The Psychology of the Horror/Thriller Genre – A Look at "Dexter," "The Fall," "Silent Hill 2," and "Identity"

This blog post is mostly for my own amusement, but I hope others will find some value in it, too.

In my adolescence and adult years, I was always drawn to horror/mystery/thriller type of TV shows, movies, and video games. In the past, playing horror video games gave me the opportunity to unconsciously connect with the fear, confusion, hurt, despair, anger, and terror that was inside of me – because that's what I was feeling in my childhood, adolescence, and even in my adulthood. By playing horror video games, I could recreate these unpleasant feelings in a controlled environment where I could fight my inner and especially outer demons, and actually defeat them. In a virtual world, I wasn't completely helpless and powerless like I was in real life; I had some control. I got something similar out of TV shows and movies, too – I got to feel these unpleasant, unprocessed, and very familiar emotions, and not to feel alone with them.

That's how repetition compulsion works. We recreate unprocessed traumatic events in hope that this time the result will be different – or we get to relive our emotionally intense experiences again, normalize them, or feel comfortable in the familiarity of them.

Back then I haven't processed all of this, therefore thrillers, horror movies/TV shows/video games, terror, violence, shock, gore, and confusion was appealing to me. I didn't care about the characters or their back stories – I wanted intense and thrilling emotional experience. Now that I have a lot of psychological knowledge, self-knowledge, and deep psychological/emotional understanding, it's the characters and their stories what interest me the most. I don't like horror movies and video games, per se, anymore. I find slasher-, gorefest-, and torture-type of movies especially hideous. I feel curious about psychological/emotional aspects of certain video games, TV shows, and movies: characters, their motivations, their psychological and emotional state, their relationships, their inner conflicts, their perception of themselves, how they are perceived by others, etc.). I don't watch very violent scenes in movies or TV shows anymore. I rarely watch movies or play video games altogether. But in general I enjoy analyzing various movies, TV shows, and video games, even if sometimes they are disturbing. And since this blog post is dedicated to psychological drama/horror/thriller genre, I’ll talk briefly about four darker pieces that were interesting to me from a psychological standpoint.

[WARNING! TRIGGERING MATERIAL BELOW: VIOLENCE, SERIOUS MENTAL PROBLEMS, PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL, AND SEXUAL ABUSE! 
If you are easily triggered by these things, please skip the rest of this article!

Also, MINOR SPOILER ALERT! (Obviously.)]

Dexter (TV show)

I've watched all 8 seasons of Dexter. I don't find the Dexter character appealing because he's a psychopath/sociopath, but I find it interesting to observe how the brain of such person works and to take a deeper look at what kind of person he really is and why.

Dexter’s father was a soldier who fought in a Vietnam War and later became a drug-addicted criminal. Dexter was three years old when he and his brother witnessed their mother being brutally murdered right in front of their eyes. For two days, the brothers were left neglected and sitting in a pool of blood. All of that led Dexter to become a serial killer. That's also why he is fascinated with blood and works as a forensic blood spatter analyst.

It's interesting to look at the profile of a psychopathic serial killer. Dexter is physically healthy and very fit; he's antisocial, purposefully fake, likeable, charming, socially highly accepted; he uses his social status, family situation, and job as a camouflage; he is saying that he can't feel emotions, although objectively it's not really true; he’s able to manage stress very well therefore he’s highly functional and very adaptable; he's very intelligent, smart, and skillful; he also likes children and can somewhat empathize with them, especially when they are getting hurt. He regularly talks with an internalized version of his dead stepfather, Harry, who often serves him as a calm and rational part of his psyche.

The creators of Dexter, and Michael C. Hall himself, spent a lot of time researching serial killers, so they did a pretty good job portraying one. (If you want to watch a quick cinematic trailer of Dexter, click here.)

The Fall (TV show)

Another TV show about a serial killer is a British psychological thriller The Fall. One of the main characters is Paul Spector (played by Jamie Dornan). He is a serial female killer. In many ways he is similar to Dexter. He has a family that he uses as a disguise for his alternate lifestyle of a killer – although Paul, compared to Dexter, gives much more attention and affection to his children. However, deep down he doesn't care about his family. He’s physically very fit and strong, too. He’s well-read, artistic, and intelligent. He works as a grief counselor, although one can say that based on his talents he’s more on the underachieving side – however this job helps him to be socially respectable and not to attract too much attention to himself. He is socially competent, charming, persuasive, and manipulative. Paul, like Dexter, says that he likes children and feels very protective of them. Paul, like Dexter, is not interested in real intimacy. However, Paul has some very strange sexual fetishes and a highly skewed view of women that resembles a Madonna-whore/fascination-hate complex. This creates a very distinct dynamic between Paul and Stella Gibson (played by Gillian Anderson), a Detective Superintendent who is after him and has her own psychological issues.

Paul and Dexter both are addicted to killing. Paul and Dexter both have a killing ritual and a preparation procedure that are very important for them. Paul and Dexter both have their own "moral code." Dexter kills only those "who deserve it." Paul kills only a certain type of women, and feels remorse for accidentally killing a pregnant woman (but not for the fact that he killed her). Paul and Dexter need to feel in control of their victims and to be feared. Also, by hurting others they (and killers in general) unconsciously want to punish their original abusers, and they strive for the world to see and feel the pain and misery of their childhood. All of this is a form of aforementioned repetition compulsion and acting out of the unprocessed trauma.

Paul Spector was modeled on Dennis Rader (US church leader and murderer), and Jamie Dornan also did a lot of preparation for his role of Paul by reading and watching about famous serial killers (especially about Ted Bundy), therefore this character is portrayed extremely well. It also helps that the script is much more realistic and not as outrageous as Dexter’s sometimes is. (If you want to watch a quick cinematic trailer of The Fall, click here.)

