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Dexter the Amiable Serial Killer: PT Bloggers and Other Experts Show their Love

The Psychology of Dexter: 18 Points of View

Do you know about Dexter the lovable serial killer? The first time I watched an episode, I could not believe what I just experienced. I was rooting for a killer! How did that happen? Psychologically, the show is just amazing on so many levels. So I could not believe my good fortune when I was invited to write a chapter for a book called The Psychology of Dexter. Lots of other experts were also invited to contribute, including some of your favorite Psychology Today bloggers. Then I was invited to write the introductory chapter and some other bits and pieces, and that's how I got to be called the editor (but really, Leah Wilson did all the rest of the work).

Here are some previews of 8 of the 18 chapters, in the order they appear in the book. You can find the list of the other authors and their chapter titles here.

Joshua Gowin writes the blog You, Illuminated. His chapter is "Naughty by Nature, Dexter by Design."

"The more I learn about psychopathy, aggression and violence, the more of a mystery it becomes to me. Why do people murder, and especially, how can someone do it without remorse? One of the things I find fascinating about Dexter is the fact that we get to see both the nature and the nurture that breed a psychopath. We learn about his family background and his upbringing throughout the show, and this gives us a well-documented case study of the development of a cold-blooded killer. Despite the thick file on Dexter, just as in real life, the more dirt I get on him, the more questions I'm left with."

Bella DePaulo writes the Living Single blog. Her chapter is "Deception: It's What Dexter Does Best (Well, Second Best)."

"While studying deception for decades, I thought I had come across just about every variation on the theme of living a lie. Then I met Dexter. Like everyone else who is living a lie, Dexter is hiding something almost every moment of his life. Unlike everyone else, though, Dexter is doing so with both hands tied behind his back. (Couldn't resist that analogy). As a psychopath (or a person with psychopathic tendencies), Dexter can't read people effortlessly. He doesn't have an intuitive sense of the right thing to do or to say. So he is always studying others for clues to how to seem, well, human. To me, this isn't just mindless entertainment; it is totally engaging - a tasty treat for the psychologically-minded."

Wind Goodfriend is an Associate Professor at Buena Vista University, and in 2008 she was named "Faculty of the Year" there. Chase Barrick graduated from BVU last year. Their chapter is "Beyond denial: Freudian defense mechanisms in the minds of Miami Metro."


"Sigmund Freud suggested that when we have anxiety or trauma in our lives, we deal with it using a variety of techniques called "defense mechanisms." All the characters in Dexter use a variety of defense mechanisms, such as denial, identification, and repression. Perhaps the strongest mechanism in Dexter himself is justification as he continuously tells himself that his actions are actually for the greater good. What would Freud say about their lives, and how Dexter's life must inevitably end?"

David Barber-Callaghan and Nigel Barber's chapter is "Rita's Rocky Relationships." Nigel Barber writes The Human Beast blog.

"Dexter Morgan is superficially charming but lacks emotional depth, after the fashion of other sociopaths. He lacks the violence, anger and venom of Paul, Rita's abusive ex-husband for instance. Even so, Dexter meets all of the clinical criteria for an abusive boyfriend and his cold calculating schemes are psychologically abusive. When we delved into the nitty gritty of this issue, we concluded, to the horror of his admirers, that Dexter is really just as abusive as Paul."

Tamara McClintock Greenberg writes the 21st Century Aging blog. Her chapter is "Denial and Rita: Women, Power, and Getting Caught."

"We women are not supposed to be aggressive. At first blush, Rita, Dexter's love interest throughout most of the first four seasons, seems a model for a well-behaved woman. A more thorough look at her however, reveals someone struggling to contain her own aggressive impulses. Perhaps Rita and Dexter are not as different as we want to believe."

Paul Wilson is an Australian forensic psychologist and criminologist who is especially interested in the characteristics of serial killers and those who commit genocide. His chapter is "Why Psychopaths Like Dexter Aren't Really All That Bad."

"What strikes me about Dexter and other serial killers is that they are a lot less frightening than the people who commit the most atrocious human rights crimes such as those committed in Rwanda, Kosovo or Cambodia. Indeed most of the people who mutilate, rape and murder people in the genocides that occurred in these countries were perfectly normal human beings. So who is more dangerous? Ordinary people or psychopaths like Dexter? I know what I think."

Matthew Jacovina, Matthew Bezdek, Jeffrey Foy, and William Wenzel are all graduate students at Stony Brook University where they conduct research under the direction of Richard Gerrig. Gerrig is a Professor of Psychology in the Experimental/Cognitive program. Their chapter is titled, "Faster, Dexter! Kill! Kill!"

"As consumers of narratives, we regularly find ourselves rooting for protagonists, even when the protagonist is acting outside of our everyday moral boundaries. As Dexter viewers, we move well beyond our moral boundaries and find ourselves (sometimes literally) cheering on a serial killer. Dexter's writers have created a world in which Dexter becomes a character that viewers, in the moment, want to succeed. Upon further reflection, Dexter's acts are not so easy to justify. And yet, this very conflict between what we want in the moment, and what we think about after the credits roll, may be part of what makes Dexter such an enjoyable experience for fans."

Christopher Ryan writes the Sex at Dawn blog. His chapter is "Being Dexter Morgan."

"For me, the seductiveness of Dexter revolves around the fact that he represents that tipping point where the two extremes of human behavior connect, completing the circuit that describes human consciousness. Dexter is both cold-blooded killer and warm-hearted family man. Unfeeling assassin and supportive friend. Like all of us, he is confused, yet certain. He's the best and worst we can be-often simultaneously. Just consider his biography: orphaned as a young boy, raised by kind adults who tried to understand the strange child he was, gradual awakening to his unique abilities and needs, a deep desire to defend the innocent against the world's worst predators. Dexter? Yes, but this also describes the childhoods of the holy trinity of American superheroes: Superman, Batman, and Spiderman. Dexter touches us because we are all dangerously dexterous."

 

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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