The «Dexter Syndrome»

The Serial Killer in Popular Culture

by Marcel Danesi (Author)
©2016 Monographs 138 Pages


The serial killer has become an obsession ever since Jack the Ripper became a media sensation, embedding a new and horrifying type of murderer into our cultural consciousness – one who kills darkly and in the dark. All popular media – print, radio, television, and so on – have become absorbed by this new figure. This book traces its diffusion through all media and discusses what this reveals about modern society. Using the Dexter saga of novels and television programs as its basis, the book argues that a «Dexter Syndrome» has emerged whereby we no longer see a difference between real and fictional serial killers. The psychological and social reasons for this are explored by tracing pop culture texts themselves (movies, novels, etc.). Above all else, Dexter’s concept of a «moral code» forms a thematic thread that allows the author to argue that our contemporary moral nihilism has produced the demand for horror and horrific characters like serial killers, who have replaced medieval demons and monsters.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. The Beginning: Jack the Ripper
  • Jack the Ripper
  • The Serial Killer
  • The Shadow Archetype
  • Pop Crime
  • The Dexter Syndrome
  • Chapter 2. The Killer Inside Me: Fantasizing the Serial Killer
  • Pop Fiction
  • Serial Killer Fiction
  • The Media
  • Fantasizing the Serial Killer
  • The Dark Passenger
  • Chapter 3. The Lodger: Visualizing the Serial Killer
  • Serial Killer Movies
  • Biopics
  • Visualizing the Serial Killer
  • The Simulacrum
  • The Lodger amongst Us
  • Chapter 4. Criminal Minds: Explaining the Serial Killer
  • Unmasking the Serial Killer: Criminal Minds
  • Tracking the Serial Killer: True Detective
  • The Serial Killer as Folk Hero: Dexter
  • Telling the Story: Identification Discovery
  • Explaining the Criminal Mind
  • Chapter 5. Copycat: Does Life Imitate Art?
  • Copycat Crime
  • Mythology
  • Moral Codes
  • Restoring Moral Order
  • Concluding Remarks
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

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For the writer, the serial killer is, abstractly, an analogue of the imagination’s caprices and amorality; the sense that, no matter the dictates and even the wishes of the conscious social self, the life or will or purpose of the imagination is incomprehensible, unpredictable.

—Joyce Carol Oates (b. 1938)

Dexter Morgan is the protagonist of a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, of which Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004), Dexter by Design (2009), Double Dexter (2011), and Dexter Is Dead (2015) are probably the best known. The Dexter narrative was adopted and adapted in 2006 by Showtime into a very popular TV series that ended in 2013. The Dexter episode in contemporary popular culture has provided many subtle insights into how modern society perceives serial murder and especially the persona of the serial killer. Dexter is a forensic blood spatter analyst by day, serial killer vigilante by night who eliminates those serial killers who have escaped justice. He justifies his own killing by basing it on a “moral code” given to him by his adoptive father, Harry, which he calls the “Code of Harry.” The code hinges on two basic principles—he can kill only those who are undoubtedly guilty but have evaded justice, and he must dispose of all evidence so that he himself can avoid being caught.

The popularity of the Dexter saga was due in part to the fascination with the serial killer narrative within pop culture—a subgenre of both the thriller ← VII | VIII → and horror genres—and in other part to its intelligent treatment of the whole topic of the serial killer, constituting a kind of implicit philosophical-psychological treatise on the topic for the general public. The elusive and ever-morphing figure of the serial killer as hero, anti-hero, dark personage, avenging angel, deranged psychopath, monster, creepy brute, handsome and charming bad boy, all wrapped into one is a modern mythic one. The persona of the modern serial killer is where the real and the imaginary merge, as in all myths. Indeed, this is perhaps why we find it irrelevant to distinguish between a Ted Bundy (a real serial killer) and a Hannibal Lecter (an imaginary one) in any conceptualization or understanding of who (or what) the serial killer is. This can be called the “Dexter Syndrome,” a term that will be used throughout this book, not only in reference to this fact, but also to the broader psychosocial implications that the serial killer phenomenon entails, such as the possibility that he (the serial killer is typically a male) literally “embodies” the darker side of the psyche for a world that may have lost its moral compass or, as the Dexter saga phrased it, its “moral code.”

The serial killer is a modern-day mythical monster. Attempts by criminology and forensic psychology to explain his emergence in the modern world abound. But science alone seems to be incapable of providing a definitive answer. The best way to gain insights is, arguably, to look at the myth itself as a myth. The reason why we are addicted to serial killer novels, movies, documentaries, and the like, and why distinguishing between the real and the imaginary serial killer is irrelevant, is that myth is still a powerful psychic force in a secular age that has no overarching narratives or myths to guide its journey. This is, as a mater of fact, a subtext in various serial killer narratives, such as the movie Se7en (1995) and, of course, Dexter itself.

This book is my attempt to make sense of the popularity of this new mythic monster. When I started researching this topic it became saliently obvious to me that there is no one way explain the serial killer. As a semiotician, I decided to base my research on pop culture itself, which is in many ways a culture that has extended classical mythic culture, updating it with its own versions of mystical personages and beings, and its own approach to morality and spirituality. I believe that it is through the lens of pop culture’s texts and modes of representation that we can get a good sense of why the serial killer plays such a prominent role in what can be called the “theater of the grotesque.”

I wish to thank all the students in my Forensic Semiotics classes at the University of Toronto (where the topic of serial killers comes up often). They ← VIII | IX → have assisted me at different times and in various ways to investigate this topic, collecting information and data for it, and above all else providing me with their own fresh and valuable insights. In particular, I wish to thank Daniele and Valentina Alonzi, Emily Dyer, Joey Di Domenico, Matteo Guinci, Alexandra Harte, Stacy Costa, Vanessa Compagnone, Mariana Bockarova, Laura Martinez, Maiko Mitsuhashi, Danielle Orr, Adam Popatia, Emily Mitchell, Victoria Bigliardi, Ruby Chandrasegaram, and Kelly Rahardja. I must also thank my wonderful companion for over half a century, my wife Lucia, for all the patience and support she has always afforded me throughout the years. I dedicate this book to her, my daughter Danila, and my grandchildren, Alex, Sarah, and Charlotte, hoping that they may live in a world free from fear and danger.

Marcel Danesi

University of Toronto, 2015

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ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
Serial Killer Jack the Ripper Murder Popular media Dexter saga Real and fictional serial killer
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 138 pp., num. b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Marcel Danesi (Author)

Marcel Danesi (PhD in linguistics, University of Toronto), is Full Professor of Semiotics and Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He is well known for his work in semiotics and popular culture. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in recognition of his scholarly contributions. He is currently Editor-in-chief of Semiotica, the leading journal in the field of semiotics.


Title: The «Dexter Syndrome»
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140 pages