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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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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...

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