Within oral and written records of early stories, supernatural creatures are abundant. Did people really believe in fairies in the forest, or that leprechauns could be found near rainbows? These things may have been mostly entertaining, but such tales also tend to have some inkling for inspiration, perhaps some small bits of misconstrued truth. Even contemporary “myths” about Bigfoot and aliens—anal probes and all—are based on some evidence. Just a generation before, falling somewhere between the height of the Loch Ness monster, and before a fascination with flying saucers hit in the 50s, gremlins were briefly the most speculated about monster.
The first written record that used the name “Gremlin,” appeared in 1923 when a British Royal Air Force pilot blamed a plane crash on one, although, rumors of air creatures are cited in a British Newspaper as far back as 1917. Gremlins were described as small, perhaps bat-like creatures who detested the sudden invasion of their space by early aircraft. The gremlins were said to cling to planes and wreak havoc with machinery, often trying to down the whole flight. There are many theories on stresses caused to pilots in and after WWI, on the loneliness of flying great distances in aircraft. Similar stresses continued after the war, and even Charles Lindbergh made mention of encountering strange creatures on his trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.
By the 1940s and WWII, talk of gremlins from British pilots transferred over to US pilots, and the idea of this atmospheric creature grew when artists and writers further introduced the creatures into pop-culture. Notably, a collaboration of Roald Dahl and Walt Disney explored the concept of gremlins in the 40s. There were many books on gremlins, even speculation on different branches of the gremlin lineage that specialized in certain arenas of mischief.
As playful as some of the ideas of gremlins were in the pop-culture, a rather grim reality underlies the creatures. For one thing, enclosed cockpits only began production in the 1920s. Early pilots often suffered from hypoxia and hypothermia, both which can cause hallucinations. Early flying also came with many dangers, with things like low-visibility and safety malfunctions causing many crashes. As for the WWII, one of the widespread theories about why gremlins had such appeal to pilots was that it gave the air infantry a distraction, gave them something to speak of other than the fear they had in facing battles. Same for the mainstream, gremlins gave people something to talk about aside from the atrocities of the war and the worry many had for their loved ones involved with the fighting.
After WWII, gremlins were still featured around cartoons, literature, and comics, but they also waned from the public-eye. As people entered the nuclear age and technologies took off, new speculation, like the aforementioned flying saucer/alien hysteria quickly replaced gremlins dominance in the “mythical” popular culture.
By the 1950s, commercial flights were also becoming far more common in the world. More and more people got to essentially see the skies. Traveling at higher altitudes likely helped dispel some myths about gremlins. Still, gremlins really are a pretty perfect metaphor for air travel. In fact, the pinnacle of both this fear, and of this classic form of the creature, was arguably best captured in 1963 in the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of the Twilight Zone. Not only does the episode feature legendary talent (Richard Donner directing, William Shatner starring), the episode really grasps onto the fear of a sky creature making one feel helpless while in the sky.
Gremlins tended to come and go from popular culture through the 60s and 70s, usually just trickling in time and again. Then things changed again in 1983. No discussion of gremlins can exclude mention of the movie, Gremlins, that rather blatantly changed the concept of the creature. Notably, the movie grounded gremlins, literally making them a land-based monster and allowing for better conflict with the movie’s setting in a town. The movie added some of its own magic to the gremlins and borrowed ideas from other mythic monsters. Mowgwi, for example is a mandarin word meaning little demon. Alas, the movie and the inferior sequel inspired an idea of gremlins that permeated for many kids of the era and has likely had some lasting effect on obscuring the original sky based setting for the creature.
Although gremlins have become seldom spoken of today, their origins do hold a fitting place in the growth of technology and exploration. One thing that the origin has in common with so many others myths of monsters is that such things are often at the fringe of society, literally, like in terms of things dwelling in the forests and wilderness outside pre-industrial villages. Monsters are typically on the fringe of understanding, are part of unexplored frontiers, and though air travel has become common, being some of the first people to fly above the clouds was probably frightening. Hell, getting into an airplane is still a fairly common fear and for those who can close their eyes on a flight and almost picture some man-like creature outside the aircraft, well, it might be best to make sure you don’t have the window seat.