CONFESSIONS OF A SERIAL KILLER
A NEW NETFLIX DOCUMENTARY DELVES DEEP INTO THE MIND AND CRIMES OF ONE OF BRITAIN’S WORST SERIAL PREDATORS, DENNIS NILSEN
When detectives stepped inside the north London attic flat of Dennis Nilsen on February 10, 1983, the seasoned officers were met with the unmistakable stench of rotting flesh. The police had been called by a plumber who had found what appeared to be human body parts in a drain outside, and as part of their investigation, the detectives wanted to speak with Nilsen – the thin, spectacled civil servant who was renting the top flat of a converted townhouse in Muswell Hill.
“As soon as he opened the door the smell came at you; I knew that awful smell,” recalled Detective Inspector Steve McCusker. Indeed, inside they found two sagging bin bags full of human remains, and took Nilsen, 37, into custody. “On the way back to the police station, I sat beside him,” recalled McCusker. “I asked him, ‘Are we talking one body or two, here?’ He said, ‘15 or 16.’”
Nilsen’s candidness didn’t end there. As the serial killer served a life term for his multiple murders, Nilsen chronicled his life story on audio cassette, and the 250 hours’ worth of recordings are the subject of the new Netflix documentary, Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes. Nilsen, a former policeman whose murder spree spanned a five-year period from 1978, engaged in necrophiliac acts with the corpses of his victims, who were either men or teenage boys.
“I was keen to tell a story that wasn’t just about Nilsen,” said the documentary’s London-based director Michael Harte. “We used the tapes and we used Nilsen as a way into the question – ‘How did he manage to kill and kill again?’”
Nilsen’s first victim was 14-year-old Stephen Holmes, whom he met at a pub in north London on December 30, 1978. Nilsen, who hailed from Fraserburgh, Scotland, and struggled with his homosexuality in a homophobic time, had been living in London since 1973. He had served as a cook in the army for 11 years, before leaving the family home to join London’s Metropolitan Police. By 1978, he had left the force and was working at Job Centre, a governmentfunded employment agency. He was living alone, following several failed relationships.
After meeting Holmes, Nilsen, who had long held necrophiliac fantasies, invited him back to his ground-floor garden flat in London’s Cricklewood where they continued to drink into the night. When Nilsen woke, he found the teen asleep next to him.
“I was afraid to wake him in case he left me,” Nilsen confessed. He strangled the boy with a bow tie until he was unconscious, then drowned him in his bathtub. He took the body back to his bed and masturbated, calling
“How did he manage to kill and kill again?” HARTE
his killing the “possession of a new kind of flat-mate”.
HOUSE OF HORRORS
Nilsen stowed the teen’s body under his floorboards, before burning the remains on wasteland behind the property. Until late 1981, Nilsen would continue killing men at the Cricklewood flat by strangulation and drowning, targeting vulnerable people he had met through his job, at gay bars or on the street. He kept the bodies with him for a while, clothing and posing them, before dissecting and burning them in bonfires (his neighbours assumed he was incinerating rubbish).
“He was sexually attracted to dead bodies,” forensic psychologist Kerry Daynes, who spoke with Nilsen, told talk show This Morning. “He created these passive partners he could wash, he could pose, he could talk to. It made him feel in control.”
After moving to Muswell Hill, Nilsen killed a further three men, discarding the butchered body parts in the bin or down the toilet.
CONFESSION AND TRIAL
After confessing to his crimes, Nilsen continued to delve into his own disturbing mind in prison, both in journal writing and in the recordings.
“There was no question I refused to answer,” said Nilsen, who claimed to have been sexually abused by his grandfather. “If anything, no other British murderer has ever been so forthright in confronting his offending behaviour than I have been.”
But in a shock move, Nilsen pleaded not guilty in his trial, with his lawyer arguing his client suffered from “diminished responsibility” due to his mental state, and should instead be convicted of manslaughter. The jury disagreed, convicting Nilsen of six counts of murder (not all of his victims could be identified) and two counts of attempted murder. He died of a blood clot after undergoing an operation in 2018.
At the time, the UK press criticised North London police for failing to detect a serial killer was at large. However, Nilsen’s victims were those who were ostracised by a homophobic generation or had “fallen on hard times”, McCusker said in the documentary. As a result, their disappearances went under the radar, leaving Nilsen free to continue his spree. “It’s a great hurt to be considered to be monstrous,” Nilsen said in one recording. “I am a man, not a monster … Awkward, isn’t it?”