gremlin, in American folklore, malicious, airborne supernatural being. Gremlins were first heard of during World War II as creatures responsible for unexplainable mechanical failures and disruptions in aircraft.

A gremlin is a folkloric creature, commonly depicted as mischievous and mechanically oriented with a specific interest in aircraft. Although their origin is found in myths among airmen, claiming that the gremlins were responsible for sabotaging aircraft, one authority in folklore states that "some people" derive the name from the Old English word gremian, "to vex". In later times, different fantastical creatures have been referred to as gremlins, bearing varying degrees of resemblance to the original gremlins.

The airplane gremlin legend

The word "gremlin" originated in oral use amongst Royal Air Force (RAF) aviators' slang in Malta, the Middle East and India, with the earliest recorded printed use being a poem published in the journal Aeroplane, in Malta on April 10, 1929. The concept of gremlins as responsible for sabotaging aircraft was popularised during World War II among airmen of Britain's RAF, in particular the men of the high altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU) of RAF Benson, RAF Wick and RAF St Eval. The story attempted to explain the accidents which often occurred during their flights. Gremlins were also thought to have enemy sympathies, but investigation revealed that the enemy also had similar problems, so the gremlins were not taking sides in the conflict. In reality, the gremlins were a form of "buck passing" or deflecting blame. This led the folklorist John Hazen to note, "Heretofore, the gremlin has been looked on as new phenomenon, a product of the machine age — the age of air."

An early reference to the Gremlin is a girl called Sofia in an article by Hubert Griffith in the servicemen's fortnightly Royal Air Force Journal dated April 18, 1942 although that article states the stories had been in existence for several years, and there are later recollections of it having been told by Battle of Britain Spitfire pilots as early as 1940. Later sources have sometimes claimed that the concept goes back to World War I, but there is no print evidence of this.

Author Roald Dahl is credited with getting the gremlins known outside of the air force. He would have been familiar with the myth, having carried out his military service in the 80th squadron of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East. Dahl had his own experience in an accidental crash-landing in the Libyan Desert. In January, 1942 he was transferred to Washington, D.C. as Assistant Air attaché. There he eventually authored his novel The Gremlins, in which he described male gremlins as "widgets" and females as "fifinellas". Dahl showed the finished manuscript to Sidney Bernstein, the head of the British Information Service. Sidney reportedly came up with the idea to send it to Walt Disney.

The manuscript arrived in Disney's hands in July, 1942 and he considered using it as material for a film. The film project never materialized but Disney managed to have the story published in the December, 1942 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. About half a year later a revised version of the story was published in a picture book published by Random House. The book was republished in 2006 by Dark Horse Comics. Thanks mainly to Disney, the story had its share of publicity which helped in introducing the concept to a wider audience. Issues #33-#41 of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories published between June, 1943 and February, 1944 contained a nine-episode series of short silent stories featuring a Gremlin Gus as their star. The first was drawn by Vivie Risto and the rest of them by Walt Kelly. This served as their introduction to the comic book audience.

While Roald Dahl was famous for making gremlins known world wide, many returning Air Servicemen swear they saw creatures tinkering with their equipment. One crewman swore he saw one before an engine malfunction that caused his B-25 Mitchell bomber to rapidly lose altitude, forcing the aircraft to return to base. Folklorist Hazen likewise offers his own alleged eye-witness testimony of these creatures, which appeared in an academically praised and peer-reviewed publication, which describes an occasion he found "a parted cable which bore obvious tooth marks in spite of the fact that the break occurred in a most inaccessible part of the plane." At this point, Hazen states he heard "a gruff voice" demand, "How many times must you be told to obey orders and not tackle jobs you aren't qualified for? — This is how it should be done." Upon which Hazen heard a "musical twang" and another cable was parted.

Critics of this idea state that the stress of combat and the dizzying heights caused such hallucinations, often believed to be a coping mechanism of the mind to help explain the many problems aircraft faced whilst in combat.

Airplane gremlins in film

  • In 1943, Bob Clampett directed Falling Hare, a Merrie Melodies cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny. With Roald Dahl's book and Walt Disney's proposed film being the inspiration, this short has been one of the early Gremlin stories shown to cinema audiences. It features Bugs Bunny in conflict with a gremlin at an airfield. The Bugs Bunny cartoon was followed in 1944 by Russian Rhapsody, another Merrie Melodies short showing Russian gremlins sabotaging an aircraft piloted by Adolf Hitler.
  • A 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" directed by Richard Donner, featured a gremlin attacking a plane. This episode was remade as a segment of 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie. In the original television episode, the gremlin appears as an almost ape-like creature which inspects the aircraft's wing with the curiosity of an animal and then proceeds to damage the wing. William Shatner plays the passenger who sees the Gremlin on the plane's wing. No one else sees the Gremlin and Shatner's character is removed from the plane on a stretcher with symptoms of psychosis. In the movie segment, the gremlin more resembles a troll or a goblin, with green skin and a frightening grin. This incarnation of the gremlin appears to be more intellectual and menacing, and is also shown to be capable of flying.
  • A gremlin makes an appearance in a Halloween special of The Simpsons paralleling The Twilight Zone's "Nightmare at 20,000 feet", in which the gremlin attempts to destroy the wheel of Bart's school bus.

Different varieties of Gremlins

As is not uncommon with folkloric creatures in fiction, the nature of Gremlins differs greatly depending to the setting. Creatures named Gremlins are encountered in various forms of video games, fantasy literature, role playing games etc. Many of these Gremlins encountered in popular culture have little in common with the original critters from the air force legend other than their name.

A famous example is the 1984 movie Gremlins and its 1990 sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch. The gremlins in these movies had nothing obvious to do with aircraft in particular, although they were portrayed as adept at subverting or sabotaging mechanical systems; more explicit connections between the films' Gremlins and those of folklore were drawn in the novelizations however. Strangely, the gremlins in these movies look nothing alike the ones of folkloric mythology as they appear as monsters with large ears that are similar to a bat's, sharp teeth and claws, dark reptilian skin but are, of course, very mischievous.

In fact, the creatures of this movie are named "gremlins" because the protagonist, Billy Peltzer, recalls a speech by his friend, Murray Futterman, about the legend of gremlins. Thus, noting the similarities, he names them "gremlins".

Another example of gremlins in popular culture appears on the episode of Charmed named "The Power of Three Blondes" where two little blue creatures Paige referred to as gremlins start sabotaging things at her new temp job.

Gremlins are also said to sabotage motorcycles in the same way that they do airplanes. Some motorcyclist try to stave off gremlins by hanging a small "gremlin" bell on their motorcycles.


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