The Psychology Of Dexter
Taken from the Smart Pop website 'About' page:
'Smart Pop Books - On the best in Pop Culture Television, Books, And Film'
'Smart Pop books is a line of smart, fresh funny essays on the best of pop culture tv, books, and film, with particular focus on science fiction and fantasy television and literature.'
From the back cover of Smart Pop's The Psychology of Dexter book:
'Millions of us are fascinated by unlikely hero Dexter Morgan - a character who constantly makes us question what being “normal” really means. What makes Dexter tick? And what makes a show about a serial killer so appealing to those of us at home?
Think you know Dexter? The Psychology of Dexter will make you think again.’
‘Get Inside The Head Of America’s Favorite Serial Killer,’ is the tagline on the book cover of Smart Pop’s collection of articles about Showtime’s long running series - Dexter.
How successful that mission is accomplished within the seventeen articles that comprise this book will invoke subjective responses from each reader. In broad strokes the book does a superior job. The deeper levels are more difficult to quantify because in reading the articles, like watching the show, the journey into Dexter’s mind forces one to hold a mirror up to their own. Which is not always a comfortable exercise. Each of us has our comfort levels or filters that function at different levels. Plus our facility for self deception is impossible to address or suppress ie I could never be like Dexter!
Many reasons are put forth in the articles in this book as to why viewers are drawn to a show about a serial killer. Here are the main ones that draw me in:
1) The Dark Passenger - we all have one. The vast majority of us have learned how to sublimate it. With Dexter we get to see it unleashed in a vicarious manner.
2) Social Commentary - the show can be darkly hilarious at times. Dexter’s outsider observations of accepted normal behaviour are often dryly, darkly, hysterically funny. ‘He taught me to golf. I taught him how to kill. I guess we ARE friends,’ is a paraphrasing of one example of Dexter’s comedic inner monologues.
3) Justice: Vigilante Style - there is a poetic justice and satisfying emotional symmetry for viewers in seeing other serial killers meeting their ends at the hands of one of their own. Not only is it satisfying on a base emotional level to have the bad guys meet their ends but to have it done with the tables turned on them so that they experience what their victims felt like, feels so appropriate. Dexter’s killings may be the work of a serial killer but they feel like justice.
As the book points out, these are not the kind of thoughts that we share openly with each other. Many refuse to entertain such thoughts, much less share them with others. None will, however, deny that we all do possess a dark side.
The articles in, ‘The Psychology of Dexter,’ are all written by psychologists and psychiatrists. So every article in the book approaches Dexter from a scientific, objective viewpoint. In Dexter’s case this is understandable given the show has provided ample material which can be studied and used as the basis for their theories. Even more so, as noted in several of the articles, there is an unique ‘In,’ into Dexter’s mindset because of the dramatization of his inner monologue.
Dexter, naturally, receives the lion’s share of focus in the articles but there is a surprising amount of material about the other characters too. Not too surprisingly Harry, as Dexter’s father figure and mentor, is often touched upon. Given how much importance is placed on personality development via nature versus nuture, Harry’s importance in Dexter’s development is expected.
One of the more interesting articles, ‘Rethinking Dexter,’ by Lisa Firestone delves into the premise that Harry’s development of the Code for Dexter is built on a false assumption. Harry believes that because of the childhood trauma Dexter faced with his mother’s murder that Dexter will be unable to contain his Dark Passenger permanently. Sooner or later the Dark Passenger will find release and innocent people will die. Hence Harry’s Code is formulated, funneling Dexter’s murderous tendencies to be used against only those that deserve it; those guilty of murder themselves.
The article further delves into Harry’s personality and suggests his narcisstic needs as a police officer frustrated by his inability to always get the bad guy were transferred to Dexter. And to Debra as well. Hence Harry’s ‘Code’ was created instead of seeking counselling for Dexter. A fascinating article and a perspective that I must admit never occured to me.
Other chapters deal with Dexter’s ability to self delude, to lie without qualms, the psychology of his modus operandi of his kills, Dexter’s inability to feel emotions and empathize with others, how Dexter and his relationship with Harry affected Deb, and Dexter’s evolution of growth over the run of the series - most notably his relationship with Rita which grew from a convenient cover to something real. There are other chapters that point out ‘normal’ is hard to define and continually evolves in response to social mores.
What the book never tackles, disappointedly, is the concept of good versus evil as palpable forces. Sometimes people or things are bad for no objective, explainable reasons. While Dexter certainly has mitigating factors as to how he turned out like he did, some of the other killers he has run across, may or may not have such factors. How do people with seemingly normal upbringings and loving parents etc become serial killers?
Why do people enjoy watching Dexter and find him intriguing? It may be akin to slowing down to survey a terrible traffic accident. That, ‘Wow, that’s terrible. It could have been me. Thank god it was them and not me,’ line of thinking.
Or maybe watching Dexter is a form of sanity check. After watching the show and/or reading this book: we can all go to bed, turn out the lights, and enjoy a blissful slumber; comforted in the knowledge that our Dark Passengers are firmly under our control.
Or are they?