On Dexter

Faster, Dexter! Kill! Kill!

By Jeffrey Foy, Matthew Bezdek, Matthew Jacovina, Richard J. Gerrig, Ph.D, William Wenzel

When Dexter premiered in 2006, millions of viewers found themselves in the unusual role of rooting for a serial killer to dispatch his victims. When reruns began airing on broadcast television, the advocacy group Parents Television Council condemned the show because it “compels viewers to empathize with a serial killer, to root for him to prevail, to hope he doesn’t get discovered.” We believe that each of these claims is true for many viewers–which is exactly why they continue to watch. But how is Dexter able to convert so many otherwise law-abiding citizens into knowing accomplices to a psychopath’s killing spree? We suggest that Dexter exploits viewers’ ordinary psychological processes to yield extraordinary enthusiasm for Dexter’s murderous exploits.

Rooting for Dexter in the Moment

People who watch Dexter often confess to experiencing a shiver of delight when he lands another victim: as an episode unfolds, viewers feel themselves applauding Dexter’s continued success as a murderer. To be sure, people like to see bad guys get punished. However, this general tendency does not sufficiently explain why people support Dexter’s particular methods. We suggest that people support Dexter because the unfolding story draws them into his narrative world. When people are transported to narrative worlds, they often respond as if they were participants in the events. In fact, one of the great pleasures of narrative experiences is to get drawn into the story in a way that allows this type of active participation. Through participation, viewers become absorbed in the world of Dexter and  …

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