I’ve been thinking a lot about gremlins these past few days.
I’m teaching a graduate seminar on weird fiction this summer (full title: “Weird Fiction: Lovecraft, Race, and the Queer Uncanny”), and the first assignment is a piece of creative non-fiction describing your most terrifying fictional experience; whether in a book, film, or episode of television, what scared you so badly that it stayed with you for weeks or years? I’ve done this kind of assignment before in upper-level classes, and it has always worked well—especially considering that I post everyone’s pieces in the online course shell so they can be read by the entire class. That always leads to a good and interesting class discussion.
In the interests of fairness and by way of example, I’m also writing one. Which is where the gremlins come in.
No, not the 1984 movie. I couldn’t watch it, given that by the time it was released I’d already been traumatized by “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” And no, not the original Twilight Zone episode from 1963. If I’d watched that episode—which featured pre-Star Trek William Shatner gnawing the furniture as a nervous flyer who sees a gremlin that looks like a man in a monkey suit on the wing of the plane—it’s possible gremlins wouldn’t have come to haunt my imagination the way they did. The original episode is creepy, to be certain, but not particularly scary; the gremlin is too fluffy and Shatner too Shatner to really evoke terror.
The gremlin that made me terrified to sleep at night for several months was the one in the “Nightmare” segment of the 1983 film The Twilight Zone: The Movie.
The premise is very simple, and most likely familiar even to those who haven’t seen it (not least because it was parodied in a Simpsons Halloween episode): a man who is a nervous flyer to start with is on a plane during a storm. Looking out the window, he sees … something. At first, he thinks his eyes are playing tricks, but then he sees it again. And then again, and each time it becomes clearer that there is a person-shaped thing out there on the wing. Panicked, he calls for a flight attendant, shouting “There’s a man on the wing of this plane!” This, of course, is impossible, and it is obvious that the fight staff and his fellow passengers think him hysterical (it doesn’t help his case that the segment begins with a flight attendant talking to him through the bathroom door as he’s inside having a panic attack). After talking himself down, realizing it would be impossible for a man to be on the wing at this speed and altitude, He accepts a valium from the senior flight attendant, closes the window shade, and attempts to sleep.
Of course, after a fitful attempt, he can’t help himself, and he opens the shade … and sees the thing, clearly demonic in appearance now, inches away from his face on the other side of the window.
This was the precise moment it broke my brain and gave me nightmares for months.
Anyway, TL;DR: either through turbulence or the creature’s sabotage, the plane lurches violently. The man grabs a gun from the sky marshal and shoots at the creature through the window. The cabin decompresses and he’s sucked out halfway. He shoots at the creature again, which wags a clawed finger at him, and flies off into the night. The plane lands and the man is taken off in a straitjacket; meanwhile, the mechanics examining the plane’s engine find it torn to shreds, the metal bent and ripped and covered in deep rents that look like claw marks.
I don’t remember any of the rest of the movie, which had three other segments based on old Twilight Zone episodes. I just remember watching “Nightmare,” being terrified, and my father telling me, in reply to my shocked question, that the creature was a gremlin and that they sabotage airplanes.
Really, it’s amazing I ever willingly went back on a plane.
I’ve been thinking about that and remembering a lot of details about the summer of 1984, which is when this all happened, and trying to work through precisely why it scared me so profoundly. I’ll post that essay here when it’s written; but in the meantime, I’ve been going down the rabbit hole on gremlins and their origins as an element of modern folklore.
There’s surprisingly little written about gremlins, which is possibly a function of the twinned facts that, on one hand, they’re basically a sub-species of a vast array of pixies, fairies, goblins, imps, and other mischievous fey creatures from folklore and legend; and on the other hand, they have a recent and fairly specific point of origin. Gremlins emerge alongside aviation (something The Twilight Zone hews to and the movie Gremlins ignores). More specifically, gremlins are creatures of the RAF, and start appearing as an explanation for random malfunctions sometime in the 1920s, becoming a staple of flyers’ mythos by the outbreak of WWII.
Gremlins, indeed, almost became the subject of a Disney film: author Roald Dahl, who would go on to write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach among innumerable other beloved children’s books, was an RAF pilot. His first book was titled The Gremlins, about a British Hawker Hurricane pilot named Gus who is first tormented by gremlins, but ultimately befriends them and convinces them to use their technical savvy to help the British war effort. In 1942, Dahl was invalided out of active service and sent to Washington, D.C. as an RAF attaché. The Gremlins brought the RAF mythos of airborne imps to America, and was popular enough that Disney optioned it as an animated feature. Though Disney ultimately did not make the movie, Dahl convinced them to publish it with the animators’ illustrations in 1943. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly delighted in reading it to her grandchildren.
There was also a Loony Toons short in 1943 featuring Bugs Bunny being bedevilled by a gremlin on a U.S. airbase.
Though Dahl would later claim to have coined the word “gremlin,” that is demonstrably false, as the term was in use from the 1920s and was featured in Pauline Gower’s 1938 novel The ATA: Women With Wings. The word’s etymology is difficult to determine, with some suggesting it comes from the Old English word gremian, “to vex,” which is also possibly related to gremmies, British English slang for goblin or imp. Another theory holds that the word is a conflation of goblin and Fremlin, the latter being a popular brand of beer widely available on British airbases in the mid-century—one can imagine tales of mischievous airborne creatures characterized as goblins seen after too many Fremlins.
