Monstrous Nihilism: An Analysis of Bill Cipher and His Effects on the Characters of Gravity Falls

by Natali Cavanagh

Gravity Falls is a Disney Channel children’s television show that follows Dipper and Mabel Pines, twelve-year-old twins visiting their great uncle (or “Grunkle”) Stan for the summer in the small town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. Stan is a con artist who has transformed his home into a kitschy tourist trap, the Mystery Shack, which promises to reveal the “mysteries” of Gravity Falls. In actuality, all the exhibits are fake, their sole purpose being to make Stan money. Still, Dipper discovers a journal buried in the forest that catalogs all of the real anomalies and monsters of Gravity Falls, and, over the course of the show, he and Mabel use the journal to fight the creatures they encounter. Of all the monsters described in Dipper’s journal, the most dangerous  by far is Bill Cipher, an all-knowing, smart-mouthed, one-eyed, triangle-shaped demon bent on the destruction of the human dimension. Interestingly, though, Bill’s nefarious intentions go beyond superficial evil, and, upon closer investigation, he appears to be a physical manifestation of Dipper’s desire for what Nihilists would call “absolute” knowledge. He thus serves as a warning for the dangers Dipper’s desire presents.

Nihilism is a philosophy developed primarily in the West that focuses on the meaninglessness of existence, or, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated” (Pratt). In  Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism, scholar John Marmysz notes that Nihilists believe that “[h]umans are alienated from such perfections as absolute Being, Truth, Goodness, Justice, Beauty, etc. . . . There is nothing that humans can do to change this circumstance” (91). It is in our nature to desire perfection, and we hold the idea that striving toward said perfection will create a better world. But, to the Nihilists, these ideals of the absolute are beyond the realm of the possible because it is impossible to obtain a single, objective definition of ultimate goodness, knowledge, etc. Because we are human and are limited by reality, our interpretations of the world will always be flawed, and therefore we can never truly reach “absolutes,” or perfect definitions and ideals (Marmysz 69).

Throughout the last two seasons of the show (in which Bill is the main antagonist), Bill represents the impossibility– and danger– of the idea of the absolute. He serves to guard the boundary between the human and the conceptual but also acts as a sign that the hopelessness typically associated with Nihilism can be defeated. Many people tend to associate Nihilism with bleakness, operating under the idea that if we can’t ever reach perfection, then what is the point of doing anything? In many ways, Bill embodies this hopelessness; Bill comes from the Nightmare Realm, a mysterious world of absurdity where the rules of reality are nonexistent and irrelevant. This sense of meaninglessness is projected in Bill’s perspective and outlook on life. His carelessness and disregard for anything, in his world or the human world, are what make him especially monstrous; he does not care if humans suffer because any emotion, logic, or understanding of reality that we have is extraneous. Uncle Ford, Grunkle Stan’s genius twin brother, tells Dipper, “To Bill it’s just a game. But to us it would mean the end of our world” (“The Last Mabelcorn”).

What Bill Cipher ultimately represents and preys on, though, is Dipper’s desire to know and understand everything (that is, to acquire absolute knowledge). From the beginning of the series, Dipper is established as a character who values logic, discovery, and research. He wants to uncover all the mysteries of Gravity Falls and will go to any length to find them, holding his journal of mysteries and the knowledge it contains as sacred. The problem is that absolute intelligence is impossible to attain in the physical human world, and it is dangerous to believe that we can attain it; Marmysz states, “We can never truly understand the world in all of its details and intricacies . . . Worse than this, such attempts do damage . . . words corrode and distort reality, moving our understanding farther and farther away from the world of concrete existence” (66).

Dipper will never be able to know all of the secrets of Gravity Falls because of his various human limitations: his age, his lack of experience, his physical weakness. Believing that he can transcend these limitations is dangerous because it gives him naive expectations about how he can change his world but such illusions cannot save him in the real, concrete world. For example, in “Sock Opera,” Dipper desperately needs a password to open a computer that is important in his investigation of the mysterious author of the journals. Eventually, because he has entered so many attempted passwords, the computer begins to erase all of its information; in that moment, Dipper knows there is nothing he can do. And, hypothetically, there should be no humanly possible way for Dipper to acquire the password until Bill offers him the code (“Sock Opera”). By giving into the dream of absolute knowledge, Dipper risks losing his sense of reality and his place in the human world.  From this perspective, then, Bill stands as a monster at the gate between the human world, the realm of possible knowledge, and the absolute, the realm of infinite knowledge.

