The dead body with which murder mysteries and police procedurals generally open is a multi-layered sign that acts to trigger a wide variety of representations that allow the public to explore from the safety of an armchair, the depths of human evil – and the heights of human forensic ingenuity.i
Murder, whether on or off screen, has never stopped fascinating mankind and has led to much discourse in the field of psychology and film theory. With the afore mentioned statement, Valverde has explained one of the many reasons that crime and murder hold such extreme fascination in the real world and on the screen. In this essay, we will explore this particular allure further, giving special attention to the popularity of the U.S television series Dexter.
Before we begin our foray into the psychology of Dexter‘s fandom, it is important to note and understand the definition of the term “serial killer.” Being somewhat of a misnomer, a serial killer is not defined only by the sheer number of kills over a period of time. The motives behind the kills are to be taken into account. It is assumed, in popular culture, that a serial killer has serious psychopathic motives, i.e he kills for the sake of killing. This is best explained by Robert Conrath who writes,
Serial killing is usually not the expression of deeply suppressed rage, complete social alienation and schizophrenia but simply a vital – both visceral and at times intellectual – drive to kill, an uncontrollable pleasure that like any uncontrollable pleasure, thrives on repetition.ii
Perhaps one of the most famous serial killers is Jack the Ripper. His crimes were unsolved and he was never caught. At the time of limited forensic knowledge, there were many opinions as to who the killer might be. With many theories emerging from the police force and from the public, there was much speculation regarding his motives that accompanied these theories. For example, the atrocity and messy nature of the murders led to the general opinion that such monstrosity cannot be committed by an educated man. With further forensic evidence coming to light, it was then speculated that the killer had to have possessed some surgical knowledge since the cuts made and the body parts removed from the victims were clearly the work of a professional. This seemingly eliminated an economic motive, opening up the possibility of a completely new kind of serial killer – the psychopath. As Valverde puts it, ‘The history of the serial killer is thus intertwined with the history of psychological knowledge used in the criminal justice system.’iii This knowledge gave rise to personnel in the justice system like criminal psychologists that subsequently gave rise to new angles and fresh plots in the crime genre of film, television and literature.
So what sets Dexter apart from other shows in the crime genre? For one, the series uses a number of film noir conventions. The bleak narrative, the anti-hero, the femme fatale, the pessimistic endings, flashbacks, voiceovers, all of these feature in the series. Dexter is a blood spatter pattern analyst in the Miami Metro Police Department and moonlights as a serial killer. All the characteristics of a film noir male protagonists can be seen in him. He is an ‘[…] intelligent and maverick anti-hero who moves beyond the law in a dystopian city, seeking out truth and dispensing violence where he feels it is justified.’iv In season 2 we also encounter the “femme fatale”. The inclusion of a femme fatale in a film noir story line, alongside the anti-hero is a common feature. Lila is everything that Dexter is, and more. She is psychopathic, fiendishly clever and an agent of chaos. Dexter’s immediate attraction to her is inevitable since he sees himself in her. But her lack of structure and code proves to get in the way of Dexter’s identity remaining a secret. She moves from being a playful deviant to using her deadly sexuality as a weapon in a very short span of time. The classic format of the male protagonist getting entangled with the femme fatale is played out in this season. And even though she goes to grave lengths to aid him (in her own way), even though he doesn’t necessarily wish to kill her, his code demands that he must, and so he does. Like with every femme fatale, this encounter with Lila could only end badly.
In september 2005, CBS aired the show Criminal Minds to over 12 million viewers. This TV series uses the police procedural format, concentrating on the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit. For the first time there seemed to be a show that concentrated on the criminal rather than the crime. Criminal psychology thus plays a major role in the ability of abducting offenders. This is duly noted by Mark Seltzer,
the concept of the dangerous individual, as Foucault traces it, involves a shift in focus from the criminal act to the character of the actor, that is it involves the elaboration of a technical knowledge-system “capable of characterising a criminal individual in himself and in a sense beneath his acts.”v
While Criminal Minds goes beyond the generic format and into the mind of the criminal, Dexter goes a step further and introduces us to the criminal point of view, a serial killer’s point of view. The main character, Dexter Morgan, is a blood spatter analyst in the miami metro police department. What is more, he moonlights as a serial killer. And like any other serial killer, his victims have a certain profile – they are murderers that have slipped through the cracks of the justice system and roam freely. While not really a police procedural, the show does bring to light the goings on of the rest of the police department. Besides, Dexter’s process of seeking out his victims, cornering them, killing them and disposing of their bodies is a procedure in its own way and quite often, Dexter’s victims coincide with the offenders that the police department are trying to capture. The use of forensics and in particular, blood spatter analysis, is quite extensive. Besides bringing out the importance of forensic science in the abduction of a criminal, the show also provides us psychological insight into the minds of the killers, via Dexter. Being a serial killer himself, he understands the mind of one.