One of the more interesting aspects of the gremlins mythos is how many flyers seemed genuinely convinced of the creatures’ existence. So common were tales of malfunction attributed to gremlins that U.S. aircrews stationed in England picked up on the lore and many of them, like their British counterparts, swore up and down they’d actually seen the little bastards working their mischief. Indeed, one of the only academic pieces of writing I’ve been able to find on gremlins is not the work of a folklorist, but a sociologist: in a 1944 edition of The Journal of Educational Sociology, Charles Massinger writes gravely about the fact that “a phase of thinking that had become prevalent in the Royal Air Force”—which is to say, gremlins—“had subsequently infected the psychology of the American airmen in the present war.” Massinger’s article expresses concern that otherwise rational people, thoroughly trained in advanced aviation, who necessarily possess a “breadth of … scientific knowledge relative to cause and effect of stress on the fighting machine” would be so irrational as to actually believe in the existence of “fantastic imps.”
Massinger suggests that it is the stress of combat that gives rise to such fantasies, which is not an unreasonable hypothesis—war zones are notoriously given to all sorts of fabulation. But he says that it is the stress and fear in the moment, in which split-second decisions and reactions that don’t allow for measured and reasoned thought, that short-circuits the sense of reality: “If pilots had sufficient time to think rationally about machine deficiencies under actual flying conditions,” he says, “it is doubtful whether the pixy conception would have crept into their psychology.” Leaden prose aside, this argument strikes me as precisely wrong. The mythology surrounding gremlins may have had its start in panicked moments of crisis while aloft, but it developed and deepened in moments of leisure—airmen relaxing between missions in the officers’ club or mess, probably over numerous bottles of Fremlins. It is indeed with just such a scene that we first learn of gremlins in Dahl’s story.
I do however think Massinger’s instinct isn’t wrong here, i.e. the idea that airmen respond to the stresses of combat and the frustrations of frequent baffling breakdowns with fantasy rather than reason. What he’s missing is the way in which mess-hall fabulation humanizes the experience; the rationality of science and technology in such situations, I would hazard, is not a comfort, no matter how long the flyers have for reflection. The mechanical dimension of air combat is the alienating factor, especially at a point in time when flight was not just new but evolving by leaps and bounds. Roald Dahl’s experience in this respect is instructive: he started the war flying Gloster Gladiator biplanes, which were badly obsolete even when they were first introduced in 1934. By the time he was invalided, he had graduated to Hawker Hurricanes, which in the early days of the war were among the most advanced fighters. By the time he was in the U.S. and Eleanor Roosevelt was reading his first book to her grandchildren, the Allied bombing campaign had already lost more planes than flew in total during the First World War, with the new planes coming off assembly lines not just matching the losses but growing the massive air fleets.
Air travel has become so rote and banal today, and catastrophic airframe malfunctions so rare, that it is difficult to remember what must have been a vastly disorienting experience in WWII: ever-more sophisticated fighters and bombers that were nevertheless plagued by constant mechanical failures, machines of awesome destructive power that were also terribly vulnerable. Bomber crews suffered the highest rates of attrition in the war—about half of them were killed in action—while there was also the constant drumbeat of propaganda about the supposed indomitability of the Allied bombing wings.
When I teach my second-year course on American literature after 1945, I always start with the poetry of Randall Jarrell; specifically, we do a few of his war poems, as a means of emphasizing how the Second World War so profoundly transformed the world and the United States’ place in it, and the extent to which American popular culture became invested in mythologizing the war. Jarrell’s poetry is a disconcertingly ambivalent glimpse of the depersonalization and mechanization of the soldier by a war machine Hollywood has largely erased through such sentimental portrayals as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan. “The Death of the Turret-Ball Gunner” is usually the first poem we do, and I can reliably spend an entire class on it despite its brevity. In its entirety:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
The final line is a gut-punch, but it’s the first two lines that establish one of Jarrell’s key themes with devastating economy. The speaker “falls” from the warmth and safety of the mother’s care, where he is loved as an individual, to the ownership of the State, where he is depersonalized and expendable—rendered inhuman even before the “black flak” (anti-aircraft fire) unincorporates his body. In the second line, the State is explicitly conflated with the weapon of war, the bomber, of which he has become a mechanism, and which functions as a monstrous womb: the parallel structure of the two lines aligns the “belly” of airplane with the “mother’s sleep.” The “wet fur,” freezing in the sub-zero temperatures of the high altitude, is literally the fur lining his bomber jacket, but also alludes to the lanugo, the coat of fur that fetuses develop and then shed while in the womb.
The bomber functions in Jarrell’s poetry as the exemplar of the Second World War’s inhuman scope and scale, built in vast numbers, visiting vast devastation on its targets—the last two of which were Hiroshima and Nagasaki—but which itself was terribly vulnerable and always in need of more bodies to fill out its crews. The machine itself was never scarce.
All of which might seem like a huge digression from a discussion of gremlins, but it’s really not: gremlins are identifiably kin to myth and folklore’s long history of mischievous “little people,” from pixies to the sidhe. That they emerge as a specific sub-species (sub-genre?) at the dawn of aviation—specifically, military aviation—is suggestive of a similar mythopoeic impulse when faced with the shock of the new. That some airmen become convinced of their existence as the war went on and the air war grew to unthinkable proportions is, I would suggest, pace Massinger, utterly unsurprising.
Donald, Graeme. Sticklers, Sideburns, and Bikinis: The Military Origins of Everyday Words and Phrases. 2008.
Leach, Maria (ed). The Dictionary of Folklore. 1985.
Massinger, Charles. “The Gremlin Myth.” The Journal of Educational Sociology., Vol. 17 No. 6 (Feb. 1944). pp. 359-367.
Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People. 1996.
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