Not too long ago, the Showtime network aired the final episode of the television series Dexter. Before that AMC’s third season of The Killing focused intently on a series of murders in Seattle. Another recent show deals with the popular fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal). These television shows are in addition to a recent tradition of literature and film that deal with those on the very outskirts of humanity, the serial killers. Why exactly are we so fascinated with these individuals who prey on other humans and seem to lack the facets of human life like emotions, empathy and a conscience (i.e. psychopathy/sociopathy)?
Beyond that, there has been a recent trend of not demonizing the murderers, but actually giving these fictional characters an essence of being protagonists. This specifically draws on the character of Dexter Morgan from the show Dexter, a serial killer who kills not the innocent or weak, but rather the more depraved and dangerous elements of our society. For some reason, the depiction of Dexter Morgan elicits not just intrigue, but support from the viewers. We, as viewers, grow to like him as a character, and to some degree, even revel in his work. I would say that this may be because we formulate the idea that the people he kills are deemed deserving of their end, the death prescribed to them by Dexter is somehow fitting for their savagery. So does this reveal an undertone in our society of a belief in ‘just’ killings?
Another character in popular culture, Hannibal Lecter also seems to draw a sort of respect or admiration. His power of intellect and cunning are seen as impressive, despite his, what I would describe as a pretty big character flaw, murderous, cannibalistic nature. He is certainly not as beloved as Dexter Morgan, but Hannibal Lecter elicits a certain set of emotions, that are not restricted to disgust.
This is not all to suggest that we are perfectly comfortable with the actions of these characters, simply there is something about them that really attracts our attention. This unique and new fictional archetype activates something about our culture or produces something entirely new that I find hard to understand, and I think is deserving of more research and study. Why do we find it so easy to empathize with someone so intensely doused in taboo as Mr. Morgan? I would be interested to see what your opinions on this are, whether you agree or disagree with my thoughts presented here.
P.S. Also, I would highly recommend watching Dexter if you are not too shy when it comes to gory subject matter, but must admit the quality of the series falls off after the fourth season.