Two blog posts ago I went on at length about gremlins—both in general, and specific to The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” That episode comprised my most terrifying fictional experience, something that stuck with me for years. My students’ first assignment in my weird fiction class this summer is to write a piece of creative non-fiction describing their most terrifying fictional experience. As I said in that post, I was planning to write my own, by way of example and in the name of fairness—given that we’ll be sharing everyone’s pieces. And I said I would post it here.
So here we are. As might have been obvious from my last gremlins post, this is has become something of a very interesting and serendipitous rabbit hole for me, at once touching on a handful of my current research interests as well as jogging a lot of memories that I want to explore. Possibly this turns into a larger project, possibly it becomes an avenue of self-exploration, possibly both.
So what I’m saying is, don’t be surprised to see more posts here vectoring off from this line of inquiry.
One caveat: I made a point of not consulting with my parents as I wrote this. What I’ve related in this essay is purely based on my memory of the summer of 1984, and as such might be wildly off base. I’ll be interested to see what my Mom and Dad have to say and whether their own memories are at all consonant with mine. If not, I will write a follow-up.
Meanwhile, without further ado …
A man sees something on the wing of the airplane, a vague shape in the rain and lightning. It’s impossible that anything alive could be out there, at this speed and altitude. But he sees it again. He’s a nervous flyer; perhaps his mind is playing tricks. But then he sees it again: person-shaped but inhuman, its intent obviously malevolent as it tears into the wing.
He is the only one who sees it. He cries out to the flight attendants, to his fellow passengers in panic, but they think he’s crazy. He wonders himself if he’s losing his mind. He lets himself be calmed down, he closes the window shade, he tries to sleep. But soon enough, he can’t help himself. He opens the shade, and there is the thing, a creature that looks like a demonic goblin, inches from his face on the other side of the window, staring back at him with something like sadistic glee.
It’s a gremlin, of course, a folkloric imp that emerged in the age of flight, invented by RAF aviators in the years before WWII. Heir to a long lineage of mischievous pixies and fey folk, the gremlin is nevertheless a modern creation, blamed for the frequent and seemingly random malfunctions that bedeviled airplanes during the frantic steeplechase of flight technology between the wars. Gremlins weren’t just the comic antagonists of tall tales told by pilots and crew on airbases between missions—enough airmen were genuinely convinced that gremlins were real, swearing up and down that they’d seen the little bastards on their wings, that concerned psychological papers were written.
Roald Dahl’s first novel was about gremlins. Bugs Bunny tangled with one in the Looney Tunes short “Falling Hare.” Like their folkloric predecessors, gremlins were given to mischief and occasional cruelty, but were mostly depicted as annoyances and not threats.
For a time in my childhood, gremlins were a source of abject terror for me.
When I think of gremlins, I think of the summer of 1984. The movie Gremlins was released that June, but I never saw it. I still haven’t. By the time it hit theatres, I’d already been terrified beyond what was strictly reasonable by the gremlin in The Twilight Zone: The Movie, which my father rented for us to watch some time after its release in 1983 and before Gremlins came out. The fourth of the anthology film’s four segments was “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which a nervous flyer sees a gremlin on the wing of his plane. The moment when he opens the shade to see the demonic creature staring back at him haunted me for years. When I lay in bed at night and the scene came to mind, I hid my head under the covers—trapping myself, for suddenly I couldn’t shake the idea that the gremlin would be perched there, staring at me, if I lowered them.
Lest you assume these were the infantile fears of a young boy, let me clarify: these were the infantile fears of a twelve-year-old.
A vicious heat wave hit our Toronto suburb in 1984. It coincided with the Olympics, which ran from the last week of July into August. It was the kind heat that pervades my childhood memories of summer: a baking sun in a clear sky, air that was somehow stifling and humid while also drying the grass to brittle blades that abraded bare feet. Even basements were no refuge.
Our house had no air conditioning, so my father brought the television set outside onto the side deck where there was at least some shade and, occasionally, a breeze. This arrangement appealed to my mother: puritanical about not spending summer days indoors watching the tube, she also hated missing even a moment of Olympic coverage. Because the 1984 Games were held in Los Angeles, the time difference meant our Olympics viewing stretched into the darkening evening. We ate dinner on the deck and watched athletes run, swim, hurl, and paddle. Neighbours came over, bringing beer and wine and snacks. An ongoing PG-13 bacchanal took up residence on our deck and spilled out onto the yellowing grass of our corner lot as the neighbourhood kids staged our own Games.
The 1984 Games were notable for the absence of the Soviet Union and most of the Eastern Bloc. They boycotted Los Angeles in retaliation for the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, which had been in protest over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.
It was petulance, said one neighbour. Hypocritical, said another. Someone made an off-colour joke I didn’t understand about women’s weightlifting being fair this time. I didn’t grasp the nuances of the politics, but I knew that the Soviet absence tinged everything with vague unease. The 1984 summer Olympics marked the precise midpoint of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the renewed belligerence of the Cold War. Fears of nuclear conflict that had smouldered like banked coals during the détente years of the 1970s leapt again into open flame. Pious sages of geopolitics kept inching the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. I was in some ways a literal-minded child and did not quite understand that the clock was metaphorical. Every time its minute hand crept forward, I could not sleep for days afterward.
