The 1984 movie Gremlins taught us that there are three important rules for the care and feeding of Gremlins: (1) Keep them away from bright lights, (2) Don’t let them get wet, and (3) Never feed them after midnight. Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney on How I Met Your Mother had uncannily similar rules for avoiding relationships i.e. (1) never let them shower at your place, (2) never see them during the day, and (3) don’t feed them after midnight (no breakfast). Unsurprisingly, Hollywood neglected to inform us about a fourth, fundamental and historically important rule about Gremlin husbandry, that is, do not under any circumstances let them near an airplane. Most modern monsters are frankly just not that modern and their archetypes can be traced back through generations of folklore, as we’ve been afraid of our shadows for a few millennia. Gremlins, in contrast, although lumped together with goblins, elves, imps, fae, and various and other sundry, mischievous little people, are a relatively recent addition to our bestiary (albeit a small one) associated with the advent and widespread use of a specific technology – the airplane, the first powered and controlled flight of a heavier-than-air craft being attributed to the Wright Brothers in 1903. While scholarly opinions vary as to the etymological origins of the name, Gremlins also appear to have the distinction of being the only known monster likely to have been named after a beer.
Like most technological innovations (fire, bronze, iron, steel, atomic power), not long after we make some impressive intellectual leap, us pesky humans quickly go about figuring out how to use our discovery to kill each other, seemingly validating Albert Einstein’s observation that “technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal”. It didn’t take us long to turn manned flight into a weapon of war, only fourteen years to go from short hops in the flimsy Wright Flyer to shooting at each other from Sopwith Camels, and strategic bombing with Imperial Russia’s Sikorsky Ilya Muromets. We’re obviously a gregarious and inventive species, but I sometimes wonder why we’re not extinct.
It is not often that a man can be in at the birth, the flourishing maturity and the apparent death of a complete mythology. But any officer or airman who has served in the Royal Air Force since the last War can claim this distinction. For it was the old Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 and the newly-constituted Royal Air Force in 1918 which first appear to have detected the existence of a horde of mysterious and malicious sprites whose whole purpose in life was to disconcert pupil-pilot and experienced pilot alike, and to bring about as many as possible of the inexplicable mishaps which, in those days as now, troubles the airman’s life. Such were the Gremlins, and all ranks of the flying and maintenance personnel of the Royal Air Force have had much experience during the past twenty-five years of their malicious pranks. For that they exist is, of course, unquestionable, and we now know much of their life and habits, although the outside world is still largely ignorant of their activities (Woosnam-Jones, January 1, 1943, p7).
As a matter of course, whether you’re a caveman or a rocket scientist, you have to deal with a little ambiguity in life. Maybe it will rain today. Maybe there will be an earthquake. Maybe that cave is already occupied by a saber-tooth tiger. Them’s the breaks. When technology consists primarily of stone, bone, and hammered metal attached to a stick with a leather thong, failure points can be glaringly obvious, and solutions generally involve getting the heck out of Dodge. Once we started monkeying with tools that were a complex assemblage of moving parts we introduced a whole lot more ambiguity in the sources of our technological headaches, and multiplied the number of failure points in any given situation, and explaining the root cause (and thus hedging your bets against future failures) became infinitely more complicated. Now, we’re not suggesting that any implement with more than two pieces working in concert is likely to generate a malign monstrosity as an explanation. If your Clovis point spear breaks in half when you’re face-to-face with an angry mammoth, you have the option to run away. When your car won’t start, you’re just going to miss your appointment. When your plane’s wings fall off, it’s relatively difficult to remain aloft and you’re pretty much dead, adding the component of mortal fear to structural failure. It’s also rather disconcerting when you happen to be carrying a lot of stuff that is designed to spectacularly explode. When you’re tooling around a few thousand feet over the ground, and one of several thousand carefully crafted doodads falls apart, and you don’t happen to have a degree in aeronautical engineering, and about thirty seconds of flight time before pitching into a nosedive (not to mention some overenthusiastic dude inconsiderately shooting at you), should you manage to actually survive, your inclination towards a repeat performance, despite your unbridled patriotism and lack of understanding of the laws of probability, will be decidedly muted. That is, unless you can attribute your inexplicably bad luck to something not only explicable, but also appeasable. Enter the Gremlin.
