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'Gravity Falls': a skeptic's retrospective

Television

‘Gravity Falls’: a skeptic’s retrospective

Everyone loves ‘Gravity Falls’!

In the real world that we happen to live in, the answer to any mystery ever solved so far has never been “it’s supernatural.” There’s always been some mundane, scientific explanation for everything in the end. For contrast, we can delve into fictional worlds, where we can explore what life might be like if the paranormal was real, and quite normal.

Although it’s been about seven years since Gravity Falls aired its final episode on Disney XD, it still holds up as a great example of such a fictional world, especially for kids. And all of its episodes are currently available on Disney+. Here are some reasons Gravity Falls is still a great show for budding skeptics, and adults alike.

The drive for genuine investigation

Gravity Falls focuses primarily on the “mystery twins” as they sometimes call themselves, Dipper and Mabel Pines, who are motivated by the thrill and excitement of investigating the strange goings-on in their environment. They’re being hosted for the summer by their great uncle Stan (or “Grunkle Stan”), who often fakes exhibits for his Mystery Shack tourist trap. Despite this influence, the twins are never seen cheating or faking evidence themselves. They keep their own activities honest, and they have friends who encourage them to remain that way.

'Gravity Falls': a skeptic's retrospective
“You gotta have evidence. Otherwise people are going to think you’re a major league cuckoo clock.”
– Soos Ramirez, one of the twins’ friends at the Mystery Shack, during episode 1, “Tourist Trapped”

Gravity Falls being a fictional show, the answers to their mysteries are often paranormal ones, though sometimes not in the manner originally theorized. That shambling entity Dipper thinks is a zombie could turn out to be several small, cuter entities stacked up in a trench coat. And sometimes the answer isn’t paranormal at all. At least one giant monster the twins were hunting turned out to be a mechanical device constructed by a human. This aspect of Gravity Falls does play out more strongly in its first season and some of the earlier shorts, but it never diverges from those values, even as the show transforms more into survival horror in its second season.

A possible counterargument could be Dipper’s reliance on a journal he found, which is often taken for granted as accurate and truthful. A good skeptic would never fully trust a document like that! Though, as a minor spoiler, it does turn out that the author of the journal also had high standards of accuracy. So Dipper and Mabel got lucky with that one!

'Gravity Falls': a skeptic's retrospective
Dipper is not always skeptical. He never questions the accuracy of this random journal he discovers, but at least he does question its authorship.
From episode 1, “Tourist Trapped”

The ridiculous portrayal of the supernatural

The particular manner of how cryptids and paranormal powers are portrayed in Gravity Falls is often for fun and laughs, of course. At least for anyone who doesn’t actually believe any of these things are real. One of the very first sight gags in the show has Grunkle Stan presenting a figure of a giant ape wearing underpants, that he calls “The SasCrotch”. Maybe serious Bigfoot followers wouldn’t appreciate that kind of pun.

Despite how much “real” supernatural stuff is in the town of Gravity Falls, it’s amazing how much of it is also faked by the various townsfolk. The episode “The Hand That Rocks the Mabel” (episode 4 of season 1), for example, introduces Little Gideon, who’s played up to be a powerful psychic — but all of his predictions are obvious ones. He sings “I’ll read your mind if I am able; something tells me you’re named Mabel,” to the character wearing a sweater that says Mabel on it.

'Gravity Falls': a skeptic's retrospective
Gideon uses psychic powers to deduce that this girl’s name is Mabel …
'Gravity Falls': a skeptic's retrospective
…and Mabel is amazed! Dipper, on the other hand is a tad skeptical. What might have given her name away?!

One particular bit, in “The Legend of the Gobblewonker” (episode 2 of season 1), riffs on how cryptid hunters never seem to get a clear photo of the entities they’re trying to find. To try to overcome that, Dipper supplies himself and his buddies with lots of backup cameras, and of course, most of them end up getting trashed along the way.

Quite a lot of the fantastic creatures and terrible monsters introduced on Gravity Falls are actually portrayed in a manner that’s rather cute and cuddly. The Multi-Bear, for example, is a bear-like beast with multiple heads and limbs, and yet he looks adorable. Even the most ferocious monsters, such as the Gremlobin and the Cycloptopus, are cartoony-looking, at least some of the time.

'Gravity Falls': a skeptic's retrospective
What are Dipper and Mabel to do?! The Gremlobin is awarding itself stickers that it didn’t even earn!
From “Boss Mabel”, episode 13 of season 1

The level of cuddliness in some of its creatures might have contributed to the modern “cryptidcore” subculture, which romanticizes cryptozoology, usually in a fun and ironic manner.

Jokes and references suggest skeptically-minded writers

Certain details within Gravity Falls seem to be made to appeal to a science-minded and scrupulous audience. A good number of these could be seen on the television shows the characters occasionally watch, which often lampoon the more dubious infomercials and reality shows we see in real life. One such show was even on a channel called “The Used to be About History Channel.”

The celebrities chosen for guest voices are sometimes from scientific or skeptical backgrounds. Neil deGrasse Tyson portrayed the voice of Waddles the Pig, in an episode where he eats a batch of brain goop that makes him ultrasmart. And “Weird Al” Yankovic guest-voices as an evil wizard in another (yes, Weird Al appears to be skeptically-minded.)

'Gravity Falls': a skeptic's retrospective
Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson provided the voice of Waddles the Pig, after the pig becomes super intelligent.
From “Little Gift Shop of Horrors”, episode 6 of season 2.

As for the series creator, Alex Hirsch, I don’t know how much of a skeptical activist he is, if at all, but we do know from interviews that he would ridicule tabloid magazines as a kid, such as the Weekly World News. This probably explains why there’s usually a caricature of the infamous Bat Boy in the show’s opening credits sequence.

Coming to a conclusion

Gravity Falls encourages young minds to be curious and careful, as they explore the real, actual world they live in. It’s a show that helps us to do what Mabel says in “Into the Bunker” (the second episode of season 2), and “put on our scepticles.”

But if you can’t be sold on the show for its skeptical prowess, Gravity Falls is just really good, in general. Its wit, charm, character arcs, and ongoing cryptographic puzzles make it one of the best shows Disney has ever produced. Its ratings and awards speak for themselves, if popular opinion is the sort of thing that might sway you.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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