Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dexter and Pinocchio: What it Means for Serial Killers and Marionettes to Become Human

Wooden puppet Pinocchio walking around in town among people

The acclaimed series Dexter is about a forensic blood spatter pattern expert working closely with the Miami-Dade Homicide Department while battling with his own homicidal impulses. As a young child, he had witnessed the bloody and gruesome murder of his mother and it is said that this experience has turned him into the monster he is.

The young boy Dexter is adopted by a police officer called Harry Morgan. Harry becomes aware of the serial killer impulses of his adopted son and tries his best to help him manage those homicidal tendencies. As a result, his father comes up with a “code of ethics,” called simply “Harry's code.”

Apart from the obvious rule of not getting caught, there are others, such as killing only those who are bad guys, criminals who have escaped through the loopholes and meshes of the law, and who have caused and - continue to cause - harm and damage to people and society. Dexter is a serial killer turned into a Batman-like hero and vigilante. The series claims that even serial killers could be useful to society if only they channeled their energies toward killing people who are similar to them!

The series is a psychological portrayal of a serial killer fighting with his own impulses. He knows that killing is bad, but at the same time, he is addicted to it like a gambler to his game or an alcoholic to her booze. He needs that rush and release of pent-up energy and gets this satisfaction by “removing” evil people from the face of the earth. His code states that he should never kill an innocent person, and he tries religiously to abide by that rule. (The emphasis lies on tries because inevitably even a disciplined killer like Dexter may have a slip-up). In other words, Dexter's serial killer instincts and tendencies define him as the person, or rather the monster, he is in reality.

So what do Pinocchio and Dexter have in common? It is the quest for becoming human. Both are different in the eyes of the world. Pinocchio is a pine-eyed wooden marionette; he is a lifeless creature different from all the other boys out there. No matter how hard he tries he can never fit in. What he wants most is to be like the others, but perhaps even more importantly, to have a heart, the feature that figuratively gives us our humanity.

The same applies to Dexter. The show is based on a series of novels starting with the 2004 book Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. Incidentally, the author had originally planned to call his book Pinocchio bleeds. Dexter, like Pinocchio, is trying to become human, yet he is forced to hide himself and his secret; only occasionally when he is able to release that “burden” and when he discloses his predicament, he gets a glimpse and sense of what true companionship would be like. Unfortunately, it is not the type of secret that you can open up to those close to you, since the other person's first impulse would be to call the police. Dexter's own sister, on the other hand, would not even have to call anybody being a cop herself.

So who could Dexter possibly open up to? The answer: Like-minded serial killers. Those with whom he shares the same struggles. In fact, he feels admiration for some who are really good at their “craft” and wishes to find out and learn how they do it. Life is difficult for serial killers as they can get lonely and there is no official club or member meeting to deal with those issues (jail does not count).

As Dexter is confronting life, he also has to deal with all that goes with it. So he experiences different roles. He is a co-worker, a brother, a friend, but more importantly also a husband and a father. As he is going through his journey, he is under the impression that he lacks any real emotion or feeling, since like Pinocchio he has no heart (but unlike Pinocchio his nose does not grow when he lies, otherwise the series would not have lasted that long).

It raises an interesting question, namely that if people with no feelings can indeed acquire them. We read about horrible criminal acts and most of them reveal that the perpetrator, the cold-blooded serial killer, lacks any form of empathy or emotions. One needs cold blood to be able to act out those chilling deeds without any remorse or conscience. Does Dexter have remorse? The answer is yes, particularly because, Harry's code of ethics aside, he has an innate strong sense of justice.

What about Pinocchio? He acts like any normal boy would, getting into trouble and causing mischief. And he lies. But he realizes one major difference between him and the other boys: he is not human. This realization also occurs to David, the boy in Spielberg's A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) who as a “mecha” (mechanical being) - a human android programmed to love and created by Cybertronics - is “built” differently and is not "orga" (organic) like those of flesh and blood.

Pinocchio's dream is rather unrealistic. But in the end, Pinocchio redeems himself. Through his good acts and honesty, the marionette turns into flesh and becomes human. (In terms of allegory, one could say he turns from the body of flesh to spirit, but that might be reading too much into the novel.) At the end anyhow, Pinocchio is then just like any other boy, of flesh and blood, thanks to the magical touch of the Blue-haired Fairy.

What about Dexter? This remains to be seen. But mainly, Dexter Morgan is willing to change and would like to become human just like Pinocchio. He knows that there is something wrong with him; at the same time, he is also aware that his traumatic experiences of the past have shaped him the way he is. He would need to heal those deep wounds, revive life and feelings within, and conquer the dark abyss inside himself.

