In their own words: Dennis Nilsen and the serial killers who confessed on tape

Photo of a magnetic tape recorder music system from 1975
Magnetic tape recorder music system | Unsplash images

Like all serious criminals, serial killers prefer not to be caught. Not only does being behind bars seriously restrict their ability to predate and murder, it can often be a precursor to something even more serious to them - their execution. At least historically and in certain areas of the United States, anyway.

Yet capture, while not exactly inevitable, is highly likely. Jack the Ripper, The Zodiac Killer, The Texarkana Moonlight Murderer, Bible John… They all managed to evade the law, true. But the vast majority of serial killers are caught. Once arrested, they face two main options: deny everything and hope to get off due to lack of evidence or some sort of a loophole. Or cop to it all and hope that your frank admissions lead to some sort of leniency.

The vast majority of repeat murderers will spill the beans in custody or in prison. There are a few reasons for this. It could be part of a plan for an easier life behind bars or, in others, it may be a more ego-driven choice. Let’s explore some of the more frank and, at times, shocking confessions of some of modern history’s most notorious serial killers. These infamous characters all ‘fessed up and did so on tape, no less…

Dennis Nilsen

'I am damned and damned and damned. How in heaven's name could I have done any of it?'

Muswell Hill Murderer Dennis Nilsen killed more than a dozen young men in North London over a five year period in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Unlike other serial killers on this list, the Scottish predator committed his confessions to tape in his own time and not in police custody.

These weren’t just the odd mumblings into a dictaphone, either. The vaults that house the tapes are home to more than 250 hours of verbal insights from Nilsen. In them he outlines his background, his frame of mind, his motivations, his MO and even his depraved sensibilities and world view.

Aileen Wuornos

'I robbed them and I killed them as cold as ice. And I’d do it again. I know I would kill another person because I've hated humans for a long time.'

The world’s most infamous ever female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, gave a full and frank confession to police, as well as to the documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield. Those were done willingly and wittingly.

A series of taped confessions were also effectively given when police set up conversations between a recently-jailed Wuornos and her ex-girlfriend, Tyria Moore. Ten calls were recorded in which the Michigan-born killer of seven men admitted to a whole host of murders and other charges.

Ted Bundy

'Murder is not about lust and it's not about violence. It's about possession. When you feel the last breath of life coming out of the woman, you look into her eyes. At that point, it's being God.'

Ted Bundy was many things. Chief among them, of course, was vicious and depraved sex killer. Yet he was also disarmingly charming and eloquent, something which aided his ability to gain his victims’ trust, of course. He was able to speak at great length about himself, his psychological issues and even the nature of perversion, brutality and the desire to kill. And did so, on tape, at some length.

The thing is, one of the other things that Ted Bundy was was clever. He could effuse for days about murder and his innate bestial urges without once ever implicating himself in any specific crimes. Not that it did him any great favours in the end, of course. He was executed by the state of Florida in 1989.

Samuel Little

'When they die, they’re all your favorites. They all belong to you.'

Few taped serial killer confessions are as jarring as those made by Samuel Little, who coolly admitted to strangling 93 women between 1970 and 2005. In the videos, he speaks plainly and matter of factly, at no point pausing to show regret - or even attempting to pretend to feel any level of guilt or remorse.

Such was the level of recall that Little was able to tap into, he could accurately draw portraits of many of the women he callously beat and throttled to death during this 35 year reign of countrywide terror. While disturbing, the drawings do not compare to the level of horror that the tapes of his casual recollections of his many murders evoked.

Henry Lee Lucas

'I hated all my life. I hated everybody. When I first grew up and can remember, I was dressed as a girl by my mother. And I stayed that way for two or three years. And after that I was treated like what I call the dog of the family. I was beaten. I was made to do things that no human being would want to do.'

There are serial killer confessors and there are serial killer confessors. Henry Lee Lucas is either one of history’s most vicious and prolific ever serial killers or he’s a serial fantasist and severe waster of police time. Or, thirdly (and most likely), he’s somewhere between the two.

Lucas undoubtedly killed folk and was rightly arrested and jailed for his actions. But did he quite tot up a victim count well into the hundreds as he claimed? It seems unlikely. There exists an almost infinite number of tapes in police evidence of the Virginian killer confessing to all manner of murders, many that were committed while he was incarcerated. The tapes make for disturbing listening, but when you consider that large swathes of the audio are rooted in fantasy, they’re much easier to digest.

Richard Kuklinski

'By now you know what I liked most was the hunt, the challenge of what the thing was. The killing for me was secondary. I got no rise as such out of it… for the most part. But the figuring it out, the challenge - the stalking and doing it right, successfully - that excited me a lot. The greater the odds against me, the more juice I got out of it.'

‘The Iceman’ Richard Kuklinski is an extremely fascinating criminal. An enigmatic man, it’s difficult to know how to pigeonhole him. Ostensibly he was a hitman for the Gambino crime family out of New York City. But he was so brutal, with such a hair trigger temper, that he killed plenty for fun. Many of his murders were committed out of compulsion, not because of a contract. Making him also a serial killer.

Kuklinski speaks openly and freely about his life and crimes in two grim but gripping documentaries The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer (1992) and The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hitman (2001). In both he speaks incredibly honestly about the people he’s killed and how he killed them. Also in both, you can see his violence bubble under the surface whenever he’s asked a question he doesn’t like. It’s genuinely terrifying watching.

Ed Kemper

'One side of me says, I'd like to talk to her, date her. The other side of me says, I wonder what her head would look like on a stick?'

There have been few more effusive and chatty imprisoned serial killers than the 6’9” figure of Edmund Kemper. A ‘co-ed killer’ of eight during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Californian Kemper has been incredibly candid about his crimes during his decades in prison. He’s given countless interviews, confessed in detail to all his crimes and even helped authorities understand the psychology of the serial killer in research projects. Kemper gained a level of fame recently after featuring in the hit thriller Mindhunter, played by Cameron Britton.