Joe Berlinger is back with another true-crime docuseries on Netflix. This time he’s focused on the convicted rape child molester and serial killer John Wayne Gacy, whod and murdered 33 young male victims between 1972 and 1976. Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes is a follow-up to Berlinger’s previous documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. It will be released on Netflix next Wednesday, April 20.
More than 50 years later, DNA scientists are still trying to identify five of Gacy’s victims. For the first time, 60 hours of audio between Gacy and his defense team have been released to the public, allowing for a fresh perspective on Gacy’s mindset. Across three episodes, The John Wayne Gacy Tapes features new interviews with investigators, the victims’ families and even testimony from one of Gacy’s survivors.
Let me preface this review by saying I have not seen other John Wayne Gacy documentaries or docuseries in the past, so my viewing of The John Wayne Gacy Tapes was my first real deep dive into this particular killer. Prior to this documentary series, I just knew he dressed up as a clown and hid bodies in his crawlspace. I didn’t fully understand how twisted his story was (and how little it has to do with clown stuff despite the gimmicky “Killer Clown” nickname).
The easy comparison would be to Peacock’s recent Gacy docuseries Devil in Disguisewhich I will undoubtedly check out at some point in the future, but for now, I’m not comparing the two, so you might want to look elsewhere if that is what you’re hoping to find here.
Let’s focus on what this docuseries has to offer, which is the tapes featuring genuine audio collected by Gacy’s legal defense team from November 1979 to April 1980.
The John Wayne Gacy Tapes strengths
The tapes are the obvious hook for this documentary series, setting it apart from similar coverage. There isn’t as much audio included in these three episodes as you might anticipate. But if you’ve wanted to understand how Gacy’s mind worked while perpetrating some of these heinous crimes over the years, well, here you go.
It’s chilling to hear Gacy, verbatim, blame other people for the murders and atrocities he is committed. He never takes responsibility for his actions, repeatedly blaming unnamed third parties or the victims himself.
I also appreciated that the docuseries only gives the “Killer Clown” angle a few minutes of screentime (though we do hear Gacy deliver one especially ominous line: “Clowns can get away with anything. Clowns can get away with murder”). It would be easy to focus on Gacy as a Pennywise figure like a fictional horror villain, but he’s not fictional, and to hone in on that one facet of his personality (something that really had nothing to do with his actual crimes) feels cartoonish.
People want to make him seem like a boogeyman character from scary movies like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. It feels disrespectful to the victims to cast him as a cinematic antagonist. Yes, Gacy loved clowns and created his own clown character, “Pogo,” which is (knowing what we now do about him) undoubtedly, creepy. But that was a tiny portion of what made him such a terrifying murderer and predator over the years.
The other thing I appreciated about The John Wayne Gacy Tapes is the survivor and the time spent discussing Gacy’s victims. True crime can often succumb to the most salacious aspects of its storytelling (see the clown stuff mentioned above), making it easy for people to forget the very real victims and the families who suffered at the hands of these men.
Berlinger’s latest docuseries reflects on the 33 men Gacy killed, honoring them with an in memoriam segment and drawing attention to the continued investigation (reopened in 2011) and renewed efforts to put a name to the five unidentified bodies discovered under Gacy’s house.
The John Wayne Gacy Tapes weaknesses
Even though the docuseries includes information on the victims, in some ways, it feels like a catch-22 since we get to hear Gacy’s perspective via the new audio tapes, and yet so many of these victims will never have their stories told. Despite taking care not to become too exploitative or including tidbits from Gacy that are overly violent or graphic, we know that this man thrived on being the center of attention. And here we are, giving it to him.
Yes, he’s dead, but still, knowing he probably would have loved having these documentaries out there does make one feel a little icky, especially since the audio allows Gacy to tell “his side” of the story, one that doesn’t feel all that essential given what he did to so many.
I can imagine Gacy said many horrifying things in those 60 hours and appreciate the editors showing at least partial restraint in what they chose to play during the episodes, carefully toeing the line of being overly graphic or gratuitous for the sake of fiendish entertainment.
Should you stream The John Wayne Gacy Tapes on Netflix?
If you are a true crime aficionado, then I think The John Wayne Gacy Tapes will satisfy your curiosity about this case. It’s a well-made docuseries, and Berlinger seems to have honed his craft over the years since he’s started creating for Netflix. I think Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel was one of the low points, but the John Wayne Gacy docuseries feels like it was created with more consideration.
Since I haven’t seen other Gacy docs, I can’t tell you if this one gives us much new information that hasn’t already been covered beyond the tapes, but if you’re fascinated by this particular murderer, this doc will be required viewing.
Stream The John Wayne Gacy Tapes on Netflix starting Wednesday, April 20.