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Gremlins attack plane in new film: Here’s how Roald Dahl popularized the crafty critters

The following story is a guest blog by my hubby, Sweetums. We looked up the history after watching a new war/horror/action film about “gremlins.”

By Wil Elrick

“There’s a man out there on the wing,” utters William Shatner in one of the most iconic episodes of “The Twilight Zone” – Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Most people familiar with the episode (literally everyone) take the episode to be a parable about the fear of flying, especially because the episode was created when commercial air travel wasn’t as common as it is today.

It turns out, the gremlin Shatner saw has its origins in Roald Dahl, author of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and numerous other children’s books. Recently, Kelly and I were watching a new movie, “Shadow in the Clouds.” The movie started with an animation about proper maintenance to keep “gremlins” from tampering with military planes in World War II and I immediately thought it was a nod to the famous Twilight Zone episode. The film, categorized as horror-action, has an interesting and entertaining take on gremlins. It is nothing like we expected but you’ll have to watch it yourself to know if the creature seen on the warplane by star Chloe Grace Moretz was a real “gremlin.”

It turns out that gremlins and airplanes go much further back than this movie, or “The Twilight Zone,” they date back to the first large-scale usage of aircraft, World War I, when pilots would describe mischievous creatures with scissors that would cut the wires on biplanes. The RAF (Royal Air Force) internally popularized the slang term “gremlin” as a mischievous creature that would sabotage aircraft. The term blossomed amongst RAF air crews during WWII as they blamed gremlins for inexplicable accidents and occurrences that would occur during flights.

During WWI, some people attributed the tales of gremlins to combat stress, the physical toll taken on the flight crews from so much flight time and as a way to pass the buck when something bad or “unlucky” occurred. Some historians believe that belief in the gremlins helped RAF pilots during the war by giving them an outlet for blame instead of each other or their crews. They were not real creatures, but imaginary scapegoats. RAF leaders actually created pamphlets and posters warning of gremlins to encourage good maintenance of the planes.

In 1942 author, Roald Dahl who had served in the 80th Squadron RAF, brought worldwide attention to the gremlins when he wrote his first children’s novel “The Gremlins.” The gremlins in his book were tiny men who lived on RAF fighter planes. The little men are not alone living on the planes, they have their little families with them. The adult females are known as Fifinellas, the male children are known as Widgets and the female children are Flibbertgibbets.

This history of this children’s novel is almost was weird as that of the gremlins. Upon completion, Dahl sent his manuscript to Walt Disney who loved it and considered using it as a live action/animated film, which then turned into a totally animated film that went into pre-production. As a tie-in to the upcoming film popular magazine Cosmopolitan published “The Gremlins” in its December 1942 edition. Dahl was unhappy with the manuscript as published and re-worked it with the help of Random House, who published it in picture book form in 1943. The book was considered a hit, selling more than 80,000 copies but was unable to go into subsequent printings due to wartime paper rationing. But to show that success is not universal, the animated film got reduced to an animated short before eventually being totally scrubbed by Disney in the summer of 1943.

WWII posters on gremlins (U.S. National Archives and Records)

Roald Dahl went on to become famous for works such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The BFG” and “James and the Giant Peach,” and his first work The Gremlins faded into relative obscurity. But its concept exploded as a cultural icon that is today inextricably connected to aircraft or mechanical failure with references in hundreds of stories, movies and shows. The 1984 blockbuster movie “The Gremlins” is based on the same concept. So, there you have it, next time your computer messes up or your TV goes wonky, you can blame it on the gremlins. Let’s not be talking about it or referencing it before flying though because we don’t want anyone to be going all William Shatner during the flight.

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