Yet reality is not a fairy tale. Unless Dexter gets a night visit from the Blue Fairy, his future may be rather bleak. Serial killers suffer from an incurable disease, and there are, to my knowledge, no cured or reformed ex-serial killers living happily in society. In fact, by definition "once a serial killer, always a serial killer" since one of their characteristics is to continue killing until the very end. This is why when police are confronted with cases of serial killers, they hope for one of these options: either that the serial killer is caught, or that he or she dies or is killed.

So is there no hope for serial killers? I believe not. I doubt that even heavy medication and therapy could cure serial killers of their twisted sealed fate, from that “obscure passenger of darkness” within. But I cannot shake off the idealist within me that - despite evidence to the contrary - keeps on believing that humans are capable of becoming and being human.

The tales of Pinocchio and Dexter demonstrate that humanity is something that needs to be earned; it is not an automatic process. Likewise, you do not become a parent just by having children. Technically and on paper, yes, but in reality, there is more to it; one needs to open up and embrace life and, most of all, learn the ropes and challenges of what it actually means to be a true human being. 


Vincent said...

The tales may indicate that humanity needs to be earned, but I am not sure what you mean when you say that "it is not an automatic process".

Are you suggesting that a person should have to pass a test? It would be interesting to design such a test, but it would end up merely as a psychiatric/legal construct, not a true criterion for being human. I suggest that if you are born from the womb of a woman, that's the only evidence needed, and no one is qualified to pass judgment on your humanity thereafter, though society has to protect itself against certain behaviours.

What do you mean about "technically and on paper"? Are you suggesting one has to pass a parenting exam, without which one's children are taken away?

Obviously serial killers need to be caught and locked up for society's sake. Then one may be compassionate and try to repair the damage caused by early psychological trauma. (I could be wrong but I don't think you become one through brain damage caused by disease or a knock on the head. We have the well-documented case of Phineas Gage who had a personality change after a crowbar went through his brain and out the other side, but he didn't become a criminal as a result.)

Bryan White said...

Excellent post!

I've never seen Dexter. I've heard of it put I knew nothing about it. Sounds like an intriguing, if somewhat messed up, concept.

Arash Farzaneh said...

@Brian: I highly recommend the show; it's definitely one of the most interesting and original, albeit twisted, series around!

@Vincent: I think life is the test in itself and do not really subscribe to psychiatric or legal tests, which may purport to examine "sanity" but not humanity.

We are born human, but there are many who are not "fully human" - not to say "monsters" - out there. We develop our humanity over space and time.

When your child is born you are by definition a parent, but you still have no idea what it actually entails. You can, in fact, turn your back to your children. You are then not a "good" parent by any normative standard.

It is not automatic because it is a learning process. The human or humane aspect is what many deem humanitarian and humanistic. I believe we earn our humanity by degrees by going through a wide range of feelings, experiences and interactions, that is, only if we are receptive to life and wholeheartedly engage in it.

Hope this clarifies your questions a little ...

Vincent said...

Thanks very much, Arash. These are interesting notions for they get one to wonder if there are societies in which these learning processes are allowed for. Would you say that in certain traditional societies the extended family has a better chance to exert its influence? I came across it in Sabah on the island of Borneo, for instance, where actually they are very up to date in technology, but informal arrangements still exist for adoption. So if your feckless cousin gets pregnant, you may step in and offer to take the child and provide parental care and pay for the education. The price to be paid is that the child will be a kind of servant as well as a member of the family.

There are also societies where those who are a danger to the community through their behaviour may get quietly killed. And when the police come, nobody knows anything. Summary justice is a dangerous thing of course & we think of the lynching of Negroes in certain bad old days.

What I find myself instinctively opposed to is excessive State interference in parenthood, as indeed in many other matters where compassionate attitudes by a local community can work but a bureaucracy constantly paranoid about votes and being sued cannot.

John Myste said...

I don't think science knows what ingredients are needed or missing to make a sociopath. It has been proven to my satisfaction that chemicals in the body form a portion of who we are and that who we are determines what chemicals we have in our body. The idea our mind is ruled by chemicals is virtually disproven and that our mind is free from them is also virtually disproven.

Someone who can commit murder is not sane by commonly accepted standards. If he could be truly rehabilitated, that would be a fact that, at least for now, we cannot know.

Very interested post, Arash.