What is a Gremlin and are they Real?

Before these troublesome critters hit the big screen, they were causing havoc in wartime cockpits. So get ready for takeoff as we ask, what is a gremlin?

8 July 2024

What is a gremlin? Well, according to the 1984 blockbuster Gremlins, it’s what you get for feeding a cute, cuddly “mogwai” after midnight. And it’s not pretty. Just one nibble after the clock strikes 12 and the adorable mogwai furball transforms; it metamorphosizes into a grotesque, scaly menace, aka a gremlin. That’s what happens in the cinematic cult classic, leading to chaos in a small town. But what was the inspiration behind these iconic critters? Are gremlins real? That’s what we’re here to find out.

So grab some popcorn and settle in, as we explore the gremlins legend, starting with a simple question. What are the gremlins?

What are the Gremlins?

19th century illustration of fairies from English folklore (Credit: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

From hobgoblins to fairies and nymphs, mischievous mythological creatures have long been a mainstay of English folklore. And gremlins appear to be no different. Just like the house spirits of the Middle Ages, gremlins are usually portrayed as small, devilish pranksters. The difference? Gremlins had a high tech upgrade, their specialty being mechanical mischief. In particular, they were said to reside in the machinery of aircraft, where they would tamper with engines, instruments, and other vital components.

The Origin of Gremlins

Does the origin of gremlins come from pre-war planes? (Credit: Elise Walmsley/Stocktrek Images via Getty Images)

The exact details as to the origin of gremlins are about as tricky to pin down as the mythical creatures themselves. Nobody’s quite sure when the gremlins legend was born, although an article in The Spectator magazine on 1 January 1943 claimed it dated back to 1917. The term first appeared in print in the late 1920s, specifically in a 1929 edition of the journal ‘The Aeroplane’ in a poem about low-paid pilots. Later, the concept of gremlins was more widely popularised, especially in the United States, by Roald Dahl’s 1943 book “The Gremlins”.

Where did the name ‘Gremlins’ come from?

The uniform of the Royal Air Force (Credit: BellPhotography423 via Getty Images)

Things aren’t much clearer in terms of etymology. Some believe the term itself derived from the Old English word “gremian,” meaning to vex or annoy; others that it’s a 20th century evolution of the term ‘goblin’. Another theory is that it’s a portmanteau, a blend of “Grimm,” as in the fairy tales, and of the name of Kent brewery Fremlin’s Ales & Beers, possibly suggesting that alcohol was the real reason for some of those troublesome mechanical failures.

Whatever the finer points however, it’s generally accepted that the notion of gremlins originated within the Royal Air Force. That, in times of conflict, airmen blamed gremlins for the mechanical failures that plagued their aircraft. They spoke of the small, mischievous creatures as responsible for sabotaging their planes, leading to malfunctions and crashes.

In essence, within the RAF, gremlin became a byword for unexplained problems. To most, it was probably said jokingly, to some it was a superstition and, to others yet, something all too real. Whatever the case, the gremlins legend emerged organically from the imaginations of stressed aviators dealing with new, unreliable technology and the hazardous conditions of early aviation and wartime operations.

Expansion of the Gremlins Legend

The Steven Spielberg-produced Gremlins was released in 1984 (Credit: Westend61 via Getty Images)

The lore of gremlins grew and developed over time, becoming ever more detailed and complex. There are accounts of different types of gremlin, each specialising in their own categories of mischief. And it seems there were good gremlins to combat their devilish counterparts, with pilots carrying mascots of the former for protection. What’s more, the legend spread, both to other airforces and other mechanical industries.

Yet probably the most famous expansion of the Gremlins legend came when Hollywood took a swing at these cryptic critters. The ‘Gremlins’ film franchise, beginning with the release of the original Gremlins movie in 1984, had a significant and enduring impact on the very concept of these devilish mechanical myths. Directed by Joe Dante and produced by Steven Spielberg, the film masterfully blended horror and comedy, introducing audiences to the mischievous and dangerous creatures that transform from cute mogwai to destructive gremlins.

The movie’s success led to the release of a sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in 1990, which took a more satirical approach, poking fun at corporate culture and the media. Although the sequel was not as commercially successful as its predecessor, it gained a cult following for its inventive gremlin designs, humorous tone, and unforgettable musical number to see these creatures out.

The franchise’s legacy continues with ongoing discussions about potential sequels and reboots, as well as an animated series Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai.

Are Gremlins Real? No, Really…

Tarsier (Credit: nikpal via Getty Images)

Okay, so we’ve already established that gremlins are a product of folklore and imagination. But one resident of various Southeast Asian islands does come close. With eyes so enormous they make up most of their faces and pointy ears, tarsier are small furry primates that bear more than a passing resemblance to Gizmo and the other mogwai from the film franchise. Enough so that you may want to consider removing all food from their vicinity after midnight… just in case.

The Enduring Appeal of Gremlins

World War II Spitfire (Credit: Michael Dunning via Getty Images)

While the gremlins of World War II were confined to aircraft, today’s versions can be found both on screen and as an ever-present menace in all sorts of modern technology. For instance, in software development, a ‘gremlin’ might still be blamed for a persistent bug that’s difficult to reproduce. Whether it’s messing with second world war fighter engines, or messing with your latest line of code, it seems these little tricksters have a lot to answer for…

Gremlins: Are They Real?

Are gremlins real? (Credit: Daniel Hernanz Ramos via Getty Images)

Having wandered through a fascinating tale of folklore, history, and popular culture that endures to this day, we’ve discovered the answers to questions like “what is a gremlin” and “are gremlins real?” Whether as a metaphor for technological failures or as iconic movie characters, it’s fair to say that gremlins remain an intriguing part of cultural imagination.


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