A Gremlin is a mythological creature commonly depicted as mischievous and mechanically oriented, with a specific interest in aircraft. Gremlins' mischievous natures are similar to those of English folkloricimps, while their inclination to damage or dismantle machinery is more modern.
Although their origin is found in myths among airmen, claiming that the gremlins were responsible for sabotaging aircraft, John W. Hazen states that "some people" derive the name from the Old English word gremian, "to vex". Since World War II, different fantastical creatures have been referred to as gremlins, bearing varying degrees of resemblance to the originals.
The term "gremlin" denoting a mischievous creature that sabotages aircraft, originates in Royal Air Force (RAF) slang in the 1920s among the British pilots stationed in Malta, the Middle East, and India, with the earliest recorded printed use being in a poem published in the journal Aeroplane in Malta on 10 April 1929. Later sources have sometimes claimed that the concept goes back to World War I, but there is no print evidence of this.[N 1]
An early reference to the gremlin is in aviatorPauline Gower's The ATA: Women with Wings (1938) where Scotland is described as "gremlin country", a mystical and rugged territory where scissor-wielding gremlins cut the wires of biplanes when unsuspecting pilots were about. An article by Hubert Griffith in the servicemen's fortnightly Royal Air Force Journal dated 18 April 1942, also chronicles the appearance of gremlins, although the article states the stories had been in existence for several years, with later recollections of it having been told by Battle of BritainSpitfire pilots as early as 1940.
This concept of gremlins was popularized during World War II among airmen of the UK's RAF units, in particular the men of the high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU) of RAF Benson, RAF Wick and RAF St Eval. The flight crews blamed gremlins for otherwise inexplicable accidents which sometimes occurred during their flights. Gremlins were also thought at one point to have enemy sympathies, but investigations revealed that enemy aircraft had similar and equally inexplicable mechanical problems. As such, gremlins were portrayed as being equal opportunity tricksters, taking no sides in the conflict, and acting out their mischief from their own self-interest. In reality, the gremlins were a form of "buck passing" or deflecting blame. This led folklorist John Hazen to note that "the gremlin has been looked on as new phenomenon, a product of the machine age—the age of air".
Author Roald Dahl is credited with getting the gremlins known outside the Royal Air Force. He would have been familiar with the myth, having carried out his military service in 80 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 at the British Embassy. There he wrote his first children's novel The Gremlins, in which "Gremlins" were tiny men who lived on RAF fighters, their wives were "Fifinellas" and their children were "Widgets". Dahl showed the finished manuscript to Sidney Bernstein, the head of the British Information Service, who came up with the idea to send it to Walt Disney.[N 2]
The manuscript arrived in Disney's hands in July 1942, and he considered using it as material for a live action/animated full-length feature film, offering Dahl a contract.[N 3] The film project was changed to an animated feature and entered pre-production, with characters "roughed out" and storyboards created. Disney managed to have the story published in the December 1942 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. At Dahl's urging, in early 1943, a revised version of the story, The Gremlins was published as a picture book by Random House (later updated and re-published in 2006 by Dark Horse Comics).[N 4]
The publication of The Gremlins by Random House consisted of a 50,000 run for the U.S. market [N 5]with Dahl ordering 50 copies for himself as promotional material for himself and the upcoming film, handing them out to everyone he knew, including Lord Halifax, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who read it to her grandchildren. The book was considered an international success with 30,000 more sold in Australia but initial efforts to reprint the book were precluded by a wartime paper shortage. Reviewed in major publications, Dahl was considered a writer-of-note and his appearances in Hollywood to follow up with the film project were met with notices in Hedda Hopper's columns.[N 6]
The film project was reduced to an animated "short" and eventually cancelled in August 1943, when copyright and RAF rights could not be resolved. 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 Mitchellbomber to rapidly lose altitude, forcing the aircraft to return to base. Folklorist Hazen likewise offers his own alleged eyewitness testimony of these creatures, which appeared in an academically praised and peer-reviewed publication, describing 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.
Gremlins in film and media
On 21 December 1942, CBS aired "Gremlins", a whimsical story written by Lucille Fletcher, on an episode of Orson Welles's patriotic radio series Ceiling Unlimited. U.S. Air Force officers discuss their experiences with the irritating creatures, and conclude that feeding them transforms them into an asset rather than a hindrance to aviation.
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 in which multiple gremlins featured. 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. The gremlin in "Falling Hare" even has a color scheme that reflects one that was used on U.S. Army Air Forcestraining aircraft of the time, using dark blue (as on such an aircraft's fuselage) and a deep orange-yellow color (as used on the wings and tail surfaces).
