Dexter Morgan, initially brought to life by Jeff Lindsay in his novels and brought to the screen by American production company Showtime named Dexter (2006). Dexter Morgan is a blood splatter analyst for Miami-metro homicide by day and by night is a serial killer with a “conscience”. Dexter Morgan lives by a certain code that is inherited by his adopted father (who happened to be a detective and highly respected member of Miami-metro), Harry Morgan along with Dr. Evelyn Vogel (neuro-psychiatrist who specialises in child psychopaths). It was assumed that due to Dexter Morgan’s traumatic experience from an early age would result in him becoming a psychopathic serial killer, the code would protect Dexter and be a means for survival whilst also eradicating the world of murderers.
What is so incredibly interesting about this dynamic storyline, is how the viewers can’t seem to help but encourage and enjoy watching Dexter kill these serial killers and find it completely justifiable. The self-titled show, Dexter (2006) is shot from Dexter’s own perspective, even the opening sequence for every show across 8 seasons is shot from Dexter’s perspective. To quote an article written by Christopher Ryan, PhD (2012) for Psychology Today, Ryan analyses the Emmy award wining opening sequence of Dexter(2006):
‘The camera opens with a macro close-up of a mosquito on Dexter’s arm, we see it preparing to stab its proboscis into the human skin. Dexter comes into focus and preemptively squashes the bug in self-defense. Thus, the very first thing viewers see is a “just murder.” Already, in the first instants of the opening credits, we are behind Dexter’s eyes, absorbed into his perspective, convinced of his justice.’
Dramatic thrillers like Dexter are incredibly engaging to an audience for a number of reasons, due to how fantastically intricate the storyline is, it’s imperative that the audience suspends their disbelief. The term, originally coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1817), and argued by Harris and Sandborn (2013) in ‘A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication’, they argue what happens when an audience suspends their disbelief:
‘Any good narrative medium transports us into the world of the story. This state of high engagement includes four dimensions: narrative understanding, attentional focus, emotional engagement and narrative presence (Busselle & Bilandzic, 2009). Transportation involves both cognitive (e.g., attention, imagery) and emotional, (e.g., empathy, suspense) activation. Someone who is more strongly transported into the world of the narrative enjoys the experience more. (Krakowiak & Oliver, 2012) and is more likely to be persuaded by it (Appel & Richter, 2010).’
Due to the incredibility of the plot, it could be argued that the audience have to suspend their disbelief more when watching Dexter than they would watching a soap opera. Due to this, the audience is more likely to be sucked into the storyline and because Dexter(2006) is shot entirely from his perspective, the audience are more likely to be convinced of his reasoning and justification of what he does.
In an article written by Josie Barth PhD(2012), Barth summarises Jean-Louis Baudry’s (1975), ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus’. Barth explains how the camera emulates the effect of the ‘renaissance perspective’, which Bradbury(1975) explains ‘a conception of space formed by the relation between all elements which are equally near and distant from ‘the source of all life’(289)’. Barth goes on to note that ‘The camera, aligned with the eye (and hence, the subject in the tradition of Western art), produces a “transcendental subject” (292)’. The use of the camera being aligned with the eye, allowing the audience to see through Dexter’s eyes, perhaps even if only momentarily, could enhance the way viewers resonate with Dexter as a character. Barth goes on to note Bradbury’s ideas that:
‘the setting in which the film is exhibited, with its dark room and straight-forward gaze, (Baudry describes the viewer in the theatre as “chained, captured, or captivated” (294), reproduces the mirror stage in which secondary identification occurs, allowing for the illusory constitution of the subject.’
Jaques Lacan (1949) believes that the human psyche is divided up into three structures that dictate the way we live our lives and control our most personal desires. Lacan believed that these three structures could be broken up to coincide with certain milestones that happen within our lives as we grow and develop. The three structures are the real, the symbolic and the imaginary. The real is the initial state in which we enter into the world and we only experience this state for a short period of time. The real is the stage when all of our primal needs are met, before we are introduced to structures and frameworks are introduced, like language. In an article by Adrian Johnston (2013), he sums up how Lacan describes the real; ‘Lacan tends to speak of the Real as an absolute fullness, a pure plenum devoid of the negativities of absences, antagonisms, gaps, lacks, splits, etc.’. The Symbolic state is preoccupied with notions of desire, once we are able to accept language as a framework, rules are placed onto us to adhere to societies standards and rules, our once primal needs become buried within ourselves as we live through the symbolic and supress the real. The imaginary is the step between both the real and the symbolic; Lacan believes the imaginary directly relates to ‘the mirror stage’. The mirror stage is when the child becomes fully aware of oneself and no longer an extension of the mother. It’s at this stage that Lacan dictates we develop our ego, ‘Ideal-I’.
The fact that the mirror stage is re-enacted whilst in a cinema setting, means its easier for a audience to recall the imaginary as we project ourselves onto the character. Lacan believes that due to the symbolic and the imaginary, we are prohibited from ever fully experiencing pleasure. Ott and Mack (2010) believe that the suppression of these pleasures in fact in turn leads us to be motivated to embrace them. Ott and Mack go on to explain that as humans we receive pleasure from things that we wouldn’t usually associate with pleasure. That’s why people sometimes get a rush or a kick out of breaking rules or breaking laws. Ott and Mack even believed we could experience the same pleasure from horrible accidents or scenes. This could directly relate to the audiences watching Dexter, despite how horrific and gory the program is, we are experiencing a type of pleasure that we have suppressed and don’t quite fully understand and the screen helps resurface these pleasures. The surface of the pleasure principle goes hand in hand with that of the reality principle. The reality principle is finding the justification to accept the feelings from the pleasure principle. It’s due to this that the audience finds Dexter’s code easily justifiable.
To conclude, the way in which Dexter is filmed and presented is key to allowing audiences to be swayed into believing him. The mirror phase is key into pulling the audience in to identifying with Dexter and the traumas that led to him becoming a serial killer. Through camera angles and the way the narrative is preoccupied with Dexter’s life and his opinions and interior monolog all affect how we the audience justifies his way of life.
Barth, J. (2016). Notes on Jean-Louis Baudry’s “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus”. [online] Available at: https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/jtb63/2012/10/14/notes-on-jean-louis-baudrys-ideological-effects-of-the-basic-cinematic-apparatus/” [Accessed 30 Nov. 2016].
Dexter. (2006). [DVD] Showtime.
Johnston, A. (2016). Jacques Lacan. [online] Plato.stanford.edu. Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan/ [Accessed 30 Nov. 2016]
Lacan, J. (1977). Écrits. 1st ed. New York: Norton.
Ott, B.L. & Mack, R.L. (2010). Critical Media Studies An Introduction. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.
Ryan, C. (2016). Being Dexter Morgan. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-dawn/201202/being-dexter-morgan [Accessed 30 Nov. 2016].