In  “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen notes, “From its position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes” (12). Bill appears to the characters in moments of intellectual weakness, tempting them with forbidden knowledge that cannot be attained through the human world; using “Sock Opera” as an example again, Bill uses Dipper’s desperation to his advantage by tricking Dipper into giving Bill his body in exchange for the password to Dipper’s computer  (“Sock Opera”). Dipper endangers the human world by giving Bill a physical form and an opportunity to open a portal from the human realm to the Nightmare realm. While Bill’s offers superficially seem well intentioned and beneficial, his master plan to destroy the world is always his fundamental goal. By crossing from the human to the impossible and accepting Bill’s offers of absolute knowledge, the characters risk the destruction of their universe.

In Dipper’s pursuit of knowledge, he finds many ways to save his family, friends, and the citizens of Gravity Falls. He prevents countless deaths and goes on adventures beyond his wildest dreams. But Bill is a reminder to him and the rest of the characters that there is only so much that he can save through brute intelligence. Humans are not supposed to know, or even have the ability to know, all the mysteries of the universe; if we give into the dream of the absolute, we risk losing our sense of reality. Clinging on to that illusion of absolute knowledge is what will be the death of us. By the end of the series, Dipper and his family do destroy Bill, but in order to do so, they first have to relinquish those dreams of ultimate knowledge and remain rooted in reality.

 

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.

Hirsch, Alex, performer. Gravity Falls. Disney Channel and Disney XD, 2012-2016.

Marmysz, John. Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism. State University of New York Press, 2003.

Pratt, Alan. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2016.

Ritter, Jason, performer. Gravity Falls. Disney Channel and Disney XD, 2012-2016.

“Sock Opera.” Gravity Falls, season 2, episode 4, Disney XD, 8 Sept. 2014. Google Play, www.play.google.com/store/tv/show?id=H6_Fk60qM-s&cdid=tvseason-TfwV4D2uBPbqv1lSRFleGA&gdid=tvepisode-Vd60-9wKDRE&hl=en

“The Last Mabelcorn.” Gravity Falls, season 2, episode 15, Disney XD, 7 Sept. 2015. Google Play, www.play.google.com/store/tv/show?id=H6_Fk60qM-s&cdid=tvseason-TfwV4D2uBPbqv1lSRFleGA&gdid=tvepisode-Vd60-9wKDRE&hl=en

 

How Monsters Shape Identity: An Analysis of Mutts in The Hunger Games

By Cassandra Grosh

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is a coming-of-age novel with a twist: horrific, murderous monsters. These monsters are man-made mutations, called “muttations” or “mutts,” that serve as another means by which the characters die or kill each other. The mutts cause pain and suffering to the characters, but they also serve as a way for the characters to inflict the same pain and suffering on others. When the mutts are used for personal gain, the characters must face the murders they have just committed and accept responsibility in another person’s death. This new responsibility forces the characters to question their identities. While the mutts of The Hunger Games are monstrous beings designed to inflict pain and torture, the characters, through contrast with the mutts, learn to accept their responsibility within the Hunger Games and define their own identities in accordance with this new sense of responsibility.

The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old girl living within the fictional country of Panem. She volunteers to enter the Hunger Games, an annual event where one male and one female between the ages of twelve and eighteen from each of Panem’s twelve districts must be randomly chosen and placed in an arena where they will fight to the death. Katniss volunteers to enter the games not out of a death wish or desire to prove herself but in order to save her younger sister from being sacrificed to the games. Her sacrifice shows her priority, her sister, but it also jeopardizes everything else she knows and believes. No longer can she be a rebellious girl from District 12 who looks down on the cruel and selfish behavior of the Capital; she now must be a strong warrior to avoid unnecessary attention from the Capital and return home to further protect her sister. In order to do that, she must participate in a barbaric ritual and overcome murderous mutts.

Tracker jackers are the most prominent mutated creatures within The Hunger Games. Tracker jackers were created to kill so that the moral conscience of man could remain clean. These creatures are killer wasp hybrids that inject poisonous venom into the victim. The poison causes delusions and, as is often the case, death. Tracker jacker stings act as a physical shock to a person’s system that can physically and mentally cripple the victim. The injection site “raises a lump the size of a plum,” and the venom drives “people to madness” (Collins 185).

These killing monsters were originally utilized by the Capital to enforce compliance and passivity. Capital-employed law enforcement officers, or Peacekeepers, as they are ironically called, never have to literally spill blood through the use of tracker jackers. In District 12, Katniss’s home, tracker jackers live along the outside of the district’s border (Collins 186). This location forces the residents to stay inside the border or risk death. Keeping tracker jackers at the border also facilitates control of the citizens. Peacekeepers do not have to keep track of individuals because very few have a death wish, and, if these people do die while escaping, the death is not the fault of the Peacekeeper.

