter of truth is the evil ones in this world. But I’m going to avoid “him” like a serial killer. We can protect ourselves because we can see that serial killer across the street, just like we can believe in the false comfort of believing that we can protect ourselves. It doesn’t mean that all serial killers are horrible—they’re me, believe me—but they do these horrible things.

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Pathologizing him is not making this film. Those things, which go into the making of a quote-unquote serial killer, include bullying, abuse, and Gacy’s supposedly traumatic childhood experiences.

I didn’t buy into the idea that being a parent makes someone a serial killer. I turned out to be a filmmaker and didn’t have the easiest childhood. For example, I profiled Richard Cottingham, a serial killer, in The New York Times article “Crime Scene.” But I don’t believe that being a serial killer equals having a terrible childhood. We tried to provide some insight into the psychology of these serial killers and how they operate. You need to know that he had a loving family and normal, caring siblings. It’s a cliché to talk about a terrible childhood, but for me, it’s the truth. The big debate was happening in the editing room.

It becomes a common pattern for these serial killer investigations: They were harassed, they were abused, they inflicted harm on animals.

There were serial killers, but not everything can be explained by these patterns or upbringings. The equilibrium between the killer’s mindset, the victims, and the emphasis on narrating their stories is crucial. Moreover, what intrigued me even further was the simultaneous attention given to the victims and the exploration of the psychological aspects of the killer’s mind through the use of tapes.

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