But how much of Dexter do WE understand? And why do we find ourselves empathising with him? Is it even rational to empathize with a fictional character? In response to this question, Murray Smith analyses what he calls, the structure of sympathy, in his book entitled Engaging Characters. He states that the narratives of fiction film generally evoke in the audiences, three levels of imaginative engagement with the characters. The first one is “recognition”, the process by which we identify and re-identify characters. This imaginative process is typically automatic and simply a response to visual stimuli. And because this process is so involuntary, it does not come under any scrutiny and can therefore be subverted and manipulated by filmmakers. When we first encounter Dexter, we know he is not your average male protagonist. His cold and distant demeanour throws us off and we begin to suspect that he is much more than what he seems initially. And sure enough, we proceed to find out his dark secret.
The second level of imaginative engagement is referred to, by Murray Smith, as “alignment”. By this process we start identifying with or relating to the character. Since Dexter possesses traits akin to a psychopath, his facial expressions are limited and his manipulation of his co-workers and even his sister Deb would be lost on the audience. It would seem improbable then, that he could garner such affection from the viewers. However, the use of first person narrative is, for example, a big part of the reason we are able to align ourselves to Dexter. We are constantly exposed to Dexter’s most intimate thoughts as he goes about his day to day activities, trying to fit in with a species he does not understand. Dexter narrates as he makes conversations with his colleagues, revealing his complete lack of genuine emotion while doing so. He remarks upon his inability to interact with people without faking the simplest gesture – ‘People fake a lot of human interactions, but I feel like I fake them all, and I fake them very well.’vi He narrates as he navigates through the most mundane tasks with acquired ease. His cold, detached manner is accompanied by his cold, detached voiceovers. The only time we see or hear a hint of excitement or feeling in Dexter is when he is on the hunt. This narrative technique is how we gauge Dexter’s personality, or at least a part of it. As we delve further into the series, we know more about him and how he thinks, what makes him tick. Curiously enough, while Dexter describes his actions in an impersonal manner, the audience attaches meaning and emotion to it – the audience feels what Dexter should be feeling. Thus we are able to see how Dexter views reality. Through the narrative device, we are exposed to the social order of the world as he sees it and due to his disinterest, we are privy to an unbiased account of it. Moreover, through his account, we are forced to view the world through the same unemotional lens, thereby revealing a great deal about the human condition.
The narrative construct thus creates a personal involvement in the show. No one in Dexter’s life knows about his double life and we as the audience are in on this big secret, thereby creating a strong bond with him, although he is only a fictional character. We are also invested in the character. As Dexter describes his actions, we are forced to think about how we would react in those situations and how we have, at some point in our lives, tried to achieve the same thing as he – to be accepted and to survive in this world. As far as serial killers go, Dexter is unusually aware of his flaws as a “normal” human being. He realizes that his lack of empathy and appropriate social responses make him an outcast. While most psychopaths revel in their unique ability to distance themselves from the human condition, Dexter sometimes longs for normalcy in his life. ‘People fake a lot of human interactions, but I feel like I fake them all, and I fake them very well. That’s my burden, I guess.’vii This desire to fit in is experienced by us all at some level or another. He says, ‘I always prided myself on being an outsider… but now… I feel the need to connect with someone.’viii The “dark passenger” that Dexter describes as constantly accompanying and encouraging his every kill, is not altogether different from the inner demons that take over our own decisions from time to time. The thrilling plot lines and narrative format of the show therefore, not only attracts viewers, but also forges a bond between them and the characters, a bond that is subconsciously formed and made stronger as the show progresses.
