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The «Dexter Syndrome»

The Serial Killer in Popular Culture


Marcel Danesi

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.
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Chapter 1. The Beginning: Jack the Ripper


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Jack the Ripper

One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th century.

—From Hell (2001)

The November 9, 1888 edition of the London Daily Post carried the following shocking headline: “Jack the Ripper Claims Fifth Victim,” a proclamation that, in hindsight, can be seen to have heralded the genesis of a new and bizarre social obsession—the serial killer. The crimes were gruesome, but not any more so than the countless butcheries that had occurred before in history. There was a difference, though. The killer perpetrated his crimes as if he were enacting some heinous mysterious plan. From this, there emerged the public’s fixation with the serial killer persona as a dark, mysterious, dangerous loner—an image bolstered (indeed probably generated) by media sensationalism. The obsession quickly morphed into a social mythic narrative that blended reality with fiction. Jack the Ripper was its first protagonist.

The image of the Ripper as a shadowy and terrifying figure, who commits murders intentionally, motivated by some inner dark force, rather than spontaneously by such passions as revenge or envy, dovetails with the rise of what can be called “dark literature” such as the gothic novel and the detective crime story, the latter originating in 1841 with the publication of Edgar Allan ← 1 | 2 → Poe’s short story “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” These two fledgling genres catered to an increasingly...

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