Silent Hill 2 (video game)

James Sunderland
For those who are not familiar with it, Silent Hill is a survival horror video game series. Later the franchise has expanded to include various print pieces and movies. Silent Hill is a foggy remote town where a lot of weird stuff happens (more on that later).

Artistically, I was always fascinated by Silent Hill as a piece of art. It has a distinctively creepy but in many ways very subtle atmosphere, visual exclusivity, amazing voice acting and sound, and astonishing soundtrack. However, as I’ve said before, in the past I didn't care that much about the story and characters. It was more like, "I don't care about the plot, I don't want to read this cryptic note, who cares what this person is blabbering about – skip, skip, skip. Let's wander this macabre town and kill some monsters." Now, I can appreciate the psychological aspect of it.

From a psychological standpoint, I find the Silent Hill mythos completely fascinating. Without going into the supernatural origins of it, the town of Silent Hill is a place where the series' characters experience delusions and encounter tangible symbols of elements from their unconscious minds, mental states, and innermost thoughts when present in it, manifested into the real world. In other words, one gets to see their unconscious psyche being projected outside of themselves. One gets to actually encounter and confront various projected representations of their unconscious guilt, anger, hurt, sadness, fears, traumas, repressed wishes, fantasies, conflicts, and frustrations.

There are nine installments in the video game series, so obviously I won’t be talking about all of them. But If I had to choose one to briefly talk about, I’d choose Silent Hill 2.

Maria
In Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland arrives in Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his wife, Mary, despite the fact that she is dead for three years now. She was untreatably sick, and James didn’t want for her to suffer anymore, so he decided to end her misery by suffocating her. In Silent Hill, James meets a woman, Maria, who looks exactly like his dead wife and has her memories – but her personality is different. She’s unpredictable, sexualized, and her mood changes quickly. James feels both attracted to Maria and fearful of what she might represent, and he struggles to understand her. Maria appears to be a manifestation created by James's desperation to see Mary again.

James feels guilty for killing his wife, so in Silent Hill he gets to see Maria die many times as a form of punishment. He feels remorse for what he did and desperately wants punishment, hence creepy monsters – especially the punisher/executioner called Pyramid Head.

In his wandering around Silent Hill, James meets a few other characters who are very traumatized, too.

One of them is a teenager named Angela Orosco:
Her introverted nature and the covering of her entire body may result from her past sexual abuse and the uncomfortable feeling of being exposed, which is common among victims of abuse.

Ever since her rough and broken childhood, Angela was convinced that she would never be happy. Her father, Thomas Orosco, an alcoholic lumberjack, raped and sexually abused her as a young girl, causing her much hostility towards other men. Other abuse that Thomas inflicted on Angela involved physical abuse; Thomas would often beat her while inebriated. In addition to Thomas abusing her, Angela's brother would abuse her as well. Meanwhile, Angela's mother had frequently reminded her that she deserved her abuse and Angela endured it as she grew up. Although Angela's mother knew what was happening, she never intervened. As a consequence of this, Angela's internal pain and suffering had influenced thoughts of suicide upon her. Angela attempted suicide many times in the past but always ended up hesitating at the last moment.

At an unknown point in time, Angela's mother left her family, leaving Angela alone with her father and brother. After Angela graduated high school, she ran away from home but was found and brought back by her father. At the Orosco residence around midnight, Angela took a kitchen knife and stabbed her father in the neck and torso multiple times, and also murdered her brother. Being in a state of emotional turmoil afterwards, Angela was called to Silent Hill to find her missing mother. (Source)
Another character is a young man named Eddie Dombrowski:
Eddie was drawn to Silent Hill by his deeply troubled past and feelings of guilt, bitterness, insecurity, and self-pity.

Due to being overweight, Eddie had been bullied and verbally abused all his life until his repressed anger began to manifest itself in the form of violent outbursts. He admitted to James Sunderland that he had shot and killed a dog, and also shot a local football player in the knee, crippling him.

On arriving in Silent Hill, Eddie is gradually brought into a nightmarish vision of his own personal hell, extrapolated from his cruel deeds and choices in life. He is continuously found in the vicinity of brutally-murdered corpses, all the while claiming to have nothing to do with it, that is, until he begins to lose his grip on sanity and proudly admits to his crimes with a sadistic cheer. Eddie eventually decides to kill anyone who mocks him, claiming that a person's intelligence and looks mean nothing once they are dead. (Source)
The last character is Laura, an eight year old orphan. She and James’ wife, Mary, were patients at the same hospital under the same nurse. Laura is rude and insulting to other characters.

However, she is the only innocent human character in the town who does not hold any darkness in her heart, therefore she doesn’t see any monsters or serious abnormalities in Silent Hill.

Near the end of the game, James begins to understand that Pyramid Head represents his sin/remorse/punishment and that it can’t defeat him. This makes the creature kill itself and disappear – as it is no longer needed. The story has multiple endings and resolutions, depending on the play style of the player.

There’s a short video overview that quickly shows some of things I’ve talked about here. If you are interested, you can click here to watch it.

And for those who want to watch a cinematic trailer of Silent Hill 2 (or remember it), feel free to click here.

Identity (film)

On the surface, Identity is an And Then There Were None type of story where trapped at a deserted motel during a terrible rainstorm, ten strangers become acquainted with each other when they realize that they're being killed off one by one. This movie offers some interesting plot twists and good acting.

[SPOILER ALERT! If you plan to see this movie – and I really recommend it for people who enjoy psychological dramas – then skip the following text for now and come back after watching it, because reading this will COMPLETELY spoil the story.]

If you want to read the following text, click the Show/hide button below.




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