The Truth About Serial Killer Dennis Nilsen's Childhood

Serial killers have often been themselves the victims of horrific childhood trauma. Indeed, as Psychiatry Advisor reports, the case files of multiple serial killers are filled with narratives about physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. For example, Richard "The Night Stalker" Ramirez, Ottis Toole, and Henry Lee Lucas were known to have been horrifically abused as children.

Other serial killers had difficult childhoods as well, albeit absent the horrific abuse some of their peers endured. For example, Jeffrey Dahmer had a happy childhood until he had a hernia operation, as Biography reports, after which he became withdrawn and isolated.

One of Britain's most infamous serial killers falls into the latter category. Dennis Nilsen, who murdered at least 15 boys and young men in the late 1970s and early 1980s, wasn't known to have suffered abuse as a child, according to the Mirror. However, his formative years were difficult, as he dealt with the trauma of an absentee father and the death of his grandfather (the only paternal figure he ever had) at a young age.

Dennis Nilsen described his childhood as loveless

Dennis Nilsen was born in 1945, according to the Mirror, the son of a Scottish mother and a Norwegian father. His dad, a soldier and a reported alcoholic, had little to do with his family. According to The Press and Journal, by the time Dennis was 4, his father had completely walked out on his wife and three children. Dennis came to idolize his maternal grandfather, Andrew Whyte. Unfortunately for the young boy, Whyte died two years later, and according to The Scotsman, Nilsen's mother mishandled her father's death. Specifically, she supposedly made the young boy view the dead body of his grandfather before explaining to him what had happened. That purportedly instilled in him a fascination with death and corpses. Later, while active as a murderer, Nilsen was believed to have committed acts of necrophilia against the corpses of his victims.

Afterward, Nilsen described his formative years as loveless. As his biographer Russ Coffey described it, he was "[like] a dog that had never been patted," per the Mirror. Further, Nilsen's mother remarried, and Nilsen came to resent the attention paid to his siblings and half-siblings.

Dennis Nilsen also struggled with his sexuality

In addition to the loss of his father and grandfather, Dennis Nilsen endured another traumatic experience, this time at the age of 8. As the Mirror reported, he was taking a walk along the beach when he was swept out to sea and nearly drowned. Fortunately, another boy rescued him, and the older lad supposedly showed an interest in him sexually.

By the time he reached puberty, Nilsen reportedly knew that he was attracted to other boys, and in particular, boys who looked like his younger sister, Sylvia. He purportedly claimed to have molested his sister, as well as an older brother, per the Mirror.

By the age of 14, now bored with life in his remote Scottish town, Nilsen joined the Army Cadet Force. He reportedly took great care not to shower in the company of his fellows, lest his sexual interest in them become obvious (via the Mirror).

However, Patsi Mackenzie, who produced a documentary about Nilsen, says that the line between what is true and what was a fabrication in Nilsen's mind is unclear. "How much actually took place and how much was in his imagination — obviously nobody knows that but him," she said, via The Scotsman.