How Gravity Falls Used Fan Interaction to Become a Cult Classic

Gravity Falls first premiered on Disney Channel on June 15th, 2012 to mostly positive reception. But the show would go on to garner a fan base unlike any other Disney Channel original show had seen before. Even eight years later, after only two seasons on air, fans of Gravity Falls remain active. Even some of the network’s greatest successes, like That’s So Raven, Hannah Montana, and Kim Possible can’t say the same. So what sets Gravity Falls apart? Why have children and adults alike been drawn to the show, and how does it still deliver to them after so long?

Well, a number of factors could contribute to the show’s success. At the time of its premier, children’s animation was experiencing a renaissance that’s influence can still be seen today. Shows like Adventure time, Over the Garden Wall, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic were paving the way for kids shows to become more appealing to adult audiences. Despite being targeted towards children, these shows all presented a surprising amount of depth in their subject matter. The serialized nature of the episodes also kept fans of all ages excited to return for new installments. And of course we can’t discount the fact that Disney produced the show. Few other companies have as strong a track record, which could explain why people were more willing to give the show a chance than if it had been played on a different network.

Shows like these would redefine children’s animated television

But one key factor of Gravity Falls’ success is often overlooked. Especially at the time when new episodes were being produced, Gravity Falls felt like more than just a show. Small chances for fans to interact with the episodes led the fan base to an experience that hasn’t been met since. This is in part due to the subtlety the show uses to point viewers towards interaction. Especially in a TV show, towing the line between narrative and experience is extremely difficult, but this subtlety is what allows Gravity Falls to succeed where others have failed. But how exactly did they do it? Let’s take a look.

Secret Codes:

Gravity Falls is a show about mysteries. Not in a cop drama or film noir way, but told through the eyes of children trying, like all children, to understand the world around them. The difference? This world contains monsters. When Dipper finds journal 3 in a hollowed out tree, he’s given a way to make sense of the supernatural happenings around him, but there’s a deeper level to the journal than he sees. An instantly noticeable feature about the pages of the journal are the mysterious symbols written in the margins. The journal tells Dipper and Mable what they need to know in plain English, so the show doesn’t draw much attention to the secrets hidden in plain sight.

The message hidden in the red numbers here reads “reverse the ciphers”

But the show knows its audience. They know that to any lover of mysteries, the only thing better than watching the characters solve one, is trying to decipher it yourself. Creator and showrunner Alex Hirsch, and his team were well aware that older fans would notice those symbols. And so, they created a code to hide extra information right there on the screen. Usually the codes gave small jokes or inconsequential information about the creatures in the journal. But every so often, fans would uncover a message that hinted at the greater mysteries of the show. Some of these messages alluded to Bill Cipher and Ford Pines well before their proper introduction.

Fans soon got together online to share the codes they’d found, help each other decipher them, and try to figure out what they meant. The genius behind them though is that they didn’t really tell any pivotal information. They foreshadowed larger things to come, and that was enough to keep fans interested. The fan base joined forces to piece together theories based on the secrets they’d uncovered. In this way, fans didn’t interact with the show itself, but with each other. Even though they may be worlds apart, these people were brought together by interacting with what they’d found on screen. They tuned in to each new episode to find out what new information they could find. Gravity Falls became more than a show, but a full mystery waiting to be solved.

The average Gravity Falls fan looks something like this, either in frustration at mysteries, or elation at solving them. Image by Jan Vašek on Pixabay

Alex Hirsch’s Response:

Hirsch was, understandably, thrilled by his show’s success. It was clear that his ideas were catching on, and so he continued to give fans more to work with, and even took some of their thoughts into account. He was a presence online within the fan community. Usually he lurked in the comments to see what people were saying. But he saw that fans wanted to interact with his work and had questions to ask. So he held a Reddit AMA as Bill Cipher, allowing fans to ask their questions directly to the show’s most enigmatic character. That might be the most interactive way Hirsch connected with his fans, but it wouldn’t be his last internet stunt.

