In December 7, 1942, Life Magazine published a series of pictures and a few remarks concerning a theory that had become prevalent in the British Royal Air Force and had then infected the psychology of the American airman during World War II.

The matter was considered under the title of Gremlins, and the Gremlins were described as fantastic imps of both sexes who busied themselves constantly with hideous activities designed to destroy the proper functioning of every machine at hand. Obviously, the matter was treated in a half-serious, half-humorous fashion. Yet, reports about these creatures were passed along by pilots and operators, and before the end of the war, there were many who insisted in giving peace offerings to the mischievous goblins, as a way to prevent fatalities.

Gremlins were depicted as minuscule creatures that loved to create mischief, mayhem, and mechanical failures. They were most commonly blamed for sabotaging aircraft. Every unexplained mechanical malfunction, every mysteriously faulty engine, defective wheel, fuselage weakness, and avionics glitch was blamed on the Gremlins, and it was said that the little creatures were the happiest when their activities resulted in the death of the operators of these machines. In the fields and hangars of the Royal Air Force, these modernized members of the Fae came to replace the better known Boggarts and Bogies, assaulting people not as directly as their relatives used to do, but with the same intention: to make everybody’s life difficult. Because of their inclination for mayhem, Gremlins have been placed among the members of the Unseelie Court, same as their ancient counterparts.

Disagreement exists about the origin of the name Gremlin. It’s been suggested that the word originates from the Gaelic gruaimin, meaning grumpy little fellow, which comes from gruaim, meaning gloomy or ill humored. It has also being suggested that the name Gremlin is a shortening of grinning goblin. Other suggestions, advocating for French and German words as the origin of the name seem less likely to be true, given the geographic origin of the myth.

As with the origin of the name, there is no consensus on the appearance of the Gremlins. It is generally assumed that they are small, no taller than a man’s knee, and humanoid in appearance. They are told to be skinny and nimble enough to move about through complex machinery, and with little fondness for clothing, which at time gets catch in between the many knobs and bumps they come across when sabotaging engines. Known colors include green and blue-grey. They have long fingers and big eyes, capable to see even the tiniest of details in total darkness, hence their success in sabotaging, and some have been describe as having horns capable of puncturing gas tanks and peel electric cables. Adding to the uncertainty, they are quick and nimble so it hard to get a good look at them and even harder to take a picture.

A gremlin is the villain in one of the the most effective Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” first aired on October 11, 1963. The premise of the episode is simple: When Bob (the protagonist) looks outside, he sees a monster hitting and pulling the reinforcement and cables near the turbine of the plane. However, when anyone else looks, they see nothing at all. The monster in question is, of course a Gremlin. In the 1963 episode, the gremlin looks like an oversized raggedy teddy bear. However, in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, the gremlin has been transformed, looking much more like the familiar hobgoblins (Figure).

They drink fuel, sucking tanks dry, and it was said that offering then honey and treacle could save a pilot from a nasty surprise in mid air.

While gremlins have faded from the aerial popularity they enjoyed during the war, the preponderance of technology in our modern world has only given them further targets to mess. They may have changed tactics, though, becoming more of software experts and less of mechanical saboteurs.


-Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1992) La Grande Encyclopédie des Lutins. Hoëbeke, Paris.

-Edwards, G. (1974) Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck. John Sherratt and Son, Altrincham.

-Massinger, C. (1944) The Gremlin Myth. The Journal of Educational Sociology, 17(6), pp.359-367.

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