On Being Haunted by Ron Estrada

Through out the rest of the month we’re collecting essays and blurbs from readers like you about your thoughts on Chicago’s haunted history. Email us at chicagoliterati(at)gmail(dot)com to share your thoughts and you could be featured in our Halloween issue.  

On Being Haunted


Ron Estrada 

JWGIf you grew up in Chicago, you learned of John Wayne Gacy as routinely as you did how to dress in layers during the winter. When I first heard of him he was alive, though jailed, mewed like a bird, and waiting to die. There, he was in the middle, in between the words of being and not being, a form transitioning from action to epilogue. There, he became a different type of threat, one that would live in legend and possibility. His legacy would be exhibited as a cautionary tale of over-trust, in baleful stories of warning, then, alone, in nightmares.

When I first heard of him I was young, a bit younger than the many of the boys were when Gacy met them and had them to his home for work or to buy an old car, for sex, for unadorned companionship. At onset they shared a confluence of need and I think of the moment when this junction weighted to one side, when provision became unbalanced, when a seemingly impotent phrase, an offer of “here, let me help you with that,” became his heat on your neck, his thumb pressed into the soft of your upper back, and then the seed of panic, an internal, guttural scream of alarm before it’s too late.

Did they weigh the discomfort of his proximity against the familiar scent of his shirt? Was that scent a suggestion of safety because they recognized the scent as being from the world outside his house, where everything is well, where everything is as it should be. Did they shrug and roll their shoulders, and stretch their neck to create space when his closeness became too close?

Gacy’s home, where the murders happened, where the boys were kept after, was about ten miles from me in Norwood Park. He was arrested in 1978; I was just two. My uncle knew a boy that worked for Gacy, a boy that survived. The boy did yard work at the house. The boy did yard work and planned his evening because there’d surely be one, there’d always be more time. That boy, luckily, visited on a day when the killer decided not to kill. Who gets to survive, I’d ask him. And how does the moment of action play out? Does it come in a flash, of animal heat, of an accustomed desire, one that bores and overwhelms, a yearning for grain, for satiation?

I wonder if he followed a script, if he always had a formula. I wonder if he chose to dress in the morning based upon the possibility of the kill. If tucking in his shirt would’ve presented less to grasp at and get hold of, if rolling his sleeves allowed for freer torque.

It wasn’t too long ago that I found out about my uncle knowing the boy that wasn’t killed and the shrink of separation between Gacy and I induced a reappraisal of those murders, so far removed in time. I think about the extent of his reach and realize how victimhood washes over a larger area than just the spot where the victim is and re-foots itself in others’ truths, in their present.

These thoughts make me feel hesitant about the world in many ways because, for one, I’m a father, and as a father, I see Gacys everywhere, ghosts, waiting, haunting me by their capability and how, how they can just decide there, in the moment: the spontaneity of the kill. The possibility…did it excite him, Gacy, in that house? The “perhaps.” The “maybe-maybe-not?”

That and this: when the detectives searched his home and ended up in the crawlspace where the remains of almost thirty young men’s bodies were found, how were they organized? Were they lumped near the entry way or were they laid out towards the back, as if someone was filling a closet with Christmas boxes, knowing that they had to start stacking the far wall first because there was going to be many, many more placed in front of them. That forethought of placement, appraisal of space, and meditation on how many, is maybe what frightens me most, thinking of Gacy planning his future, leaving himself flexibility of extent, taking those first bodies slung over his shoulder towards the back wall in just a few feet of height, the choke of mugginess, the still heat of a boy on his neck.

The boys came to his home, trusted their hunch, came for work, for love or something like love, for care and shelter from their own brokenness, the man, holds them, then too tightly, a once-sensed warmth dims, boys, frightened, listen to the man whisper, “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay.”


Ron Estrada is a writer. He lives in Elmhurst, Illinois with his wife and two sons. He endorses garlic, the Oxford comma and bebop. He does not endorse glitter, dark chocolate or water snakes. You can read more of his work at http://eightoneeightseven.com.