Monsters are not always the imaginary manifestations of a child’s fear; truly terrifying individuals are capable of being real monsters, sullying the hope for a peaceful, happy world by committing horrendous acts of violence. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that monster is Edward Hyde; Mr. Hyde is an alternative identity of the kind Dr. Jekyll’s, the result of a laboratory experiment gone terribly wrong, and, until his suicide, Hyde terrorizes the town through unspecified immoral acts and, at one point, beats a man to death with a cane. The tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is quite well known. The depiction of this man who possesses two extremely different personas, one good and one evil, has served as an intriguing, if fantastical, case of dissociative identity disorder, with the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde,” itself, coming to be synonymous with the term “split personality.”
The TV show (and book series) Dexter echoes this same type of character, a man during the day but a monster at night, while offering a unique spin on questions of morality that differ from Stevenson’s tale. In the show, the title character, Dexter Morgan, lives a reasonably normal life, working as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department. Besides a few forgivable oddities, he seems perfectly normal. However, Dexter is actually a serial killer. Unlike Jekyll, Dexter’s evil self does not stem from a failed science project, but rather from a traumatic childhood incident; when he was only a baby, his mother was murdered in front of him and he was left screaming in a pool of her blood. Not surprisingly, this event seriously screwed him up, and he began displaying psychopathic traits from an early age.
However, although the murders Dexter commits are chillingly gruesome, unlike Mr. Hyde’s crimes, they are not simply senseless violence; Dexter is guided by his own version of a moral code that only allows him to kill people who, in his opinion, deserve to die. Murderers, rapists, and serial killers are not safe from Dexter’s planned executions, but the average person walking down the street would be perfectly safe and unaware of Dexter’s true self. Just like Mr. Hyde, Dexter is unable to subdue his evil compulsions, nicknaming his need to kill his “dark passenger” as he is unable to shake this raging force that guides him. However, as his code demonstrates, Dexter has been able to successfully channel this dark passenger into something that is slightly less irrevocably evil.
Yet, the very fact that Dexter is cognizant of the wrongness of his actions is, in a way, more chilling than the original text. Although Dr. Jekyll was aware of his evil other half, despite his best efforts to restrain Mr. Hyde, he could not suppress him. Where Hyde was unthinking and out of control, Dexter is cold and calculating. Dexter and Jekyll are both victims of their irrepressible urges, but Dexter embraces and refines his urges while Jekyll desperately tries to extinguish his, going so far as to commit suicide when he realizes that he will be trapped as Hyde forever. The idea that Dexter’s murders of fellow evil-doers somehow forgives him of his actions is quite controversial; the viewer must listen to his personal moral compass to try to resolve his conflicting feelings about the horror and the overall benefit to society. The show itself has even delved into this conflict; after the discovery of the bodies of Dexter’s victims, people of Miami expressed differing opinions, ranging from terror (knowing that this serial killer exists) to relief (feeling that Miami is somehow safer with these other killers off the street).
Although the questioning of morality is a bit fuzzier in Dexter, there is no denying the similarity between the show and Stevenson’s work, as both intriguingly depict the tale of a man living with a life split between good and evil. In the end, it isn’t always easy to see who the monster really is.
By Ashley Huggins