Forensic Psychology

Mental Illness and the Law

What do we know about the psychology of serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer?

Serial killers tend to get intense media coverage. Both Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy are well known serial killers. Dahmer was arrested in the early 1990s, and Gacy in the late 1970s. Gacy was a mild mannered, apparently law abiding man who sexually assaulted and murdered at least 30 young men. Interestingly, Gacy was also an artist, and painted bizarrely innocent and childlike pictures of nature scenes and of children’s cartoons, such as Disney’s seven dwarves. The planned and organized nature of his crimes, as well as the psychopathic split between respectability in public and murderous perversion in private, is characteristic of serial killers. Dahmer, on the other hand, showed extreme psychological disturbance from early on and had problems with alcoholism and sexual offenses from a young age. Both men died in prison.


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