These spirits of the ether owe their existence to the fertile imaginations of a British Royal Airforce crew of Bomber Command stationed on the Northwest Frontier of India, who required an entity to blame for inexplicable problems with their aircraft. The name Gremlin is reported to have been coined from an amalgam of the title of the only book in the Officer’s Mess-Grimm’s Fairy Tales-and the only beer available-Fremlin’s (Rose, 1943, p132).
Gremlins are credited with all sorts of misbehavior related to aircraft: making navigational points disappear, raising or lowering the elevation of runways, eating all the fuel, poking holes in the fuselage, distracting crew, and gnawing through essential cables. Luckily, like many of their faerie brethren, they’re just trying to be funny, and aren’t actually trying to murder you, although the results of their practical jokes have a propensity to be fatal. Calmly explaining to a gremlin that you’re about to die, seems to have beneficial effects, and they are also credited with last minute saves once they realize the prank has gone too far. Therefore, we have envisioned a monster that can be both the source of our demise, and our savior from it. Evens the odds a little bit. Noted children’s author Roald Dahl, often credited with the popularization of the Gremlin, actually wrote his first children’s book in 1943 for an unproduced Walt Disney animated movie (The Gremlins) about these imps of the sky. Dahl himself no doubt encountered Gremlins during his stint as a British Royal Airforce 80th Squadron fighter ace in World War II (he got shot down or crashed a couple of times, presumably due to Gremlins). Gremlins are fairly well ensconced in aeronautical folklore traditions, so much so that they are mentioned extensively (albeit metaphorically in reference to all the things that can go wrong when flying a plane, both mechanically and with the human body) in the United States Air Force Manuals during World War II.
Meet “JOE”…Joe Gremlin, member of the BODY GREMLIN OF FLIGHT family. He’s a trouble-maker of the worst sort…and specializes in attacking aircrew members. He likes to work on muscles that are affected during sustained or combat flights. “JOE GREMLIN” is a plenty tough guy, but he can be licked (USAF, 1944, p1).
Technology has a habit of failing on us randomly and for no reason we can discern. Without a solid grounding in computer science (or a great deal of self-taught hacking skills), the blue screen of death that periodically surprises as your computer unrecoverably deletes the document you’ve been working on for days, may as well just say “sorry” rather than “DRIVER_IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL”. Given the ubiquity of computers, one would expect we would have invented more monsters associated with their unpredictability, but the essential difference is that there are stunningly few instances of computer crashes resulting in fatalities, therefore we haven’t required any monstrosities to aid us with our fear of imminent death (unless you lump the condescending technicians at the Apple Store “Genius” bar into the category of monsters). I’ll bet if we look hard enough, we would find a folkloric entity analogous to airplane gremlins at nuclear power plants, where technical failure can have catastrophic consequences. Many scholars argue that monsters are often directly related to our fear of technology, but that doesn’t explain their relative absence with regards to many of our common tools and techniques. We’re just not that threatened by the dishwasher. When large groups of humans start hopping in complicated machines and either try to kill one another, or face higher likelihoods of dying as the result of an unidentified mechanical failure (such as dropping out of the sky), then the monsters come out to play. English businessman Edward Coke (1552-1634) once mused, “Certainty is the mother of quiet and repose, and uncertainty the cause of variance and contentions”, and apparently, Gremlins.
Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1943.
United States. Army Air Forces. “Meet Joe “Flight” Gremlin”. Training Aids Division. Air Forces Manual. [New York], no. 26, September, 1944.
Woosnam-Jones, W.E. “Gremlins”. The Spectator. January 1, 1943.
I love the idea at the heart of this that we don’t just see monsters as a way of expressing our fears, but also as a way of controlling our world, of boiling it down to something simple that we can act on. It’s such a human thing to do, to create something simple and irrational because the rational solution is too complex to grasp.