The 1947 novel by Roald Dahl, Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen, had the Gremlin leader as the protagonist of the second half of the book. He is described as leading an ancient nature-loving race away from the wars between humans and trying to let his race survive the destruction of humanity.
A 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" directed by Richard Donner and based on the short story of the same name by Richard Matheson, featured a gremlin attacking an airliner. 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 a passenger named Bob Wilson (just recovered from a mental breakdown) who is with his wife en route to another location when he sees the Gremlin (played by Nick Cravat) on the aircraft's wing where it doing some damages to it. No one else sees the Gremlin since it jumps away when someone else tries to see it. In order to do something before the Gremlin damages the wing enough to make the airplane crash, Bob steals a sleeping police officer's revolver and causes a breach in the auxiliary exit to shoot the Gremlin. When the airplane is on the ground, Bob Wilson is removed from the aircraft on a stretcher and in a straitjacket with symptoms of psychosis. Rod Serling's narration states that Bob's conviction to the asylum is not long as it is shown that the gremlin left evidence of Bob's claim in the form of a damaged wing. This episode was remade as a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) with John Lithgow playing a similar character called John Valentine. In the movie's segment, the gremlin (played by Larry Cedar) more resembles an alien 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. John Valentine (who is depicted with aviatophobia) sees the gremlin and tries to warn the people on the airplane as the gremlin does some damages to the wing. After stealing an airplane security guard's gun and breaking open his window, John opens fire on the gremlin. But the gremlin broke the gun, did the tut-tut-tut gesture when he grabbed John's face, and flew off as the airplane makes a landing at the airport. John Valentine was taken away in a straitjacket declaring himself as a hero as the maintenance crew discovered unexplained damages and claw marks on the wing which the crew members and passengers are alerted to. The episode was famous enough to inspire numerous parodies.
A gremlin makes an appearance in a Halloween special of The Simpsons (original airdate: 28 October 1993) paralleling The Twilight Zone's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", (the segment is even named "Terror at 5½ Feet") in which the gremlin (with its vocal effects provided by Frank Welker) attempts to destroy the wheel of Bart's school bus. Bart ended up using a flare gun to get it off where it lands on Ned Flanders' car. Bart is taken away in a straitjacket and later sees the gremlin outside of the ambulance holding Ned's head (which is still alive).
In the cartoon series Eek! The Cat the episode "The Eex Files" (original airdate: 5 November 1994) starts out with Eek on an aircraft beside a man claiming to see someone outside on the wing. Of course, when he looks there is no one there. At the end of the episode, Eek is dropped off by an alien on the wing of the aircraft and meets the gremlin, then promptly offers to help him "find his wallet". The final scene shows the half-crazed man looking out the window and "spazzing out" when he sees them both tearing up the wing.
A Tiny Toonspecial titled Night Ghoulery (original airdate: 28 May 1995) is a spoof of Night Gallery, with Babs presenting in Rod Serling's style. It has a segment named "Gremlin on a Wing", which parodies "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" as well, with Plucky in William Shatner's place, accompanied by Hamton in an aircraft, and a gremlin similar to that which appeared in Bugs' short Falling Hare. In fact, this gremlin is so persistent, he even appears at the end as if he had impersonated the stewardess (who looks remarkably similar to Star Trek character Lt. Uhura).
In the Johnny Bravo episode "The Man Who Cried Clown" (original airdate: 8 December 1997), which is part of "The Zone Where Normal Things Don't Happen Very Often," Johnny sees an evil clown on the wing of the aircraft and is having difficulty convincing the pilots and anyone of its existence which even included a cameo by someone resembling William Shatner who quotes "Oh no you don't! I'm not falling for that again." When he catches and beats up the clown in the airplane's restroom, he is confronted and informed by a pilot that the clown in question and another clown were needed to keep the aircraft in balance during flight. The pilots and some nearby people beat up Johnny and make him take the incapacitated clown's place.
At the end of Episode 9 of Muppets Tonight, Miss Piggy sees a gremlin outside of her airplane window and starts shouting about the gremlin. William Shatner is seen sitting next to her as he claims that he's been complaining about the gremlin for years and that nobody does anything about it.
In the "Marathon" cartoon series Martin Mystery (original airdate: 1 October 2003), the ending credits show the appearance of a gremlin causing havoc outside the window of an airplane, parodying the events of the Twilight Zone episode.
The 1984 film Gremlins, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Joe Dante, is loosely inspired by Dahl's characters, featuring evil and destructive monsters which mutate from small furry creatures.
The Real Ghostbusters episode Don't Forget The Motor City (original airdate: 3 December 1987) has the Ghostbusters traveling to Detroit to battle gremlins who are sabotaging a factory run by a fictional analog of General Motors.
