Killer Thursdays

What Really Drives Dexter Morgan?

After six novels and six seasons on Showtime, Dexter is still one of the most fascinating fictional characters. The joy he takes in killing is monstrous, however vile his victims. Yet, we cannot help but be drawn in by Dexter’s dark, somewhat clumsy charm.

What is Dexter, exactly? And what drives him?

*originally posted 9/16/11, slightly modified and updated here*

*warning – the following contains spoilers from the first three Dexter novels. Given that the novels have been out for some time and the television show is approaching its 7th season, I doubt these spoilers will negatively impact your enjoyment of either. Still, you’ve been warned. ;)*

Driving Mr. Dexter

sharp knife bladeDexter Morgan. Forensic blood spatter analyst and friendly neighborhood serial killer.

What’s that you say? Friendly and serial killer in the same sentence? Indeed.

See, Dexter isn’t your average homicidal maniac. Oh no. Dexter is a cut above all the rest. Because Dexter only kills people who really, really deserve it.

No, really.

So you see, as long as you’re one of the good guys, you’re perfectly safe with Tall, Dark and Deadly Dexter.

Dexter Morgan is the (anti)hero created by author Jeff Lindsay and first appearing in the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter. Since then, he has starred in Dearly Devoted Dexter, Dexter in the Dark, Dexter by DesignDexter is Delicious and Double Dexter (whew, that’s a whole lotta Dex). Darkly Dreaming Dexter also inspired six seasons of the Showtime series Dexter, with Dexter Morgan being portrayed by Michael C. Hall.

As the character of Dexter Morgan in the novel differs in a few very important ways from the character in the television show, we’ll restrict our Dexterish explorations to Novel Dexter for Part 1 of this series.

The novels are narrated in Dexter’s playful and often euphoric voice. He’s prone to Capitalizing A Lot and is almost as fond of alliteration and nicknames as he is of Bavarian cream filled doughnuts, medianoche sandwiches and badito de mame milkshakes.

By day, Dexter is a mild-mannered forensic blood spatter analyst for Miami’sblood spatter Metro-Dade Police Department. While he finds blood extremely disturbing for reasons he doesn’t understand until late in the first novel, he does enjoy making sense of blood spatter at a crime scene and forcing the “vile sticky red stuff” to “behave.”

By night, when  the moon calls and the Need rises, Dexter goes a-hunting. Once he finds the perfect “playmate,” Dexter waits in a white silk mask with a noose of fishing line which he uses to subdue his victims until he can tape them to a work table in a carefully arranged killing room. He then spends a few hours in “happy exploration” before disposing of the victim in various creative ways.

Bloody HandprintAlthough Dexter feels an irresistible Need to kill, he doesn’t do so randomly or haphazardly. He always selects his victims from among the worst murderers, especially those that the justice system cannot put away, is careful to confirm their guilt, and always tidies up afterward.

How did Dexter come by such a work ethic?

His cop foster-father Harry Morgan discovered Dexter’s dark penchant and quickly got him “squared away.” Harry Morgan, a good man and a good cop, saw the darkness in his foster son and realized that, although it wasn’t curable, it might be used as a force for good (if you can call murder, even Dexter’s brand of murder, good). Dexter calls the set of rules that define his murder ritual the Harry Code. And he never deviates.

Well, almost never.

But how did Dexter come by his dark Need in the first place?

When Dexter was very young, he witnessed the brutal slaying of his mother and several men in a refrigerated storage container. The murder involved a chainsaw and copious amounts of blood. Afterwards, Dexter and his brother Brian, older by one year, were left for days in a lake of blood an inch thick. Dexter was rescued by Officer Harry Morgan and later adopted by Harry and his wife Doris. Brian was abandoned to the foster system.

Although Dexter blocks it out (until his brother Brian returns and forces him to remember), the incident in the storage container killed most of what was human in Dexter and let in something  that Dexter calls the Dark Passenger. It left him with a Need to kill.

gargoyle dark passenger

The Dark Passenger is described as another voice inside of Dexter, a dark, reptilian voice that guides Dexter and prods him into killing. Dexter refers to “letting the Dark Passenger” drive and often uses “we” statements when he’s in the grip of his Need.