Tracker jackers are the first murderous creatures Katniss encounters within the games. Cleverly, she uses them to her advantage, but she does not foresee the guilt and identity crisis that follows association with these monsters. When cornered in a tree, Katniss cuts a tracker jacker nest from a limb in an attempt to kill and distract her enemies, so she could escape. In this attempt, Katniss herself is stung three times and enters a delusional state (Collins 190). Within this state, she sees a young, dying girl, Glimmer, with “limbs three times their normal size,” a “putrid green liquid” around the girl’s wounds, and flesh that disintegrates to the touch (Collins 192). These visions act as a moral punishment to Katniss. It is directly her fault Glimmer has died, and the visions are punishing Katniss by showing the dying girl undergoing unimaginable suffering. Katniss is clearly overwhelmed by becoming a murderer within the arena of the Hunger Games, and her weakened psychological state manifests her guilt. This guilt makes a clear statement about Katniss’s identity: she is not a monstrous murderer but simply someone seeking to stay alive.

The final, and potentially the most gruesome, mutt encountered in the novel is not given a name. Referred to solely as “mutts,” these creatures “resemble huge wolves” and balance “easily on . . . hind legs” (Collins 331). For clarification purposes, this species of mutt will be referred to as wolf-like mutts. Upon closer examination, these wolf-like mutts have “razor-sharp” four-inch claws that are used in an attempt to rip the remaining three tributes limb-from-limb (Collins 332). However, the menacing nature of these wolf-like mutts is not the most horrifying part. Katniss’s shock over the physical characteristics of the wolf-like mutts provides readers with a chilling physical description, and a twist no one saw coming:

I realize what else unsettled me about the mutts. The green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakably human. And that revelation has barely registered when I notice the collar with the number 1 inlaid with jewels and the whole horrible thing hits me. The blonde hair, the green eyes, the number . . . it’s Glimmer. (Collins 333)

These wolf-like mutts are not just murderous creatures created to kill those remaining but horrific monsters that resemble the now-dead tributes. The wolf-like mutts act as a physical representation of how the remaining tributes have themselves become murderous monsters throughout the course of the game.

Much like the delusions brought on by the tracker jackers, the wolf-like mutts act as a physical manifestation of guilt. The difference is that these wolf-like mutts are created by the Capital to remind the remaining tributes of their murderous deeds, while the tracker jackers simply allow for Katniss’s psyche to wreak havoc. These wolf-like mutts also act as a visual challenge. Katniss must keep her eyes on them to avoid their deadly grasps, but she also wishes to avoid gazing at a physical manifestation of those now deceased; the wolf-like mutts act “at once [as] the to-be-looked-at and not-to-be-looked-at” (Thomson 57). For a whole night, Katniss opts not to look at the wolf-like mutts as they shred the still-living body of a rival tribute. She claims, “the real nightmare is listening to Cato, moaning, begging, and finally just whimpering as the mutts work away at him” (Collins 339). Those in charge of the Hunger Games are trying to force Katniss’s hand: will she kill the mutilated tribute or attempt to deny the killer that the games have made her?

It is as the sun rises on a new day that Katniss comes to terms with her identity within the Hunger Games: she is a killer. Katniss’s final kill within the games is a mercy kill as she ends the suffering of her once rival, the boy the wolf-like mutts have spent all night torturing (Collins 341). The wolf-like mutts might have been created to act as a physical reminder of everything Katniss does not wish to be, but, as the game draws to a close, these monsters act as a physical reminder of what Katniss still is: human. Despite the Capital’s attempts to destroy any shred of humanity within the tributes, Katniss is able to maintain her humanity and spare another human unnecessary suffering.

Monsters are typically considered creatures that thrive on fear and power and exist to torture and inflict pain. A similarity between the actions of monsters can be found in those who rule in the Capital of Panem. In order to manipulate and maintain their power, rulers within the Capital create mutts to punish and inflict pain upon the enemies of the Capital. These mutts find their homes in the Hunger Games as murderous creatures, but the mutts also cause an identity crisis for those left in their wake. When defining oneself in contrast to a monster, be that monster a mutt or the rulers of the Capital, the benevolence associated with humanity becomes a powerful part of one’s identity.

 

 

Works Cited

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Press, 2008.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, edited by Snyder, L. Sharon, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Modern Language Association, 2002, pp. 56-75.