All this week, I’ve been celebrating a momentous occasion: this month marks the 50th anniversary since The Twilight Zone aired its last new episode (“The Bewitchin’ Pool” on June 19th 1964, for those keeping track at home). As a result of this festive (and honestly somewhat downtrodden) day, I decided to choose a Serling-friendly critter to spotlight for my biweekly folklore. And there’s really only one choice, isn’t there? Those indomitable gremlins, of course!
Most of us remember these troublesome creatures from their pastimes terrorizing Mrs. Deagle and traumatizing Captain Kirk. I, for one, like both versions as well as the ones that Roald Dahl created for Disney. But before we start hashing out the finer points of gremlin genealogy, from whence did these little hellions hail? Well, like all true patriots, they first appeared during wartime. Despite having no previous experience (and probably no opposable thumbs either), the beasts decided to apply for the airplane mechanics department. But even when the nice recruiting man explained they weren’t qualified, the gaggle of gremlins decided to try its claw at redesigning engines anyhow. These tactics met with varying success.
Such hijinks date back to World War I when England’s Royal Air Force used to complain regularly to their superiors about the mischievous imps. Said superiors then issued a strong warning for the gremlins either to shape up or ship out… preferably to the enemy’s aircrafts where they could destroy German engineering instead. But golly gee, the gremlins proved such old-fashioned nationalists that the English just couldn’t get rid of them. Straight through to World War II, the critters kept toiling away at their thankless work, all the while being slandered by propaganda.
Gremlins first entered the mainstream consciousness under the patronage of children’s book author Roald Dahl. In 1943, Dahl wrote the artistically-titled “The Gremlins” for Disney. However, Mickey Mouse nixed the planned feature film amid concerns he might be upstaged by monsters. But over at Warner Brothers, Bugs Bunny harbored no such worries. Thus, Disney lost a golden opportunity to appeal to the cryptid demographic while the snarky rabbit with the arsenal of one liners costarred with a particularly troublesome gremlin in the short, “Falling Hare”. The following year, in 1944, gremlins even got the opportunity to defeat Hitler himself in Warner Brothers’ “Russian Rhapsody”.
Fast forward a couple decades and horror icon Richard Matheson penned the trademark Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”. Aired during the final season of the show, the story follows a neurotic William Shatner as he and a group of unwitting passengers are terrorized aboard a commercial airline by a fleece-loving gremlin. Because as bad as things got, the Cold War never deployed any planes, and gremlins are obliged to find an available aircraft to accost.
Now in all seriousness–and talk of gremlins is and should be at all times serious–these cryptids follow in a long tradition of tricksters. Gremlins like to wreak mayhem just for the sake of spoiling the status quo. They don’t care about which side of the war you’re on; they simply want to make things a little more difficult for you. The only difference between gremlins and other beasts is that the green scaly darlings are more technologically savvy–or at least they think they are. But if you’re searching for the logical explanation, then just go with the cryptid-as-scapegoat theory, a tried and true way to write off your mistakes in life. Something goes wrong with the plane you designed? Must be gremlins again!
So the next time you forget to send a follow-up email, blame the gremlin that deposited the message in your Drafts folder. If your boss is on the superstitious side, that excuse might earn you a guffaw instead of the proverbial pink slip.
And gremlins be darned, remember to stream “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” this month in honor of the half-century passing of television’s beloved anthology series. A trip to the fifth dimension is always a welcome diversion.