After a series of unexplainable aircraft mishaps, some have been referring to the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” where William Shatner’s character is terrorized by a hideous gremlin on the wing. The term Gremlin brings up images of creatures you can’t immerse in water, can’t feed after midnight, and whose primary bane is sunlight now, but once the idea of the Gremlin was a very different creature altogether. So where did these stories come from originally? And do they suggest a very real monster that could be working secretly in the mechanical parts of modern machines? Or are they simply monstrous machinations of the mind?
The word Gremlin has been traced back to the Old English word ‘gremian’ which means curse. The Gremian was said to have become animate and wielded makeshift tools and scissors to reach into the engine blocks of planes, loosen screws, and cut wires either with scissors or their gnarled teeth. As time progressed and World War II came about, the gremlin would see a new generation as well. Eventually transforming as the tide of rumors ebbed and flowed, the Gremlins would see a number of incarnations.
At first thought to be an entity working purely against the allied forces – particularly the Royal Air Force, the gremlins would officially be declared a universal phenomenon that didn’t pick sides as a second round of rumors started circulating to debunk the first. Speculation over whether this discovery was made purely for morale in an otherwise desperate and cataclysmic time is not entirely unfounded.
Gremlins paid particular attention to flying machines, so it seems – and were said to unleash their mischief on planes that had already been properly inspected several times before. Of course there were also inevitably cases where the cause was an error on the part of the builders. Blaming a gremlin for a mistake made by a person was frowned upon – if the source of the mistake could be identified, although it was also ubiquitous.
So were there ever any sightings of real gremlins being sighted on planes? It’s difficult to pin down a few of the sightings as either real or tongue in cheek musings, but a few tales did survive the war. Pilots would often describe them as translucent small roughly anthropomorphic shapes that would be caught interacting with equipment and scatter if approached. The more conventional sighting of a miniature lizard-like creature portrayed in the film “Gremlins” was largely a construct from the mind of Chris Walas who designed the creatures based on the script by Chris Columbus.
So are Gremlins to blame for the recent string of mysterious airliner malfunctions? It’s more likely an issue with cutbacks or quality control, but when it comes to the legend of the Gremlins you quickly learn they are often one and the same. There have, however, been no sightings of ghostly marionettes waltzing about the cabins while in flight. At least not yet.