The Day After, a terrifying depiction of a nuclear exchange, aired in late 1983. It showed the effects of multiple warheads striking in the American heartland, and the immediate aftermath as people suffering from severe radiation poisoning struggle and fight over food and water. The images of the mushroom clouds and their devastation were the most graphic ever portrayed at the time. A disclaimer at the end told the audience that, however ghastly the film’s depiction had been, it was mild in comparison to what the reality would be. With over one hundred million viewers, it was the most-watched television event in history.
I did not see it. I didn’t even know it existed until I heard about it at school from classmates who had watched it. It had been recommended that parents watch it with their children; guides were made available to help with the discussions afterward. But it was not mentioned in my house and I was somehow smart enough not to ask why.
Whatever sleep I lost worrying about the Bomb, my mother’s nuclear anxieties contained multitudes.
Because serendipity is like gravity, that summer one of the television channels aired old episodes of The Twilight Zone. Every night when Olympics coverage ended, when most of the neighbours had gone home, while the lawn and the hedges and the asphalt of the street sighed the stored heat of the day into the darkness, we switched over to the slow cascading fall of the theme music and the studied portent in Rod Serling’s voice.
With one exception, I don’t remember which episodes we watched. I do remember my parents waxing on about episodes we didn’t see. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” was a favourite of theirs. To this day I haven’t seen it, but the plot as they related it stuck in my mind: a quiet suburban neighbourhood like ours suffers an inexplicable blackout on a summer night; the neighbours congregate in the street, anxious but not concerned until the lights go on at one house. Suspicion starts to set in: what’s special about that person’s house? Other houses get power, then lose it, until the previously friendly neighbours descend into paranoid warring factions. The episode ends with aliens in a ship overhead, who have been manipulating the power grid, saying, Look, we don’t have to attack them, these humans will turn on each other.
But because serendipity is the gravity of my life, we did see “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” I can’t help but think that if I’d seen the original episode first, the spectre of a gremlin on a wing wouldn’t have stuck so deep in my brain’s fear centers. It featured a pre-Star Trek William Shatner as the nervous flyer, demonstrating that scenery-chewing was always his first and best talent. The gremlin itself looked like a man in a monkey suit, less a demon than an ugly teddy bear. Creepy but hardly terrifying.
But in the context of that uncanny summer fortnight, with the memory of the movie gremlin colouring its black and white predecessor with shades of fear out of space, what was otherwise risible had the effect of driving my original horror deeper into my mind. It became existential. Each night when we changed the channel over and the theme music played I felt ill, and yet could not look away. Then one night, the show began with Serling’s narration: “Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father and salesman,” showing William Shatner (whom I did not then recognize as Captain Kirk) slouched in his airplane seat. We learned he had recently spent time in a sanitarium—that he had been there because he had a nervous breakdown on a flight “on an evening not dissimilar to this one.” On this night, however, Serling tells us, “his appointed destination … happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.”
I could not look away, even as part of me knew just how much this campy earlier iteration was about to make the lingering effects of the later one indelible. I have little memory of the actual episode. What I have is sense memory: the night’s heavy, suffocating humidity, the creak of crickets in the hedge, the smell of the grass, the bilious weight in my belly, and the dread of knowing I would soon have to try and sleep in my dark and stuffy room.
In German, “uncanny” is unheimlich, literally unhomely, that which makes you feel not at home. Those two weeks that summer were dislocating: I was not at home in my home, and my home itself felt adrift, untethered. Or perhaps what I felt was the dread certainty that it was always untethered on the world’s currents, and that the feeling of safety remote from the larger world was the illusion—that there was always a gremlin on the wing, marking time in missile silos and in the minds of world leaders. RAF airmen invented gremlins in part to resolve a contradiction: flight technology was advancing by leaps and bounds but left them uniquely vulnerable while aloft. What more unthinkable technology has existed than nuclear weapons? Perhaps for me the gremlin was not a narrative comfort as it was for the aviators, but the certainty of the technology’s malevolence.
The Twilight Zone was in many ways the quintessential Cold War TV show, as it embodied the nagging, unhomely sense of something being not quite right, which was the constant undercurrent of the bland suburban order that America was so desperate to convey to itself. It is no surprise that so many of the show’s episodes are set in such innocuous suburbs as Maple Street.
My father, who grew up in just such a suburb, loved The Twilight Zone when he was my age; he told me that he watched the episodes eagerly when they first aired. He was twelve when the show premiered in autumn 1959. He was a different twelve-year-old than me, apparently—I tried to imagine actually enjoying something that unsettling, actually looking forward to seeing what each new episode would bring, but that sensibility was still alien to me. In a few short years I would learn to love horror when I discovered Stephen King and tore through his novels at breakneck speed. But at twelve I had not yet grown out of the nausea the uncanny inspired in me. That two-week stretch of an otherwise idyllic summer was a perfect storm of subtle dislocations: the heat wave, the outdoor television viewing, the constant low-grade party atmosphere, the hours and hours of Olympic coverage, all with the Soviet absence drawing attention to the Cold War’s constant menacing background hum.