By Anushka Ashirgade
The American animated series Gravity Falls (2012) ran on children’s television channels such as Disney XD from 2012 to 2016, with its apocalyptic season 2 running from August 2014 to February 2016 (Hirsch). Garnering an incredibly high viewership across multiple platforms, (Paltridge) Gravity Falls has become one of the most popular animated series to ever air. The show’s success can be mainly attributed to its unfaltering and cleverly executed comedy coupled with its realistic and creative depiction of its apocalyptic storyline.
The combination of horror and comedy is nothing novel to us. Films such as Zombieland (2009) to Ghostbusters (2016) are true testaments to the rising popularity of horror-comedies. However, unlike its counterparts in this genre which tend to be viewed only within the borders of a “horror-comedy film”, Gravity Falls was able to blur the lines of “comedy” and “horror”, opening up multiple interpretations of its content on both individual and combinational levels of the two genres. According to Manuel’s “Chaotic Spectrum” (Manuel), films can be categorised into five main categories: “Pure Comedy” , “Comedy with Horror”, “Horror-Comedy”, “Horror with Humour”, and “Pure Horror”. She claims that by identifying the significance and realism of threats, characters and the unknown within films, any film can be sorted based on its respective labels. However, what is unique about Gravity Falls is the extremity by which horror and comedy are incorporated into its animation and storyline, breaking such borders defined by Manuel.
As the series aired on TV networks such as Disney XD alongside other classically wholesome and child-friendly shows such as Phineas and Ferb (2007) or Spongebob Squarepants (1999), it is unsurprising that one would expect Gravity Falls to be designed for children, filled with light-hearted comedic elements. The show embraced its role of being a children’s comedy by executing its comedy through light-hearted slapstick and surreal humour (“What is Humor?”), and by having its two main protagonists be the pre-teen Pines twins, adding a layer of innocence to the show’s humour. On the other hand, the show’s portrayal of scenes from “Weirdmageddon” along with other horrors, pushes the limits and defies the expectations of a Disney-bred “kid’s show”. (Baessler) Aspects of the storyline such as the fear of adulthood and abandonment experienced by various members of the Pines family, reach levels of realism that even grown-ups fear to watch.
Consequently, the encompassing of such comedic and horrific themes has resulted in an undefined scope of viewership in which child audience members view the show as a Comedy with Horror on the Chaotic Spectrum while the adult audience perceive it as under the category of Horror with Humor. Gravity Falls uses comedic devices to appeal to the younger audience while garnering popularity from its older audiences through the incorporation of more fear invoking themes.
The Concept of The Chaotic Spectrum
Before delving into the analysis of how Gravity Falls appeals to children and adults differently, I would like to further elaborate on the concept that is The Chaotic Spectrum (Manuel) which I will be using to identify and classify the various aspects of the show. This would eventually result in a multi-layered form of classification from the perspectives of both a younger and older audience, highlighting the way in which Gravity Falls transgresses the norms of this spectrum as well as that of the horror-comedy genre.
The Chaotic Spectrum is designed to establish the relationship between the “monster” or imminent threat within the plot of the film and its horrific or comedic impact. Manuel views humour and horror as reactions to the chaotic, with humour serving as a means to deny the chaos while horror involves giving in to the chaos. The spectrum analyses the storyline of a film based on five different categories – the likelihood and threat of the monster in reality, the relatability of and presence of danger for characters, the predictability of the plot and its deviation from our own reality, the degree of the unknown and finally how imminent and realistic the threat is. Overall, it indicates that movies become more horrifying as the threat becomes more imminent, unpredictable and realistic while the characters become more relatable. Conversely, films grow to be more humorous as threats and characters become more unrealistic and thus less worthy to care about.
As I go onto elaborate the show’s impact on a younger versus an older audience, I will utilise this spectrum to compare the extents of comedy and horror portrayed in the eyes of a child to that of an adult viewer.
The Undefined Viewership of Gravity Falls
Appeal Towards Children
The show introduces us to Gravity Falls along with its various supernatural and apocalyptic elements through the eyes of two outsiders – Dipper and Mabel whom we know as a pair of guileless twelve-year old twin siblings. Therefore, as the younger audience witness events that transpire through a relatable lens, being that of innocent and well-intentioned children, it becomes easy for them to write off scenes surrounding adult conflicts as something “peculiar” or “weird”. For instance, the comedic character of the twins’ Grand Uncle, Gruncle Stan, can be seen engaging in a disturbing number of suspicious activities including the use of guns, stealing and taking his twin’s brother’s identity. However, from the perspective of the innocent twin protagonists, his wrongdoings tend to be laughed off as inscrutable “adult stuff” (Baessler).
In particular, the character, Mabel Pines, who is portrayed as a happy-go-lucky, pure-hearted girl is used to convey a combination of expressive and affiliative humour, acting as a “magnet” throughout the series (“What is Humor?”). In the exhibition of humour, magnets keep situations “positive, warm and uplifting”, avoiding things that are controversial or upsetting while radiating charisma. From her use of physical humour (“What is Humor?”) in a silly manner to dorn on her “skepticals” (a playoff of the works skeptical and spectacle) in Season 2 Episode 2 “Into the Bunker” to goofily mimicking the quacking of a duck in Season 2 Episode 8 “Dungeons, Dungeons and more Dungeons”, Mabel successfully serves as the magnet for Gravity Falls. Additionally, when considering the storyline of Season 2 Episode 15 “The Last Mabelcorn” in which someone with a pure heart had to obtain a piece of unicorn hair to be used to create a magical barrier so as to protect the Mystery Shack (The Pines’ home) from the impending Weirdmageddon, it was Mabel whom all the characters voted for without hesitation. This implies not only the character’s but also the show’s acknowledgement of Mabel as this symbol of hope and purity, further increasing the ability of young viewers to naturally deny the more negative elements brought up in the show and instead embrace the more optimistic ones.
