‘Des’ is set to be ITV’s biggest drama of this year, after the first episode of the three-part series drew in 5.4 million viewers this week. The chilling true crime show stars David Tennant as serial killer Dennis Nilsen, alongside Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins. It recounts the case brought against ‘Des’ who strangled to death at least 15 young men between 1978 and 1983. He became known as the Muswell Hill Murderer after rotting chunks of flesh and bones were discovered to have blocked drain pipes beneath his second flat in that area of London. Accounts of the killer’s horrific spree reveal a number of shocking details not featured in the TV show, including one about children’s reaction to his attempts to dispose of bodies.
There is still debate over the exact motivations that led Nilsen to murder, and then keep the dead bodies with him for a lengthy period of time.
Brian Masters, who wrote the serial killer’s 1985 biography ‘Killing for Company’, attributed it in part to loneliness and claimed the corpses were “substitutes for real human company”.
Criminologist Professor David Wilson believed the corpses were “a form of trophy” that allowed him to “express his power, his complete and utter domination… even after they were dead”.
While Professor Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychologist, echoed the statement by saying he felt it was “arousing to an individual like Nilsen to be in complete control” of his victims.
According to Mr Masters’ insights, obtained through countless hours of interviews with Nilsen, he would often bath and then dress the dead bodies.
He explained: “He even would go so far as to come home from work and find the corpses sitting in the same armchair that he’d left them in that morning [and would say] to them ‘Guess what happened to me today?’.”
Professor Wilson elaborated that his desire to have an ordinary life with the corpses, such as watching TV or talking to them, indicated something deeper.
He said: “Nilsen is so self obsessed, so desperate for his opinion to be the only opinion that counts and matters that he finds it easier to relate to have a conversation with a dead young man who isn’t capable of answering back.”
But ultimately, the bodies who “served as Nilsen’s companions” would become an “annoyance to him” – which led him to dispose of them in gruesome ways.
Professor Wilson said: “Firstly they would smell, also they were an annoyance to him because he keeps wanting to bring more live young men back to his flat.”
Nilsen kept the corpses for “quite a few days” until the smell of decomposition became “unbearable” and he would “eviscerate them”.
In later murders in Cranley Gardens, he boiled the flesh of those he had killed in an attempt to make them easier to dispose of.
Mr Masters continued: “He would put into the garden, the spleen and stuff which might prove impossible to live with, and then put what was left of the corpse under the floorboards.”
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When he ran out of room in Melrose Avenue, he removed the corpses and cut them into smaller pieces that he could then take out in the garden.
Detective Peter Jay recalled: “In the middle of the night, he would have a huge bonfire in his garden burning the remains – disguising the smell with rubber tyres.”
Mr Masters recounted a chilling response to the huge flames in Real Crime’s show ‘Muswell Hill Murderer: Was Dennis Nilsen Born to Kill?’, which was released in January.
He said: “The local children came around and danced around the bonfire because they thought it was all a lot of fun, having not the faintest idea what was going on really.”
Nilsen is known to have killed 12 in Melrose Avenue and a further three in Cranley Gardens, where his crimes became known – but police suspected there could have been additional victims.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty of six murders and two attempted murders.
Nilsen died from problems related to a blood clot two years ago.