It would not be incorrect to say that “allegiance” (the third level of imaginative engagement) to the central character has a great influence on the popularity of the show. At this level of imaginative engagement, we begin to morally evaluate and respond affectively to the character. In her introduction to the book entitled The Psychology of Dexter, Bella DePaulo states that ‘Dexter may well be one of the most psychologically delicious treats in television history.’ix It is common to associate ourselves with the characters we see on screen. They are after all a product of our own imagination. Nevertheless, it is less common to identify with a serial killer. But we do it anyway. We see a small percentage of our own desires and shortcomings, magnified in Dexter Morgan. It is perhaps easier to see our own demons acted out by someone other than us. That this “other” happens to be a fictional character, makes it seem all the more harmless for us to indulge in them.
We constantly sympathize with Dexter. And season after season, we root for him and mentally support him in his efforts to evade capture. Is this because we perhaps see him as a vigilante in his own right? It is possible that one of the main reasons Dexter has such an off-screen fan base is because he is acting out the vigilante in all of us. At the very least, it forces us to think about morality and its subjectivity. Does the end justify the means? The writers of the show have posed this question through Harry, Dexter’s adoptive father, who teaches his son to redirect his violence in a constructive way. Is there such a thing as purposeful killing? Harry sure seems to think so. As a police cop himself, Harry knows the amount of murderers and other criminals that slip through the cracks of the justice system on a daily basis. In Dexter, he sees the opportunity to make the streets a safer place. So why could he not have done this himself? He is certainly capable of doing so, having provided Dexter with the tools, smarts and the “Code of Harry” that are required for the job. But killing does not fit into Harry’s own ethical code. More importantly, killing does not fit into society’s ethical code, a society which Harry is very much a part of and in facts serves to protect. Dexter, on the other hand will never be a genuine part of the society, as Harry had decided long ago. He is therefore taught to harness his killer instincts. As Harry explains it,
When you take a man’s life, you’re not just killing him. You’re snuffing out all the things that he might become. As a cop, I only fire my weapon to save a life – that’s a code I live by. Killing must serve a purpose. Otherwise, it’s just plain murder.x
Watching Dexter live through the “Code of Harry”, we find ourselves questioning and evaluating our own individual codes.
To be convinced of Dexter’s moral high ground is not an easy task in and of itself. How can the question of a moral high ground even arise while referring to a serial killer? You cannot care for something you don’t understand. Keeping this in mind, the show has painstakingly tried to make us understand Dexter. We are given glimpses of his past, starting with the horrific murder of his mother that he had witnessed, along with his older brother, as a child. His thirst for violence as a teenager under Harry’s roof is portrayed with the use of flashbacks. All of the things that triggered, encouraged and harnessed his killer instincts are laid out before us. Were it not for this biography, were we not made to witness the “making” of a serial killer, we would not have been able to understand why Dexter is the way he is. If we had been exposed to his past simply through voiceover narration, we might not have felt like we were a part of his journey from childhood to his present situation. The importance of these flashback sequences are highlighted when Dexter (along with the audience), encounters other serial killers on his hunts. We see his victims as people who deserve what they get. We see them as the villains in each story. This is because we don’t understand what contributed to the psychopathy of these serial killers. We see them as different from Dexter because we understand Dexter. Interestingly, while this knowledge that makes us empathize with him and convinces us that he is different, it makes him believe that he is a killer, much like his victims. Like them, he has his own rituals. The cut on his victim’s cheek, the drawing and collecting of that blood on a slide, the waking up of the unconscious victim to a collage of their crimes and the final stab of his knife, are all part of a ritual that he has perfected over the years – ‘Preparation is vital. No detail can be overlooked and the ritual is intoxicating: duct tape, rubber sheets, necessary tools for play.’xi Dexter refers to himself as a monster. ‘My sister puts up a front so the world won’t see how vulnerable she is. Me, I put up a front so the world won’t see how vulnerable I’m not.’xii It is this coldness that allows him to be unperturbed for even a second when his victims cry out for sympathy and forgiveness in their final moments. And it is perhaps our vulnerability that makes us cling to any traces of humanity in him. It is perhaps our vulnerability that allows us to forgive him when he accidentally kills an innocent. We are jolted back to reality however, as he explains in a clinical manner how he can ‘[…] kill a man, dismember his body, and be home in time for Letterman. But knowing what to say when his [my] girlfriend’s feeling insecure… He’s [I’m] totally lost.’xiii