Linking back to the Chaotic Spectrum, Gravity Falls presents very likeable characters that are mostly unharmed. For instance, in Season 2 Episode 19 “Weirdmageddon Part 2: Escape from Reality”, to take as an example, incorporates the story arc of “Mabeland” – a locked up bubble created by the villain Bill Cipher. Unlike the other generic “weird bubbles” created by Bill where it can be seen that people are physically contorted and tortured on a cellular level, Mabel’s bubble takes on the form of a joyful, “unicorn and sunshine filled” dreamland, imposing no actual physical harm onto Mabel, a fan-favourite character. Additionally, when considering the spectrum’s factor of Realism and Threat, it can be seen that there is a significant and consistent sense of optimism for a positive income and that the threat to the characters is likely to be resolved given how the twins themselves never fail to remain positive and uplifting throughout the season. This, therefore, puts Gravity Falls in the category of a Horror with Comedy in the eyes of a child audience member.
Appeal towards adults
The show’s approach to its older audience, however, takes an approach that highlights its more horrific aspects, overshadowing its comedic parts to a certain extent as a significant proportion of the humour stems from one relating to the perspective of two child protagonists, thus appealing more to a younger audience. Given their real-life experiences, adult viewers are able to look past the innocent lenses of the Pine twins and recognise the mature themes and displays brought up by the show itself.
Referring back to Season 2 Episode 19 “Weirdmageddon Part 2: Escape from Reality” Mabel is voluntarily trapped in her dreamland, where she is away from reality and does not to face fear of being abandoned by her twin brother who decided to remain in Gravity Falls or her fear of growing up alone. A child audience may view this storyline as Mabel simply being depressed that Dipper will not be going back home with her and that she is content with her imaginary bubble where she can make all her dreams come true. However, given the stages of life adults have surpassed compared to children, having led a social life of ups and downs, they are able to better recognise how real and prominent the fear of abandonment and facing your future alone is. (Singh) Given their personal experiences, they have a greater ability to infer that Mabel is so deeply affected by her fears that she rather be in denial of it and accept the consequences of Weirdmagaeddon than to face them.
Another relationship to consider would be that of Stan and Ford Pines which was delved into in Season 2 Episode 15 “A Tale of Two Stans” . Throughout their lives, Ford was always seen as more intelligent given his abnormally high I.Q. and thus superior twin (“Ford Pines”) , instilling a sense of insecurity and jealousy in Stan who had always been overshadowed. Later on, Ford was offered an opportunity to gain admission into his dream college, which would result in him abandoning Stan. The fear of having to deal with lonely existence led to Stan accidentally ruining Ford’s project, thus costing him his dream. Stan was then disowned by his family, being forced to lead a lonely, penniless life away from his brother. Although these scenes are shown over the course of a few minutes and portrayed in a comedic way, numerous mature themes ranging from the unfulfilled dreams and rejection to loneliness come across as relatable to the show’s adult audience in a way that cannot be perceived by a child audience.
Thus, following the plot of Weirdmageddon, while children simply watch the apocalyptic scenes as this evil monster Bill Cipher who will definitely be defeated by the twins, expecting a fruitful ending, adults view the apocalypse and other adult themes in Gravity Falls with a sense of gravity and realism. The label of a “cartoon” no longer proves to be significant here as the display of adult fears in the show contrasts the general expectations of cartoons which involve more absurd and imaginary elements (Dutta) and instead parallel what one would see in live-actions today. In comparison with a younger audience, when using the Chaotic Spectrum to analyse its appeal towards adults, characters in Gravity Falls can be observed to be threatened, whether it is Mabel by her fear of abandonment or Stan through his fear of rejection and loneliness. Additionally, the adult fears and mature themes expressed throughout the show do exist in real life and can be related to by older viewers, implying a significant element of horror. Hence, an adult audience would seem to view Gravity Falls as a show that has ‘Humor with Horror’.
Subjectivity of Horror and Comedy
So far I have discussed how one’s age and thus the associated loss of innocence and experiences that comes with age significantly affects one’s perception of the comedic and horrific elements of Gravity Falls. However, other factors relating to the subjectivity of horror and comedy cannot be disregarded. To further analyse the impact of one’s cultural background and personal connections to certain themes and characters in the show, I would like to bring in the concept of the Benign Violation Theory which postulates that humour occurs when a “stimulus that is physically or psychologically threatening… is simultaneously appraised as benign”(Cao et al. 207). It discusses how humour at times is not transferable across cultures and thus whether a certain scene in the show is viewed as comedic or fearsome is dependent on two main factors – “psychological distance”(degree to which one feels removed from a situation) and “commitment” (degree to which one cares about another person or norm). For instance, adults may feel more detached from a cartoon like Gravity Falls given its exaggerated animation and whimsical elements resulting in a large psychological distance between them and the show, rendering these imaginary aspects of the show as harmless. On the other hand, a younger audience who are similar in age and tendencies as Dipper and Mabel may grow to care about them, making them more committed and hence more fearful of any threat that comes their way. Thus, the subjectivity of horror and comedy does indeed go beyond simply one’s age.
All things considered, Gravity Falls has undoubtedly made its mark not only in the world of animated cartoons but also in the horror-comedy genre by appealing to its multigenerational viewership on different levels of humour and horror. While the innocent lens of the Pines Twins enables the comedic elements of the show to get a laugh out of the younger audience, the show’s approach to the horrors of growing up and adulting never fails to invoke fear in the older audience. Gravity Falls’ success in breaking the norms of a children’s animated comedy has therefore redefined what it means to be a horror-comedy.
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