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Q&A: Alex Hirsch and Rob Renzetti on Gravity Falls Fandom

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Though the animated series and cult hit Gravity Falls wrapped in February after just two seasons, the show's devoted following is more dedicated than ever. Thousands of people joined in creator Alex Hirsch's Cipher Hunt over the summer, completing an international scavenger hunt that culminated in the discovery of a statue of the show's supervillain. And those same fans made Journal 3, a real-life manifestation of a key book in the series, a New York Times bestseller in a matter of days.

We talked to Hirsch and Rob Renzetti, co-authors of Journal 3, about the book, the show, the scavenger hunt—and where they get all of their fabulously weird ideas.

Journal 3 is packed with hidden info and ciphers to unravel—so much, in fact, that there’s no way fans have found it all yet. Can you give a hint to something no one appears to have discovered?

Alex Hirsch: The internet never ceases to impress me. For all the talk about how the upcoming generation has a short attention span, the moment you give these kids a riddle they drop everything and suddenly work together in perfect harmony like a military-level SWAT team to crack the code. It’s incredible. That being said, sometimes fans are often so focused on code-cracking they miss what’s in plain sight—the actual text of the journal! There are connections in there that even the savviest fans still have yet to notice.

Journal 3 reveals new details about most of the major characters, like Ford's Smash Mouth tattoo and the fact that Soos glues on his chin hair. How much of that existed as character development during the series, and how much backstory did you create just for the Journal?

Rob Renzetti: Alex could probably give you a more encyclopedic answer to this question. I think a lot of Stan’s backstory was something that he had in his back pocket during the whole run of the series. Other smaller things were definitely invented for the book. The chin hair bit was something I came up with as a throwaway joke that I thought said a lot about Soos. 

AH: I've had the backstories for many of these characters in my head for a long time. Especially Ford and Bill, and how Bill played to Ford's ego and almost destroyed the world in the process. Of course we still improvise and invent new things along the way. That’s the fun of writing—finding chances to surprise yourself. Ford's tattoo was a surprise to me, too—courtesy of our awesome illustrator Andy Gonsalves.

Courtesy Disney Publishing

One of the fun things about the Journal is that we get to dive deeper into some of the episodes. For example, Ford chronicles a few of the other dimensions he experienced while he was in the portal. What inspired those? In particular, the "M" dimension stood out to me as something that must have a story behind it.

AH: While writing season two, we wanted to send our characters through the portal into the multiverse but never found a way to quite make it work with our storyline. There were tons of drawings and jokes we came up with during our brainstorms—including the annoyingly pointless M dimension. We loved the idea of someone as scientific and rational as Ford having to fight his way out of what was essentially a Sesame Street segment teaching you about the letter M. It would drive him insane.

RR: The M Dimension came out of an unused story where Mabel went through the Portal and the Pines needed to go search for her. We were brainstorming ideas for alternate dimensions and the M Dimension was the most delightfully silly thing we could imagine.

Much has been made over how much creative control you were able to retain even though Disney’s Standards and Practices is presumably pickier than most. Was there anything you really had to fight for? Did you lose any of those battles?

AH: One day I'd love to release a coffee table book of all the crazy notes I got from Disney Channel's S&P and legal department. To give you a sense of what I was up against, one time I was told, "Make sure the target that Wendy throws a dart at doesn't resemble the target from the store Target." To which I had to reply: "The target isn't the target from Target. The target is a target."

Welcome to my hell.

Was anything vetoed from the Journal?

RR: I don’t remember any idea that we came up with being vetoed or changed. Disney Publishing is particularly awesome that way.

AH: Disney Publishing has been incredible. They didn't give me a single note on this journal. They understood the tone of the show, believed in my vision, and more importantly, trusted the intelligence of our audience. Working with them has been a dream come true. I wish the gatekeepers in kids TV were as savvy and in tune with the audience as those in Publishing.

Courtesy Disney Publishing

The Cipher Hunt was such a fun, interactive way to keep fans involved. Where did you get the idea?

AH: I spent 90 percent of my childhood playing SNES and N64, and my favorite games were the ones packed with secrets. I remember spending one summer being utterly obsessed with trying to get the legendary unreachable "Ice Key" from Banjo-Kazooie. What was so brilliant about that item was that it was literally impossible to get and just was there to torture players. Or so people thought. Until years later, someone discovered a code that let you find it. I remember thinking that if I ever had a chance, I wanted to create something that gave fans the same feeling. A last mystery after the game is over. Something so hard to find it reaches legendary status. Launching the hunt and watching the fans team up all over the world to find the clues was one of the most fun things I've ever done.

Do Mabel and Dipper's names have any special significance?

AH: I imagine that [their] parents see themselves as slightly counter-culture and chose purposefully archaic names just so their kids would stand out among the 12 Chrises and 14 Jessicas in Dipper and Mabel's preschool.

You’ve talked a lot about the real-life inspirations for many of the main characters, but I haven’t seen much about where McGucket came from. I thought it was interesting that Journal 3 showed that not only was he once a genius, he was actually the voice of reason before he got fed up with Ford.

RR: McGucket started as a throwaway joke character in "Gobblewonker" and just grew and grew in importance as the series went on. It just made sense to us that a character with such scientific and technological skill would be tied to the creation and the creator of the Portal.

AH: McGucket originally started out as just a wacky stereotypical hillbilly and a chance for me to scream into the microphone. (He was originally called Old Man McGuffin, which is a literary trope meaning something unimportant that sets a plot in motion.) But when our writers got deeper into the story we discovered that there was an exciting opportunity to connect him to our characters’ pasts and destinies. I'm very glad we did—giving Ford a friend humanizes him, as well as deepening the tragedy when they part ways.

Courtesy Disney Publishing

What's next for you both?

AH: Right now I'm developing a few different projects for a few different places, but it’s too early to comment on any of them. Like Grunkle Stan, I like to stay a man of mystery until the right moment to fleece rubes emerges once more.

RR: I’m serving as executive producer on a new show for Disney TV called Country Club created by the very talented Houghton brothers. It’s about a country family’s oversized adventures in the Big City.

Finally, a question from Lydia, my superfan 6-year-old: "Where do you come up with all of the weirdness?"

AH: I didn't come up with the weirdness. I was born in it. Molded by it.

RR: There is an unlimited supply of weirdness in the weird world around you and inside your weird self. Lots of people try to ignore it and lots of people try to stamp it out. But the best people allow themselves the freedom to be weird. Be the best, weird person you can be.

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Pop Culture
LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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Kevork Djansezian, Stringer, Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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literature
The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
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For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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