When we are not busy being made to understand the mind of Dexter and identify with him on certain levels, we are given a sliver of what he understands of society and consequently, of us. While we may ponder about what makes him a serial killer, Dexter ponders about what makes us human. Social interactions, feelings, emotions and behaviours that arise from them, are all things we take for granted. Reading facial cues and wanting human contact is something that we never consciously think about, since it is so obvious. It is the basic nature of mankind. But what of the person that all of this does not come naturally to? Dexter can see pain, even understand it, but he cannot feel it. In his monotonous voice he tells one of his victims how he too is empty. But to cope with it he explains that ‘You pretend the feelings are there, for the world and for the people around you. Who knows, maybe one day they will be.’xiv
While there is no doubt that the “Dr.Jekyll” part of Dexter’s personality is fascinating and has much appeal, his “Mr.Hyde” too holds a certain charm and lovability. There is much to be said of the dark humour that is employed by the writers on the show, perhaps in the bid for some comic relief. During a Narcotics Anonymous meeting that Dexter attends, a woman recounts her battle with addiction, narrating how she would ‘[…] kill for a vicodin.’ In response, he thinks ‘Lightweight.’xv There is something endearing about Dexter’s childlike responses to most human interactions that are juxtaposed with his raw power and clinical ability to kill. This man who can kill another and dispose of the body without so much as a batting of an eyelid, fumbles the most basic social interactions. And right in the middle of all his awkwardness, when he charms his way through with a little joke, we smile a little, even though we know he is faking it. Even when Dexter is his most cynical self when perceiving his fellow human beings, we find it captivating. This is partly due to the humorous content of his cynicism and partly because it is compelling to see a man with questionable morals demonstrate the hypocrisy in people, moreover, doing it with a legitimate argument – ‘Needless to say I have some unusual habits, yet all these socially acceptable people can’t wait to pick up hammers and smash their food to bits. Normal people are so hostile.’xvi He is struck by how often he has encountered selfish and evil actions carried out by people that are branded ‘normal’ by society. Of mankind, Dexter observes,
Despite having considered myself a monster for as long as I can remember, it still comes as a shock when I’m confronted with the depth of evil that exists in this world.xvii
To add to the question of morality, Dexter poses to us another theory – Dexter as the dark defender. It has already been established that Dexter is an anti-hero. Could we perhaps go a step further and hail him as a SUPERhero? How is he different from any other masked crusader that we see in comic books and fiction films? They too protect the masses and they too justify their actions by the outcomes they achieve. Do these fictional characters differ from Dexter because they are a product of a situation that was out of their control? But then so is Dexter. It could be argued that he is simply a victim of childhood post-traumatic stress disorder, having witnessed his mother hacked and murdered in front of his eyes and remaining in a pool of her blood for days before Harry could rescue him. Such intense trauma would render anybody emotionally crippled and stunted for life. Indeed, when he attends a therapy session, he says, ‘No wonder I felt so disconnected my entire life. If I did have emotions, I’d have to feel this.’xviii
Whatever our stance on Dexter, whether we believe that Dexter is human, superhuman or an anti-hero, it is safe to say that he is a compilation of insecurities, complexities and, when you dig deep enough, emotions. He is therefore, just like us. What makes a person? What gives us the licence to call ourselves human beings? It is ironic that we are compelled to ponder this question by a man who refers to himself as a monster.
