Can anyone explain how the natures of these serial killers are different? Paul Bernardo, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The subject of serial killers is not a very uplifting one.  However, criminal psychologists who seek to better understand what elements comprise different serial killers do so in the hopes of recognizing future patterns to create necessary interventions.  It is in this light where studying the nature of killers like Bernardo, Bundy, and Gacy can be quite illuminating.

In all three cases, the nature of power and control becomes evident.  Each killer used murder as a way to appease the element of power that was within them. This part of their nature is seen in how each carried out their murders, the lengths to which they went to conceal the nature of the crimes, and how their own public persona belied their heinous actions.  There are some differences when we examine the specifics surrounding each.

In the case of Paul Bernardo, one aspect of his nature was the appeasement of power through sexual domination.  Bernardo enjoyed the "rough" nature of heterosexual sex as much as anything else.  His targeting of younger women is reflective of his need to dominate women in a type of "alpha- male" setting.  Adding to this was how he was able to turn to his wife, Karla Homolka, as an "assistant" of sorts.  The fact that he was able to manipulate her into satisfying him through luring his victims is another example of the sexual control that Bernardo coveted.  The moniker that Homolka used to describe him, "the happy rapist," helps to convey how power and control combined with sexual domination represented a defining aspect to Bernardo's nature.

While his initial foray into mass murdering was similar, Ted Bundy was more evolved than Bernardo.  Like Bernardo, Bundy used the technique of stalking and overpowering his victims.   Evidence of this was how he would break into women's rooms while they slept and dismember them.  Yet, over time and as his sophistication developed, Bundy was a bit more poised and "polished" in his approach.  The power that Bernardo sought to display in a sexual manner was still present in Bundy.  However, with Bundy, his nature was one where he enjoyed the challenge.  He reveled in not being caught by authorities, defying the profile by moving to different parts of the nation and ensuring that he looked different each time, ensuring different approaches to take with the women he targeted.  Bundy was able "to turn into another, unrecognizable person."  This was an essential part of his nature because it made his crimes so much more complex than someone like Bernardo.  As a "changeling," he enjoyed the elusiveness with which he played with authorities, reflected in his extensive knowledge of criminal investigations and the establishment of crime scenes.  As he "progressed," Bundy was expert in luring women through elaborate and emotional confidence schemes such as pretending to be handicapped or a person in authority who was in need of assistance.  He thrived on gaining the trust of his victims, which is markedly different than Bernardo. The need to establish a rapport with the women he was going to violate and degrade was an essential part of Bundy's nature. It is a distinct difference in nature than what Bernardo possessed. It is what made him so cold, what one member of his own defense team called, "the very definition of heartless evil."  

The aspect of manipulation that Bundy displayed was evident in the murders of John Wayne Gacy.  Bundy moved from place to place, reinventing himself at each turn.  In contrast, Gacy was a mainstay of his community.  He was active in civic affairs and did not run away from the spotlight.  He was singled out by then- First Lady Rosalynn Carter and granted special access by Secret Service agents for his work in the local chapter of the Democratic party in suburban Chicago. Gacy used his prestige in the community as cover for what he did and the life he led while he did it.  This makes the nature of his crimes rather distinctive from Bundy and Bernardo.  While they appeared as if they could not be responsible for the brutal nature of their crimes, Gacy was beyond reproach.  It was not likely that a man who was so well connected in civic affairs and who dressed up as Pogo the Clown could be responsible for the abduction and murder of young boys.  Perhaps, in retrospect, it makes sense, but that is only a result of the knowledge of Gacy's nature and how it functioned in his criminal activities.  The nature of Gacy's crimes were also different because they featured young men.  The sexual nature of Gacy's crimes were fundamentally different than Bundy or Bernardo, and this made it more challenging for authorities to obtain the frame of mind to see that the disappearance of young men were related.  By all accounts, Gacy was "normal."  He was married, then divorced, and a prosperous business owner in construction.  Given how America, as a society, failed to grasp homosexuality, in general, Gacy was able to remain beyond the scope of investigation because the nature of his crimes were sexually different than what authorities had understood.  Investigators had difficulty understanding homosexuality and combined with Gacy's public image, this made it difficult to pinpoint him as a mass murdered.  Gacy understood this, as he pursued "death as the ultimate thrill" from a sexual standpoint.  Gacy's crimes are just as bit as horrific as Bundy's and Bernardo's.  However, Gacy understood that the construction of a public facade that is above question and one that conforms to social expectation can go very far in providing cover from those who question.  This nature of Gacy's criminal activity was evident in his comment to investigating detectives:  "You know… clowns can get away with murder."  In this, a critical aspect in the nature of Gacy's crimes is revealed.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Here are some differences among the three serial killers:

  • Paul Bernardo did not work alone as did Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. His female accomplice also participated in the sexual assaults.
  • Paul Bernardo killed someone in his wife's family, the others did not kill any in-law or relative.
  • Paul Bernardo was not a necrophile as Gacy and Bundy were.
  • John Wayne Gacy assaulted and killed young males; the others were heterosexual.
  • Gacy was married and took an active part in his community as a Jaycee.
  • Bundy decapitated a dozen or more of his victims, keeping some of the severed heads as mementos in his apartment for a time.
  • Gacy experienced sexual gratification when he killed. He buried many of his victims under his house.
  • Bernardo did not assume false identities as did Gacy and Bundy.
  • Bundy and Gacy often gained the trust of their victims, but Bernardo was cruel from the onset.
  • Gacy was much more able to assume a normal persona in his community than Bundy and Bernando.
  • Bernardo and his wife videotaped some of their sexual and sadistic exploits.