In the Extreme Ghostbusters episode Grease (original airdate: 25 September 1997), the Ghostbusters had to capture a gremlin that was damaging New York's machines, while at the same time the FBI believed them to be the cause of the sabotage, and after arresting them, they accidentally released him while on an aircraft. Surprisingly, a Twilight Zone episode with William Shatner is referenced.
In the Disney Channel series So Weird episode "Simplicity" (original airdate: 15 February 1999), mysterious mechanical failures in a small town are thought to be the work of gremlins. Once Fi and the group apologize to them in a song, they stop messing up the technology.
In the cartoon series American Dragon Jake Long, one of the episodes: "Jake Takes the Cake" (original airdate: 26 August 2005) features gremlins who mess with any type of mechanical devices and cause a lot of trouble during the episode until they are put to sleep and captured.
In Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008), Alex sees Mort (mistaking him for a gremlin) messing with the engine and falling off the aircraft.
the Epic Mickey games (2010), Gremlins assist Mickey after he releases them.
In the Cartoon Network animated series Ben 10: Ultimate Alien (2010) and Ben 10: Omniverse (2012), Ben Tennyson turns into an alien called Jury Rigg that has the ability to disassemble and reassemble machines, mimicking the appearance (pointed ears/cat-like eyes) and abilities of a gremlin.
There are gremlins that appear in the film Hotel Transylvania. One male gremlin (voiced by Jonny Solomon) is among the gremlins at the hotel. One old gremlin works as the activities director at Hotel Transylvania as it was seen hosting a bingo game. There is also an elderly gremlin who is known for eating different objects and quoting "I didn't do it."
Gremlins have been used in two video games, known where toys come to life. Trigger Happy, a gun-toting gremlin was made in the first Skylanders game, and Hade 4(possibly 5) special additions: legendary, series 2, big bang, trigger snappy, and possibly springtime big bang trigger happy. Pop Fizz is an alchemist gremlin from the second game, and had 3 special additions and a lost alter ego: super gulp, punch, lightcore, and Easter.
In My Little Pony Micro-Series, there was a group of species called: Cloud Gremlins, which cast a spell in Ponyville. The citizens ended up feeling depressed and darkened. In the end, they were defeated by Rainbow Dash with the Ponyville citizens cheering her on with happiness. This supposedly broke the spell.
Gremlin Americanus: A Scrap Book Collection of Gremlins by artist and pilot Eric Sloane may predate the Roald Dahl publication. Published in 1942 by B.F. Jay & Co, the central characters are characterized as "pixies of the air" and are friends of both RAF and USAAF pilots. The gremlins are mischievous and give pilots a great deal of trouble, but they have never been known to cause fatal accidents but can be blamed for any untoward incident or "bonehead play", qualities that endear them to all flyers.[N 7]
See also Ssh! Gremlins by H.W. illustrated by Ronald Niebour ("Neb" of the Daily Maily), published by H. W. John Crowther Publication, England, in 1942. This booklet featured numerous humorous illustrations describing the gremlins as whimsical but essentially friendly folk. According to "H.W.", contrary to some reports, gremlins are a universal phenomenon and by no means only the friends of flying men.[N 8]
Set of World War II gremlin-themed industrial safety posters
Gremlins are floor greasers! Watch your step!
Gremlins love to pitch things at your eyes. Wear safety goggles.
Gremlins think it's fun to hurt you. Use care always.
Gremlins will push you 'round! Look where you're going!
Another type of "gremlin" originates from psychology and the professional life coaching fields. In this sense a gremlin is one's self-defeating behavior.
Femlins, female gremlins featured in Playboy magazine
^Hazen also claims that, "it was not until 1922 that anyone dared mention their name."
^Dahl claimed that the gremlins were exclusively a Royal Air Force icon and he originated the term, but the elf-like figures had a very convoluted origin that predated his original writings.
^Dahl was given permission by the British Air Ministry to work in Hollywood and an arrangement had been made that all proceeds from the eventual film would be split between the RAF Benevolent Fund and Dahl.
^The book had an autobiographical connection as Dahl had flown as a Hurricane fighter pilot in the RAF, and was temporarily on leave from operational flying after serious injuries sustained in a crash landing in Libya. He later returned to flying.
^Both paperback and hardcover versions were printed in 1943.
^In 1950, Collins Publishing (New York) published a limited reprint of The Gremlins.
^On the front pastedown endpaper, Sloane's book featured a sketch of an aircraft in flight, with the pilot saying, "The Gremlins will get you if you don't watch out!!" and giving a thumbs up.
^The booklet was published posthumously as Wilson had died in 1940.