There is, perhaps not surprisingly, scarce overlap between children’s programming and horror. It turns out that both parents and network censors aren’t too fond of introducing children to monsters, murder, and mayhem at an age where most of them still can’t sleep without a nightlight, which tends to hinder any real exposure to the genre early on. With the exception of a Halloween episode here and there, it’s relatively rare that a cartoon will dedicate much time to the macabre and the spooky.
But when it does happen, it’s glorious. I personally have always advocated the notion that kids can handle a lot more than they tends to be given credit for. Movies like A Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline are filled to the brim with imagery that gives even some adults the heebie-jeebies, and young audiences seemed to be perfectly fine with them (for the most part). And yet, we still have decided, as a media culture, that they need to be sheltered.
That’s why it’s remarkable that, of all places, one of the best examples of child-friendly horror material happened to come from Disney, who typically maintains about as squeaky-clean an image as a company can possibly have. Beginning in 2012, the company began airing Gravity Falls, an animated series created by Alex Hirsch, which would go on to run for two seasons before ending in 2016 after a long, protracted, and inconsistent release schedule. And despite being a show intended for child audiences, Gravity Falls is one of the greatest supernatural dramas ever to air on network television.
It’s also one of my absolute favorite shows, and I rewatch it almost every year.
The show has an ingenious premise that essentially serves as the perfect introduction to the occult in media for children: Essentially, take The X-Files and Twin Peaks, shave off some of the more graphic content, and throw it in a blender alongside some contemporary cartoons with irreverent tones of humor like Adventure Time, and BOOM, you’ve got Gravity Falls. It’s baby’s first horror drama, and if I ever have kids, it’s going to be the first thing I watch with them.
The show is centered on the fictional pacific northwest town of Gravity Falls, Oregon, where a pair of twin siblings, Dipper and Mable Pines, are sent to stay with their shady great uncle Stan. Stan, a noted conman and criminal, runs The Mystery Shack, a hokey tourist trap intended to bleed travelers out of their money with counterfeit attractions and manufactured scares. But the twins soon discover that there’s actually some creepy stuff happening in the town, after discovering a mysterious journal full of entries chronicling all sorts of cryptids and creatures that lurk in the area’s forests, lakes, and secret underground bunkers. And what starts as a fun, silly, monster-of-the-week narrative quickly spirals into a complex, layered plot that features more shocking twists and turns than the good seasons of Lost.
Basically, come for the funny cartoon antics, and stay for the story. By the end of the second season, I was more hooked on this show than I was with Game of Thrones. And unlike Game of Thrones, Gravity Falls actually has an incredible ending that ties up all its loose ends and gives a satisfying narrative conclusion to all of its characters.
And it’s a kid’s show. What’s your excuse, HBO?
Gravity Falls is also scientifically formulated to be as charming and endearing as humanly possible, being equal parts goofy and genuinely engaging. The tone is wacky and devil-may-care, feeling at times almost like a more sanitized version of adult animation shows like Rick and Morty (of which there’s actually some overlap with). And while it’s hilarious and insanely quotable, there’s also timeless, relatable coming-of-age drama and humor at the heart of the show, exploring all kinds of shockingly nuanced material that often feels far too clever and poignant for a cartoon. And yet, it also manages to nearly give you whiplash at times, bouncing from carefree and inconsequential romps one episode to legitimate, existential nightmares the next.
Yes, this show delves into the horrific on the regular, in ways that will surprise you when they happen. Each episode, largely, deals with a fairly non-sequitur and contained plot centered around a particular mysterious happening in the town of Gravity Falls. Sometimes, it’s as silly and innocuous as surly garden gnomes or sentient minigolf balls. But other times, it’s grotesque, shape-shifting abominations straight out of The Thing. Or gangly, undead candy monsters that eat children. Or ancient blood-curses. Oh, and did I mention that the overarching antagonist of the show is an interdimensional chaos demon who warps reality who sound like David Lynch? This show gets crazy dark at times (still in a family-friendly way, of course) and has genuinely high-stakes given the consequence-free tone that it often takes. Episodes that start with slapstick sitcom tropes will often end up veering into downright Lovecraftian territory. It’s clear that the writers for the show don’t treat kids as audiences to be patronized or belittled; Instead, they give them material that respects their intelligence and the boundaries of what they can realistically tolerate, which is more than many other animates programs can say.
In fact, this attitude of treating kids like they’re adults led to constant fights between Hirsch and his writer’s room against Disney’s standards & practices censors. A few months ago, Hirsch detailed some of the more ridiculous ones here, but there’s allegedly scores more. Disney fought him on everything from the jokes to the imagery, and even the character relationships. Any and all references to same-sex couples were thrown out the window at even the merest mention, a practice that the company still, unfortunately, hasn’t shown much real progress on. But even despite these roadblocks, Gravity Falls still manages to present some gnarly horror elements. Mounted animal heads bleed from their eyes, a deer has it’s teeth ripped out and presented as a gift, and villain threatens to “rearrange the holes” on a characters head. And the show’s child protagonists are constantly in mortal peril.
And as interesting and as exciting as some of the horror elements can be, the real heart of the show is its characters. By ending the show after 40 episodes, on his own terms, Hirsch mages to expertly craft dynamic, complete character arcs for almost everyone in the show. Every character, even minor ones, get their moment to shine. Everyone in the show grows and changes in significant ways, reacting to the bizarre and borderline-traumatic events that plague this sleepy little town. By the end of the finale (which is an epic, cinema-worthy adventure), I was more attached to these characters than I am some close relatives of mine. It’s that good. Fair warning, the ending of this show will make you cry, and the fact that Disney has refused any attempts to revisit this property is tantamount to a war crime in my eyes.
I discovered Gravity Falls after its original run had nearly completed, watching it with my younger sister at the time. I was in my late teens, and she was still in elementary school, and yet the show had equal material to hook us both. Even now, nearly a decade later, we still quote the show to each other, it having made that much of an impact. I’ve revisited it many times over the years, and I discover more to love on every rewatch. And I’ve since shown Gravity Falls to my adult friends as well, who have fallen in love with it from the moment the first episode is over. After nagging my roommate to give it a shot for years, he finally broke down and gave it a try, only to immediately become enraptured with it. It’s truly a near-perfect show, one that has enormous amounts of content to offer audiences from any age demographic.
I’ve been chasing the high that this show left me with ever since it finished airing in 2016, and haven’t been able to find anything that even comes close to nailing the feelings that I got watching it for the first time. Even Alex Hirsch’s work since that has failed to capture what made Gravity Falls so wonderful and unique, to the point where it may just be lightning in a bottle. It holds a genuinely special place in my heart, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever tire of it. It’s the prime example of why a piece of media shouldn’t be written off just because of its medium or its intended audience, and that greatness can come from the most unexpected of places.
So this Halloween season, if you have kids, or if you just want a break from the intensity and tension that comes from more adult-themes horror media, please give Gravity Falls a chance. I promise you, if you have a sense of humor, a taste for the weird, and a human soul, you’ll absolutely love it just as much as I have all these years.
And Disney, so help me God, greenlight a movie for this show. You can spare some budget from one of the roughly 60 Star Wars shows you have in development.
Gravity Falls is currently streaming on Disney+! Go watch it!
And Happy Halloween!