Illinois is still deeply personal, but Stevens meticulously researched the state's history in order to write songs about such diverse subjects and themes as Superman, the poet Carl Sandberg, the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Abraham Lincoln, Sears Tower in Chicago, western expansion, and a Polish war hero during the Revolutionary War. According to Stevens, the album is "a geographical tone poem set to music." Does this all sound like an overcomplicated and didactic approach to writing music? Well, it makes a bit more sense that Stevens takes such a literary approach to his music considering the fact that he studied creative writing at the New School in New York City with the intention of becoming a professional writer. In an interview with Nic Harcourt of KCRW, he described the album as "a big celebration with a lot of pageantry and a lot of flourishes. And it seems like a celebration of civilization and of man and what it means to be an American…[but] it's also a deeper study of what it means to be a human being. There's a lot of trauma and terror and horror."
"John Wayne Gacy, Jr." certainly falls under the latter category. Why would Sufjan write a song about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy? It certainly seems an odd choice of subject matter. But then again, Sufjan Stevens isn't your typical musician. One rather obvious reason for the choice is that Gacy was from Illinois. But there are a lot of other people from Illinois that Sufjan could have picked as a subject for a song. There must be something about John Wayne Gacy that Sufjan found compelling – at least compelling enough to compose a song about him. Well, there is no doubting that John Wayne Gacy is an interesting and mysterious – though undeniably heinous – individual.
John Wayne Gacy killed a total of 33 young teenage boys between 1972 and 1978. No one else in America had ever been convicted of killing so many people. As Sufjan details early in the track, Gacy had a troubled childhood. His father was an alcoholic and would frequently beat John, his sisters, and their mother. Despite these difficult years as a child, Gacy would eventually marry and have two children. He was doing well for himself professionally and was even vice-president of his local Jaycee chapter, when he was arrested and convicted of sexually assaulting two teenage boys in 1968. Sentenced to a 10-year prison term, Gacy got out on parole after just 18 months, for good behavior.
Once released, Gacy moved back to Chicago to live with his mother, where he would eventually start his own contracting company. He became a well-regarded citizen in his community of Norwood Park, just outside Chicago. As Stevens mentions in the lyrics, Gacy would dress up as Pogo the Clown – painting his face white and red – at neighborhood events, where he would entertain the children. Unbeknownst to his friends and neighbors at the time, Gacy was having sex with many young teenage boys, some of whom worked for his company, while others were hustlers that he picked up from an area of Chicago called Bughouse Square. Gacy murdered the boys who resisted his advances, raping and strangling them. Twenty-seven of the boys he murdered were buried underneath the floorboards of his house. Gacy was finally brought under investigation when one of his young employees, Rob Piest, went missing – the boy was last seen with Gacy. While searching his house, police found trinkets belonging to several other missing boys, and noticed a foul odor coming from Gacy's basement. Upon their second search of the house, the police found human remains buried under the crawl space. Gacy was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1980. He would spend 14 years on death row before his execution on May 10, 1994. During that time Gacy sold many paintings he had made in prison, many of which depicted clowns, creating a category of art called serial killer art.
In Rolling Stone's review of Illinois, the reviewer takes a dig at "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," writing that "there's the inevitable song about the serial killer who dresses up as a clown, which symbolizes nothing about American life except the existence of creative-writing workshops." While it may be true that Sufjan Stevens takes a very literary approach to his songwriting, it's probably a bit misguided on the part of Rolling Stone to say that serial killers do not hold a special place in the American popular imagination. If this were the case, there would not be so many A&E documentaries detailing every aspect of the lives of serial killers like Gacy, Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, and Jeffrey Dahmer, to name but a few. And slasher films would not do so well at the box office. Certainly the television series Dexter would have never been created were it not for a desire to figure out just what makes serial killers tick.
The truth is that there is a distinctly American fascination with serial killers. And oddly enough, serial killers are themselves a distinctly American breed. In fact, the United States produces nearly 85% of the world's serial killers. American culture generally portrays and represents serial killers as monstrous, loathsome figures who possess qualities that are utterly alien to "normal" law-abiding citizens. Yet at the same time, they hold a special place in American popular culture as celebrity icons and fetish figures. David Schmid's book, Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture, discusses this preoccupation with serial killers in American popular culture. He explains that, "above all, serial killer celebrity is motivated by our recognition that serial killers are somehow as quintessentially American as apple pie. Although we are appalled by our fascination with the serial killer, what could be more American than a complex and ambivalent reaction to a criminal figure? Just like cowboys and gangsters before them, serial killers such as Ted Kaczynski have become celebrities because we know, on an intuitive level, that they are more like us than not." Serial killers therefore hold a special place in the American cult of celebrity. There exists an almost perverse American fascination in serial killers, or as the writer Joseph Conrad might say, "the fascination of the abomination."
But beyond finding serial killers compelling, there also exists a deeper lure. Schmid argues that serial killers' "fantasies and compulsions represent values embedded in American culture, values that permeate institutions and entertainments: the utter and often brutal supremacy of the white patriarchal system; misogyny; deep ambiguity and anxiety about the body, sex, and sexual orientation; a relish for violence; fear of powerlessness and loss of control, and obsession with celebrity." This is a pretty compelling argument that really engages and delves into what motivates a serial killer rather than simply regarding them as monstrous individuals who defy classification. This interpretation also helps explain why Americans find serial killers to be such compelling figures. Schmid's argument certainly conflicts with more popular interpretations of serial killers, which tend to classify their actions as "inhuman, soulless, and unexplainable." According to this understanding, "whatever the cause, an excuse is a way out. It promotes denial of wrongdoing, lack of accountability, and even lack of remorse."
Sufjan Stevens' song takes a new approach towards the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. He does not portray Gacy as this monstrous "other" – instead, Stevens takes a more nuanced, even-handed approach. He by no means condones John Wayne Gacy's actions, of course, but he does see some redeemable, even relatable qualities that the mass-murderer possessed. This approach is most visible in the song's haunting conclusion, as Stevens sings, "and in my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floor boards for the secrets I have hid."
Is this a slightly creepy line?
Does it mean that Sufjan Stevens is a serial killer himself?
It's probably safe to assume he isn't. But in this line, Sufjan says that he is not all that unlike John Wayne Gacy – he has secrets that he has hidden away deep inside. Stevens also demonstrates a tremendous amount of sympathy for the boys that Gacy killed, along with their families. His alarming delivery of the line, "oh my God," clearly captures this sadness. But Sufjan does not go where others writing a song about John Wayne Gacy would – he finds the man relatable ("in my best behavior, I am really just like him"). Most likely Stevens is making the point that Gacy should not be simply written off as a purely monstrous figure that defies understanding.