In 2013, between the end of season one and the premier of season two, a post surfaced on 4chan. The user claimed to have been on a tour of Disney’s animation studios, and taken a covert snapshot of an in progress episode. The picture showed a prominent side character writing the journals, giving away the show’s biggest mystery at the time. Shortly after, Alex Hirsch tweeted about how angry he was that the reveal had been ruined. Fans had some debate on whether or not the posts could be trusted, but either way, the picture was out there. It didn’t matter if fans believed the image or not, its presence influenced the way they went into the second season. As the season progressed, it was revealed that the image was a fake. The events of the show didn’t match it. Some fans argued that it was real, and the show had to be changed to keep the mystery intact. But not long after the episode in question, Alex Hirsch sent out another tweet. This one showed him posing with the false picture, and revealed that he planted the image to throw off fans.

Hirsch captioned the post “1) Make up hoax 2) Upload to 4chan 3) Post angry tweet about “leak” 4) Delete tweet 5) Let internet do rest

The story behind the false leak shows just how involved the fans of Gravity Falls became when writing and creating new episodes. The main reason Hirsch orchestrated the stunt was to throw fans off the track of the true author of the journals. In typical Gravity Falls fashion, some small clues to the show’s big twist were put into the first season. Since these clues were mostly background elements, it was fair to think fans wouldn’t pick up on them immediately. But in a show known for its conspiracies and hidden messages, everything on screen is subject to scrutiny. Fans caught onto the hints much earlier than anyone had anticipated, and a popular fan theory sprung up, which turned out to be exactly the big reveal Hirsch had planned. But he still wanted viewers to be surprised when the twist happened later in the series. His leak was devised as a way to try and throw fans off. In this way, fans directly influenced the show’s creator to alter the way he wanted them to see his characters.

While Hirsch’s false leak is the most well known instance of fans influencing the showrunners decisions, it’s not the one that influenced the show the most. There was one mystery that fans latched onto very early in the show’s run. At the end of the opening credits, a single frame flashes on screen depicting the show’s main antagonist, Bill Cipher, surrounded by a Mayan inspired zodiac circle. Especially since Cipher wouldn’t appear until late in the first season, fans saw this as yet another mystery to solve. Who was the mysterious being in the circle? What did the zodiac signs mean? Everyone had their own theories, and the picture soon became a popular topic of discussion among fans. The show would eventually answer all these questions, but Hirsch tells the full story behind the image in the audio commentary for the episode The Time Traveler’s Pig. He starts by saying

“Hate to demystify it for the fans, but when we were putting the theme song together, I figured ‘let’s have a cool image. I don’t know what it means, I don’t know if it means anything’ and originally, the image was of a six fingered hand.”

Soon after he goes on to explain “then when it became something people were obsessed with, we were like ‘we should probably make this part of the show somehow.’’ Hirsch saw how important the “mystery” had become to the show’s fans, and knew they would be let down if it was never addressed. It’s an interesting turn of the tables that here, the viewers created a mystery, and Hirsch made an answer based on theories he’d seen online. He altered his show to cater to what he knew viewers wanted to see, even though it didn’t exactly fit within his original narrative. This is an area that was never meant to spawn interaction between viewers and creators. But the show’s willingness to accept the interactions that arose had a massive influence on the reception of the final season.

Beyond The Screen:

The final episode of Gravity Falls aired on February 15th, 2016. Like many series finales, it was a bittersweet moment. It was decided that the show would end after two seasons because its natural narrative had come to an end. Hirsch, and other team members, decided that it was best to end the show on a high note at the height of its popularity. They had told the story they set out to tell, and were content in ending the show with the end of their story. I’m sure with enough brainstorming, there could be plenty more adventures planned for the Pines family. But would the show retain the magic of the original story? Many shows have fallen victim to the trap of time. When shows outlive their popularity, fans drop off, and eventually they die a quiet death. Gravity Falls went out with a bang, and that ensured that fans would remain loyal to the excellent story they’d shared.

Most fans took the news about as well as Mable

February of 2016 may have been when the final episode of Gravity Falls aired, but to say the experience of the show ended that day wouldn’t be quite right. Long before the finale of the show, Alex Hirsch decided to plan one final sendoff to his show, and an unequaled experience for the people who loved it. In the finale, Bill Cipher was finally defeated inside Stan’s mind. Or at least his soul was. But his physical body remained as a stone statue. In the show, we’re only shown a brief glimpse of what the statue looks like after the action is over. But in the final moments of the final episode, a quick shot of a live action Bill Cipher statue could be seen. For months, fans speculated that this statue might actually be out there somewhere, hoping that the series might live on in some way. But they would have to wait until July of that year for Alex Hirsch to confirm their suspicions.

