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.
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