Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

gremlin is a fictitious mischievous creature that causes malfunctions in aircraft or other machinery. Their origin is found in myths among airmen, claiming that the gremlins were responsible for sabotaging aircraft.

Folklorist John W. Hazen states that some people derive the name from the Old English word ‘gremian’ (‘to vex’). While Carol Rose, in her book ‘Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia,’ attributes the name to a combination of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Fremlin Beer, a nineteenth century English brewery. 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 in 1929. Later sources have sometimes claimed that the concept goes back to World War I, but there is no print evidence of this.

An early reference to the gremlin is in aviator Pauline Gower’s 1938 novel ‘The ATA: Women with Wings,’ 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’ from 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 Britain Spitfirepilots 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. 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.’

Some experts believe this form of ‘passing the buck’ was important to the morale of pilots. Author and historian Marlin Bressi stated, ‘Gremlins, while imaginary, played a very important role to the airmen of the Royal Air Force. Gremlin tales helped build morale among pilots, which, in turn, helped them repel the Luftwaffe invasion during the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940.’ Bressi also noted: ‘Morale among the R.A.F. pilots would have suffered if they pointed the finger of blame at each other. It was far better to make the scapegoat a fantastic and comical creature than another member of your own squadron.’

British 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 Western Desert. In 1942, he was transferred to Washington, D.C. as Assistant Air attaché at the British Embassy. It was there that he wrote his first children’s novel, ‘The Gremlins,’ in which Gremlins were tiny men who lived on RAF fighters. In the same novel, Dahl called the wives of gremlins ‘Fifinellas,’ their male children ‘Widgets,’ and their female children ‘Flibbertigibbets.’ 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.

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. 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, again titled ‘The Gremlins,’ was published as a picture book by Random House. (It was later updated and republished in 2006 by Dark Horse Comics.)

When the book was first published in 1943 it was considered an international success. The film project was reduced to an animated short and eventually cancelled in August 1943, when copyright and RAF rights could not be resolved. But thanks mainly to Disney, the story had its share of publicity, which helped in introducing the concept to a wider audience. Issues of ‘Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories’ published in 1943 and 1944 contained a nine-episode series of short silent stories featuring a ‘Gremlin Gus’ as their star.

While Roald Dahl was famous for making gremlins known worldwide, 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 eyewitness testimony of these creatures, 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.

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 non-human 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 sees the Gremlin (played by Nick Cravat) on the aircraft’s wing as he tries to warn the stewardess and other airplane staff members about it.

Upon realizing that the Gremlin’s work on the wing would cause the airplane to crash, Bob steals a sleeping police officer’s revolver and causes a breach in the auxiliary exit to shoot the Gremlin. When the airplane lands, Bob is removed from the aircraft on a stretcher in a straitjacket. Rod Serling narrates that Bob Wilson’s conviction will not be long as the final scene shows 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’ in 1983 with John Lithgow playing a similar character.

A gremlin makes an appearance in the 1993 Halloween special of ‘The Simpsons,’ paralleling ‘The Twilight Zone’ called ‘Terror at 5½ Feet,’ in which the gremlin attempts to destroy the wheel of Bart Simpson’s school bus.

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.



One Comment to “Gremlin”

  1. wow, this is so interesting, i never knew –

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