‘Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes’ Explained – The Psychology Behind The Killer


It often happens that our minds do not remember the little intricacies of events that happened years ago, but that does not hold true for the people who unfortunately became a part of the Dennis Andrew Nilson murder case. Directed by Michael Harte, Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes takes us back to 1983 in North London, where the authorities were shocked at what they were looking at. Nobody had ever heard or seen anything like that. How was it even possible that something like this could happen in a civilized society, and not once, but continuously for many years? The media went into a frenzy as soon as they got wind of the story. Even before Dennis Nilsen stepped inside the Old Bailey, a perception was formed for his trial. Still, the authorities had a lot of information to gather before they could make a definitive argument about the incident that they themselves were not able to comprehend properly.

Also Read: Des (TV Series) Review – Not a Celebration of Serial Killer

The Carnage At Cranley Gardens

A complaint about a blocked sewer was received from a house in Cranley Gardens. The workers came and what they found inside the sewer made them dumbfounded. Mike Cattran, an engineer at Dyno-Rod, was called to clear the blockage. He claims that he can tell the difference between human and animal bones despite his lack of knowledge on the subject. He also noticed that a guy living on the top floor of the apartment was seemingly interested in knowing what they were doing.

Steve McCusker, the Detective Inspector for the case, became more suspicious about this man living on the top floor when the residents told him that the day before, they saw him in just a vest on a freezing night, doing something fishy. On being asked, he said that he just wanted to pee. McCusker went upstairs, and as soon as he opened the door, a rotten smell alerted his senses. The irony was that not even a crinkle of fear or anxiety was visible on Dennis Nilsen’s face. He calmly told the officers that he had kept some of the mutilated body parts in his cupboard. He was immediately taken into custody for suspicion of murder. The most shocking reveal, though, was still left. 

McCusker casually asked him how many people he had killed, since there were two big dustbin bags that they had found in his cupboard. Dennis Nilsen’s answer sent shivers down their spines. He told the authorities that he had killed about fifteen to sixteen people. Nilsen said that he was branded as a culprit by the media even before he decided to keep his case in the court of law. The authorities knew one fact: evidence is required to prove guilt in a court of law. They knew that if they were not able to link the dead bodies to Dennis Nilsen, then it might be a possibility that he escaped the clutches of the law.

Digging The Truth At Melrose Avenue

Dennis himself had told the detectives that many bodies were buried in his earlier residence in Melrose Avenue. Tess Mahoney, a neighbor, told the officials that she often noticed a bonfire generally in the evenings in Nilsen’s garden area. She didn’t pay much attention as she thought that he would be burning garbage. But actually, that was the method that Nilsen used to dispose of the bodies of his victims. The remains were buried in the garden area. When Norman Briers and his team of detectives started digging in the area, they found human remains, but the problem was that they were not able to identify the victims as nothing was properly intact.

The police had found a national insurance card for a person named Martyn in Dennis’s apartment. But at that point in time, Martyn was unsure whether he would be willing to testify against Dennis. Some facts were still hidden from the public eye. Dennis was only targeting a particular category of people. It was the main reason behind the authorities’ inability to find a single victim who could testify against Dennis Nilsen.

Dennis Andrew Nilson arrested for Murder
Credits: Netflix

About Homophobia And Premeditation

Carl Stottor was among the first victims who testified against Dennis Nilsen. Carl’s name also appeared in the autobiography that Dennis was writing from prison. Russ Coffey, a journalist, could locate him and set up an interview. Carl had met Dennis in a gay bar and had gone to his place. He was intoxicated, and when he woke up, he found himself inside a bathtub. He was almost choked to death, but something crept inside Dennis, and he let him go. Carl filed a complaint, but the police did not take him seriously. Around 4-5 more people had tried to inform the police earlier, but the matter was always ignored as being something inconsequential.

Dennis had realized early in his life that he was attracted to men. He knew that people working as “rent boys” in London would be an ideal target for him. These young lads generally had no links to their family, and their disappearance never led to any inquiry as nobody reported it. Also, people like Martyn were scared to let it out in public that they were involved in a sexual act with someone of the same sex. Homophobia was at its peak during the 80s, and coming out as one was a matter of great shame. Because of our society’s shortcomings, a serial killer was able to prey on young lives and go unnoticed for such a long period of time. Establishing the fact that Dennis knew at all times what he was doing, was of utmost importance for the authorities. His mind would have shown abnormal traits but it was not substantially impaired. The authorities feared that if they were not able to prove so, then he would plead insanity as a defense.  

Dennis Nilsen – The Psychology Behind The Killer

Dennis had always been close to his maternal grandfather. Due to his father’s lack of involvement in their lives, his grandfather served as the male figure who had the most influence on his life. In his autobiography, Dennis hinted towards a pedophilic relationship with his grandfather. When his grandfather died, he was told that he had gone to a better place. A young Dennis asked everybody how he could go to a better place without him. After the death of his grandfather, he became reclusive. He didn’t talk to anybody and was often teased and bullied by his peers for having an inclination towards men. There was a bridge that was created between love and death for Dennis. The concepts of life, love, and death were muddled up after Dennis’ grandfather left him.

Dennis often used to cover his body with talcum powder, much like a corpse would be made up before the funeral. He had a necrophiliac instinct and an unnatural sexual urge that grew inside him. Dennis Nilsen pleaded not guilty in court. But fortunately, the testimonies of the victims were enough to incriminate him for his crimes.

Streaming on Netflix, Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes, is a chilling watch, that takes you inside the terrifying mind of a serial killer. The crime documentary is directed by Michael Harte.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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