The Cipher Hunt, as it came to be known, was kicked off in a tweet by Alex Hirsch showing an image with plenty of codes, and a picture of the Bill Cipher statue. When the image was decoded, it became clear that the statue was hidden somewhere in the real world. Hirsch had personally commissioned it, hidden it, and set up a worldwide treasure hunt. An important note here is that all of this work was done, or at least orchestrated, by Hirsch himself, without the involvement of Disney. The lengths he went to in order to keep the experience of his creation going are beyond what most other showrunners would dream of. Even though the story of the Pines family was over, the experience of the Cipher Hunt was only beginning. A code in Hirsch’s tweet led fans to a cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was instantly clear that this was an experience meant to bring the fans together one last time, to work across the world and solve a mystery just as large as the ones in the show. In each location, another clue was hidden away, usually telling fans another place to search. The hunt relied on fans in different locations working together, finding clues, solving them, and finding someone who could reach the next one. What’s more, clues took on many different forms and types of puzzles, the most daunting being a physical jigsaw puzzle consisting of 2,000 pieces. Other clues surfaced in the form of a statue of Stan’s head, a key to a PO box, and a custom view master disk. The search ended in Reedsport, Oregon, where a group of fans found the elusive statue of Bill, along with a buried treasure chest containing, among other items, a copy of the Journal #3 book with drawings by Alex Hirsch, a music box that plays the Gravity Falls theme song, and a USB with a message from Grunkle Stan. At this point, even though the experience was officially over, fans knew that the show had a legacy that would always be remembered. A physical statue, discovered by other fans, would always stand as remembrance of the experience the show offered. Or so it seemed. Some property disputes led to the statue being moved from its original location to a tourist attraction called Confusion Hill, elsewhere in Oregon. The attraction was the inspiration for the show’s Mystery Shack, and a location of a clue in the Cipher Hunt, so it really is a wonderful place for the monument, even if that’s not where it was meant to end up.

This man’s dedication knows no bounds
This man’s dedication knows no bounds

Legacy:

Sadly, the Cipher Hunt was the last big event for Gravity Falls. It was always meant to serve as a final farewell and celebration to the series. Beyond that, the scale of it was something fans hadn’t seen before, so trying to top it would be a herculean task. But because of stunts like the Cipher Hunt, the legacy of Gravity Falls lives on. Disney continues to show love to the series, showing reruns on occasion. The years following have also seen the release of several books and comics based on the series. Like the show itself, the books are mostly for children, but a few have some elements that adult fans can appreciate as well including more opportunities for interaction. The most well known book is a physical release of Journal #3. Many pages from the show were included, as well as many new ones for fans to enjoy. There were of course more codes hidden in the physical book. Some even revealed information about the characters that the show didn’t, like Dipper’s real name. Later on, Journal #3 would see the release of a limited number of copies with hidden black light content, just like the journal in the show. There’s also a book in the choose your own adventure style, allowing readers to decide the path that Dipper and Mable will take. Books like this continue the legacy of the show’s fan interaction.

“Select Your Own Choose-venture” really is the perfect genre for a Gravity Falls book

Gravity Falls is a modern classic of children’s television, and would tell just as engrossing a story without the various codes and clues involved. But I doubt it would have seen the same success. I myself only became a fan after the first season was already finished. The big reveal in the season finale hooked me, but what kept me interested was learning about all the secrets that fans before me had uncovered. As I read up on popular fan theories, and learned about hidden lore, the show went from a casual interest of mine to must-watch television. That’s the power that interaction can have on a narrative. Even if fans held no say in the outcome of the show, interacting with each other, as well as the creator, boosted its impact. Alex Hirsch is currently working with Netflix on his next project, and keeping information to himself. As a creator, we know he goes above and beyond, and if Gravity Falls tells us anything, it’s that Hirsch values his fans, and enjoys allowing them a place in the history of his creations. I’ll be looking forward to this project, whatever it may be, and hoping it offers the chance for me to interact with others the same way Gravity Falls did before it.

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