Early on August 3, multiple groups—some families with young children—gathered in the small city of Reedsport, Ore., with a population of just over 4,000 people. In the middle of a wood, in the dark of night, they stood with their phones, taking photos and live-streaming the discovery of a triangular, humanoid statue. One Periscope of the journey and discovery had a total of over 29,000 viewers.
Some even dared to shake the statue’s hand.
The Gravity Falls fandom has taken on a life of its own. The Disney XD cartoon ran for only two seasons, but since its completion in February, has seen an uptick in popularity that hasn’t gone unnoticed by creator Alex Hirsch, who wanted to reward the fans with something befitting the show’s creepy, mysterious tone.
“I wanted to reward the fans who are still celebrating the show,” Hirsch told io9 by phone Wednesday. “I have a unique opportunity [so I presented this] final gift, a parting mystery.”
Hence the creation of the Cipher Hunt: a global scavenger hunt for fans. The mission was to find a statue of Bill Cipher, the cartoon’s main antagonist, by following clues posted by Hirsch on Twitter. If you’re new to the Gravity Falls fandom, you can read more on the basics of the social media scavenger hunt, which brought fans together over Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit to solve the mystery, crack the clues, and find Cipher. It was an incredible feat that spanned continents, with some clues showing up in Russia, Japan, and in Los Angeles. You can check out this Reddit megathread, which documents the entire journey.
So for two weeks, people traveled all over, cracking codes and solving puzzles. After multiple clues, the final one: a tear in the original parchment that was cut in the outline of the woods in Reedsport, according to Google Maps.
Those that descended on the statue during its first night were not only met with a real-life incarnation of Bill Cipher, but also a box of treasure. Inside was some fake money, a smaller statue of Bill, a picture of the Pines family, and a USB that included an audio message from one of the show’s characters. Also inside were some messages from Hirsch that you could only read under a black light, which was provided.
Also inside was a crown and sash to be worn by the next mayor of Gravity Falls. A girl, who was the first one to find it, is now “canonically the mayor of Gravity Falls,” according to Hirsch.
At one point, a baby shook Bill’s hand, which in the show is basically the equivalent of making a deal with the devil.
Hirsch wouldn’t detail how long the hunt took to plan, but said that he installed the statue eight months ago in Reedsport, making a deal with a man who had an excluded spot in the show’s locale. So the statue seen in the final shots of the finale was indeed the real one. There was speculation immediately following the series ending that it could be real, and it just so happened the fans were correct.
The popularity of the event was surprising even to Hirsch. He thought after the finale the size of the fandom would stagnate, but the opposite happened. “The community has swelled in size,” Hirsch said.
The hunt coincided with the release of Gravity Falls: Journal #3, a tie-in book that hit bookstore shelves last week. Since then, it’s been sold out on Amazon and has reached number one on the New York Times Bestseller’s List in the “Middle Grade Hardcover” division, something else to hit home just how his show resonated with viewers. The combination of code breaking and interactivity online only added to the show’s complex characters and charming Pacific Northwest setting.
“There’s something about the interactivity of the show in the age of Twitter and Tumblr that makes people feel like they’re part of the story,” Hirsch said, speculating about why the show is so popular. “In some cases, I’m a character too. The show has taken on a life outside of television.”
The hunt wouldn’t have been nearly as popular without the internet. In the wake of other real-world experiences such a Pokémon Go, it’s brought people together outside of computer monitors and television screens. Hirsch equated the frenzy to being “camp counselor for 300,000 kids at once.” It’s a lot of fun and rewarding, but crazy.
“The internet is a collective mind and together they’re smarter than any one person,” he said.
The statue would’ve remained in its forever home if not for a small spat between two Oregon properties, however. Hirsch said that he made a deal with the man whose property housed Cipher, but a dispute between him and a neighbor over where the borders of the land were located caused Cipher to be “arrested” by police.
According to Hirsch, the entire incident was a “dumb miscommunication” that the local police took in stride, even offering to help install it somewhere else.
“[The police officer] was quite impressed by the amazing lengths of this hunt and how Alex had chosen Reedsport for the final place. He happily said that he would try his best to keep it safe and get it back into a public place if possible,” said Twitter user Sunbeam Pines, who was at the scene when the statue got removed.
So people who want to make the pilgrimage to Oregon will have to wait until Hirsch finds a new spot for it. No word on where it will be yet, or if there will be a secondary scavenger hunt—Hirsch is busy with other undisclosed projects, as much as he would like to make another one—but it definitely will have a new home.
As for whether Hirsch will do something like this again in the future, it depends on his schedule. What was most touching for him—and something that he gushed about over the phone multiple times—was the fun people were having over the hunt. People solved obtuse, ridiculous clues and broke clues and connected with people in other countries just to find a statue.
In an email to io9, Sunbeam wanted to thank Hirsch for the effort he put into the event and to the fans for the event itself.
“I had followed it the entire way through, waiting for a moment for us to be able to take action. Well, we had our moment. We found the statue and helped save Bill Cipher! Not only that, we helped make Gravity Falls history. But, it couldn’t have been done without the entire fandom. They supported us through streams and helped actually find the statue’s location. I’m really honored to have a part in the #CipherHunt and I hope to help Gravity Falls live on! This experience won’t be one that I’ll forget, and I am so thankful to Alex Hirsch for making it!”
The internet is a strange and wonderful place.
“The pointlessness of it inspires the passion,” he added. “I’d rather live in a world where there are treasure hunts to find a statue in the woods than one where everyone thinks something like that is too difficult.”