While it might at first seem like the Dark Passenger is just a figment of Dexter’s twisted imagination, a way of filling some of the emptiness inside himself and passing off some of the blame, it quickly becomes clear that the Dark Passenger is Other. Some of the cold killers Dexter encounters, including his nemesis Sargeant Doakes, carry their own Dark Passenger. Those Dark Passengers and Dexter’s respond to each other with a flurry of invisible black wings and not-heard hisses.

The third novel in the series, Dexter in the Dark, makes it even clearer that the Dark Passenger is a real and separate being and goes deeper into its mythology. The story, the only one in the series so far to not be narrated exclusively in Dexter’s voice, traces the Dark Passenger’s origin from the first IT through the development of a brutal religion surrounding a god called Moloch and into the present day where a being called the Watcher is trying to revive the worship of Moloch in all it’s child-sacrificing, Dark Passenger-eating, and burnt-offering glory.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Dexter Morgan series where we’ll delve into Dexter’s softer side…

Have you read the Dexter novels? What about the differences between Novel Dexter and TV Dexter? What do you think of the Dark Passenger?  Was Harry’s Code really the right solution for young Dexter?


Photo Credit
Knife blade by The Ewan, on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
blood spatter by Matt Allworth, on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Bloody Handprint by Jessica Howard, on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Gargoyle by Scott Duncan, on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

16 thoughts on “What Really Drives Dexter Morgan?

  1. I didn’t know about the whole “dark passenger” element (I’ve never read the books). Very interesting.

    Sidenote: I almost named my kid Dexter, unaware of the series or the novels when I was prego. 🙂

    1. LOL. Dexter is a nice name. But yeah, I can imagine the comments now.

      I really like the “dark passenger” element. Probably because I love supernatural horror. But in some ways it makes Dexter more sympathetic. Because there’s something in him the drives into it.

  2. I am a huge fan of the show. It fits my sense of humor perfectly, and I really enjoy the way it is made.

    I have not yet read the books, but they are certainly on my TBR pile. I was overjoyed when I saw that Dexter was based on a novel, because it meant that there was something more out there. Something that would, I hoped give an even better story than the series does.
    I’m looking forward to part 2.

    1. TV Dexter and novel Dexter diverge quite a bit even in the first novel and the first season of show. I enjoy them both tremendously. I see them as almost parallel universe versions of each other. And they’re both well done.

  3. OOh I didn’t know all about Dexter’s family being killed like that, that is horror! I can’t watch things like that, too scary for me lol.

    I love your header btw! And Happy Easter!

    1. Thank you and Happy Easter to you too.

      Yeah, Dexter’s definitely dark. The novels are easier to take in some respects because you can choose how much you want to imagine. But…some aspects of Dexter’s character are darker and more disturbing in the novels.

  4. I haven’t read the novels, but I’ve watched every episode of Dexter. From your description of the novel “dark passenger” it almost sounds like Dexter and others are “possessed.” Is this an accurate representation of the novel characterization of this aspect of Dexter’s personality? I really ought to read these…

    1. I would say yes. In the novels, the Dark Passenger isn’t just a symbol of Dexter’s Need, it’s the motivating force behind it. The trauma of what happened to his family is what made him open to the Dark Passenger. And Dexter’s not the only one with a Passenger either (but I won’t spoil it for you further by telling you who 😉 ). Some might feel that the Dark Passenger element spoils the story but I like the supernatural side of things. Dexter isn’t entirely controlled by his Passenger, however. He describes it as something that rides in the backseat of his mind until he lets it “drive” for their “play dates.”

    1. I think they’re both worth checking out. The novel Dexter and the story line differs in a lot of ways from the show, even in the first novel. But I really feel l like each can be enjoyed on it’s own.

  5. Dexter is one of those shows that I have continually missed, and deeply regret! I need to start and catch up. I don’t know how many people have recommended it to me and I just haven’t ‘found’ the time…

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