So I’m finally working my way through Dexter thanks to the magic of Netflix, and reading discussions about the show kind of highlighted something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. People goddamn love serial killers. And not just the crazy women who send them marriage proposals based entirely on knowing they are compelled to murder people. A really large percent of the population really gets off on stories about people being murdered in the worst ways possible.
True crime is an entire genre of literature that I hear a lot when I ask somebody what they read. Like, that’s all they read. And no, it’s not epic heists they want to learn about. They want blood, guts, gristle, rape, and torture. The Discovery Channel was a source of knowledge about the natural world for decades, but a hell of a lot more people watch the upstart spin-off station Investigation Discovery, which is focused almost entirely on murder. Other stations have been filling their programming with shows like Snapped that detail disturbing homicides.
But what we really love is a good old fashioned serial killer. Sure, these people who murder their spouses for insurance money or out of jealousy will whet our appetite, but we want a stone cold psychopath whenever we can get one. Someone who doesn’t kill for personal gain or anything we could conceivably relate to on a human level; someone who simply has to kill. And if we can turn them into heroes, that’s double our pleasure.
I first took notice of this in the 90’s when everybody was fawning over Sir Anthony Hopkins’ iconic performance as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. In that film, the character was a terrifying remorseless monster, but the sequel, Hannibal, attempted to turn him into some kind of bizarre romantic anti-hero. By the time we got to the origin story prequel, Hannibal Rising, he was a Nazi-killing avenger romancing Gong Li. Almost two and a half decades after Dr. Lecter took pop culture by storm he has his own accaimed television series featuring the fourth actor to play him (counting 1986’s Manhunter). That is what you call an extended love affair. And all for a guy whose defining trait is killing and eating people in particularly creative ways.
We simply must do lunch.
So, back to America’s other favorite serial killer. Dexter Morgan is a man possessed by the need to kill who was raised by a man who taught him a moral code. So he only kills other murders. How very convenient for an audience who abhors the killing of innocent people, yet craves vicarious secondhand violence and an outlet for their fascination of serial killings. It’s like a perfect storm.
Dexter poetically refers to his homicidal urges as his “dark passenger”. His inability to relate to other people is ironically what makes him so very relatable, but also there’s the concept of his inner darkness. Clearly we all have out own dark passengers as well or we wouldn’t feel the need to seek out insanely gory and disturbing stories for entertainment. Dexter may need to take his needs out physically, but we like to watch ever so much.
Yeah, yeah, we’ve all got our reasons for seeking out death and gore in entertainment. The fight or flight response triggers adrenaline, we have a sick sense of humor, or maybe we’re even interested in the filming and special effects techniques used to simulate dismemberment and evisceration. But this goes well beyond cheap thrills or morbid analytical curiosity for most of us.
Advertising fictional serial killers on public transportation. I love you, America.
I may smile a shark-toothed grin when I see Leatherface chainsaw a paraplegic in half vertically or his family trying to get their decrepit grandfather to kill a girl with a hammer, but that’s all black comedy. There’s a difference between reveling in realistic serial killings and cheering at Jason Vorhees smashing someone in a sleeping bag into a tree. Although many of the show’s promotional images utilize light-hearted gallows humor, Dexter persistently engages the viewer on a philosophical level. It’s not a comedy by any stretch, yet we feel the need to mask it as such in public. Kind of like how the title character hides his own darkness behind the mask of a warm smile and everyman demeanor.
The current trend in television is to take a charming, relatable protagonist and put them in a position where they do terrible things to see how far the audience will follow them. That rabbit hole appears to be bottomless. We still cried for Walter White after all of the horrors he was responsible for, we root for Frank Underwood after multiple cold-blooded murders of the innocent and many more lives destroyed for little more than his own pride, and when Dexter killed a man just for being an asshole, we shrugged it off. Once we are locked into a characters’ story as an outlet our own dark impulses, our instinct is to stick with them no matter what so long as our own hands aren’t dirtied.
Some people speculate that this obsession with violence in entertainment is leading to a decline in society and making us all into more violent people. However, looking at FBI crime statistics shows a definitive inverse proportionality between the rise of explicit violence in entertainment and violent crime in real life. This flies in the face of the popular conservative opinion that art inspires life rather than life inspiring art.
1991- Hannibal Lecter becomes universally beloved icon. Just saying.
Given mankind’s eternal universal quest for hatred and death, I’d speculate that perhaps we all have our own dark passengers in need of appeasement. Killing in modern society seems primarily the work of the insatiably selfish and the mentally ill whereas looking a few decades in the past back when it was all Brady Bunch and Pong suggests a race in the thrall of mass psychosis. Even our wars are meager little things compared to what our ancestors got down to with gusto. I wonder if our natural bloodthirst has abated somewhat in the wake of the cathartic release that is universal violence in entertainment.
It’s clear that all of this serial killer stuff floats our boat, and it’s also clear that the level of violence that the First World perpetrates on itself has abated almost in unison with the rise of shows, books, films, and even video games that depict the most vile of crimes in gory detail and occasionally go so far as to make heroes out of the perpetrators. Correlation is not necessarily causation, but after noticing this trend, it’s pretty hard to defend the “violent entertainment is making us more evil” argument.
So in spite of the apparent counter-intuitiveness of the notion that watching serial killers reap their bloody harvest and even celebrating it is making us less likely to follow suit, it seems like this sort of thing could even be healthy for us. Does the simulated experience of observing someone else taking lives make us respect life more than we would otherwise?
Hearing and reading about bad things happening to other people is one thing, but seeing it played out with dramatic music, lighting, and all that seems to have a much more powerful psychological effect than when it happens in real life someplace far away. As weird (and kind of stupid) as it is, some things only seem real to us when they’re actually pretend.
So does watching serial killers bathe in the blood of the innocent and unjust alike desensitize us to violence or cure us of our darkest desires? Probably neither. Maybe both. The incompetence of modern politics and their monetary stranglehold on science will see to it that the answer remains vague. But our love of onscreen violence and the characters who carry it out definitely implies that we all have dark passengers of our own that need to come out and play from time to time.
That’s not to say we should sit all of our toddlers down in front of the TV for a goriest killings film festival or Dexter binge as formative years are something you really don’t want to mess with, but as healthy, productive adults who know the difference between fantasy and reality there’s likely nothing wrong with getting some cheap thrills and chills watching people do horrible things to one another. Who knows, it might even be saving our sanity.