In Dexter, the line between a “monster” and a “human being” is blurry at best. And Dexter Morgan seems to walk this line. The best example of this blurry line can be seen in the title sequence of the show. It depicts Dexter’s morning routine as he gets ready to go to work. However, due to the use of close-up shots, it is easy to mistake this routine for a murderous ritual. The wrapping around of floss on his fingers mirrors the way in which Dexter chokes his victims with a rope or a string. The same effect is achieved when he ties his shoelaces. The cutting up of a slab of meat for breakfast mimics the way in which he slices up his victims’ body parts. The drops of blood that fall into the wash basin as he accidentally cuts himself while shaving are similar to the drops of blood that he collects as trophies from his victims. The sequence evokes a response from the viewer at a bodily level and magnificently illustrates how things are never the way they seem, you just need to take a closer look. The show portrays the range between good and evil through the inclusion of other characters in Dexter’s life, for example, Deb (His adoptive sister) and Rudy (His real brother and also a serial killer). While Deb represents all that is good, Rudy represents an evil that is so permanent that Harry had declared him a lost cause and did not adopt him along with Dexter. Dexter falls somewhere in the middle. While he is a killer, he is also a protective father to Harrison, a caring brother to Deb and an obedient son to Harry and Dorris Morgan. We are constantly given hope that Dexter might have some human left in him after all. The alignment and allegiance to his character arises out of the human tendencies that he begins to develop. His growing affection for the people in his lives, make him seem like less of a lost cause. In a Narcotics Anonymous meeting he reveals to the group,
I just know there’s something dark in me. I hide it. Certainly don’t talk about it. But it’s there. Always. This … Dark Passenger. How when he’s driving, I feel … alive. Half-sick with the thrill, complete wrongness. I don’t fight him. I don’t want to. He’s all I’ve got. Nothing else could love me, not even … especially not me. Or is that just a lie the Dark Passenger tells me? Because, lately, there are these moments that I feel connected to something else. Someone. It’s like … the mask is slipping, and things, people, that never mattered before, are suddenly starting to matter. It scares the hell out of me.xix
This is what makes him one of the most engaging characters a television show has had to offer in a long time.
What becomes of the definition for the word “serial killer”? With Dexter, we see for the first time, perhaps a less negative connotation to the meaning. It even romanticizes to a certain extent, Dexter’s profession, both by day and by night. If we ever required proof that there is not much by way of distance between a “psychopath” and a “human being”, if we need to be reminded that serial killers are simply the worst manifestation of the human condition, we must keep in mind that Dexter was borne out of the imagination of the author Jeff Lindsay and the product of the environment we live in. Dexter is not an outcast, Dexter is all that we fear and loathe about the evils of the human race. Our subsequent love for Dexter and our acceptance of his actions is perhaps a subtle way of forgiving ourselves as a species. I would like to conclude accordingly with Robert Conrath who aptly sums up the constant preoccupation with murder and serial killers, a preoccupation that seeps into our lives and in media:
If television is the social subconscious, a sort of serialised super-ego that reflects our hopelessly linear cultural stasis, then the serial killer, who functions in the same mode of repetition, is the most logical, dysfunctional, psychotic extreme of which we, serialized victims, are capable.xx
iMariana Valverde, Law And Order – Images, Meanings, Myths, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2006, p. 115
iiiValverde, Law And Order, p. 116
ivAlison Peirse, ‘In a Lonely Place? Dexter and Film Noir’ in Douglas L. Howard (ed.), Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television, London: I.B Tauris Publishers, 2010, p. 192
ixBella DePaulo, ‘Introduction: For the love of Dexter’ in Bella DePaulo (ed.), The Psychology of Dexter, Dallas, Texas: Smart Pop Publishers, 2010, p. 1
xix Dexter (2.3)
Conrath, Robert, ‘The Guys Who Shoot to Thrill: Serial Killers and the American Popular Unconscious’, Revue française d’études américaines, no. 60, 1994, pp. 143-152
DePaulo, Bella, ‘Introduction: For the love of Dexter’ in Bella DePaulo (ed.), The Psychology of Dexter, Dallas, Texas: Smart Pop Publishers, 2010.
Peirse, Alison, ‘In a Lonely Place? Dexter and Film Noir’ in Douglas L. Howard (ed.), Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television, London: I.B Tauris Publishers, 2010.
Seltzer, Mark, ‘Serial Killers (II): The Pathological Public Sphere’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 22 no.1, Autumn 1995, pp. 122-149, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344009
Smith, Murray, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema, USA: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Valverde, Mariana, Law And Order – Images, Meanings, Myths, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
Dexter, Showtime, 1 Oct. 2006, Television.