Thursday, October 26, 2023

Before UFOlogy: Gremlinology

The original flying saucer witness, Kenneth Arnold, was taken seriously by military investigators and the press due to the fact he was an experienced pilot. It established a tradition that continues today. Leslie Kean in her 2010 book, "UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record asserted that pilots are the most reliable witnesses of aerial phenomena:

“[Professional pilots] represent the world’s best-trained observers of everything that flies. …What better source for data on UFOs is there? ... Pilots are among the least likely of any group of witnesses to fabricate or exaggerate reports of strange sightings.”

Sound reasoning. What, then, do we make of pilots’ reports of Gremlins?

Gremlins and Gremlinology

The most famous aerial phenomena during World War II? Almost everyone knows about the foo fighters but at the time, they were overshadowed by another menace in the skies. Gremlins. And it turns out ufology has an older brother: Gremlinology. The topic doesn’t get much love in ufology, and there’s no discussion of Gremlins in the early flying saucer books and literature. The unofficial title for this installment is:

The Gremlins that Time Forgot

Before Gremlins, a word about fairies. From Michael Martin, Sophia in Exile, 2021:

“In the early twentieth century, there was a veritable faerie craze, an artifact of which is Peter Pan, a rousing success in both print and in the theatre... Not only Barrie’s work, but the [hoaxed photos] of the Cottingley Faeries who became cause célèbre in 1917… contributed to what was by that point a far-reaching cultural phenomenon.”

It’s worth a brief mention that some of the legendary wee folk were described as little green men. They were rarely seldom associated with anything unearthly, but right after Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio adaptation for Halloween in 1938, a whimsical column by Bill Barnard in the Corpus Christi Times was a notable exception. But not from Mars. These 3-fingered Little Green Men came from Mercury

The concept of Gremlins had been percolating for a decade or two, but it was popularized in the early 1940s by airmen of the Royal Air Force (RAF) units during World War II. Let’s not confuse these creatures with later media misinterpretations, since the most famous depiction of Gremlins in television and movies were far off-model.

Illustration by Gustaf Tenggren for Quentin Reynolds' article
in Collier’s magazine, Oct. 31, 1942.

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was a short by Richard Matheson first published in the paperback anthology, Alone by Night (1962). A passenger on a commercial flight saw something sinister on the wing of the plane, intent on destroying it:

“Suddenly, Wilson thought about war, about the newspaper stories which recounted the alleged existence of creatures in the sky who plagued the Allied pilots in their duties. They called them gremlins, he remembered. Were there, actually, such beings? Did they, truly, exist up here, never falling, riding on the wind, apparently of bulk and weight, yet impervious to gravity?”

It’s most famous from the Twilight Zone television adaptation starring William Shatner, broadcast Oct. 11, 1963. It’s a classic, but more of a monster story. At least it involved a plane, which is more than we can say for Gremlins, the 1984 film written by Chris Columbus and produced by Steven Spielberg. The furry creatures, “mogwai,” bore little resemblance to “real” gremlins. Director Joe Dante said, "Our gremlins are somewhat different… they do incredibly, really nasty things to people and enjoy it all the while."

The original Gremlins were introduced to the public by RAF crewmen, many of whom had grown up with the fairy folklore fad. According to the lore, Gremlins were cute elfin or fairy-like creatures but they bore a grudge against airplanes and were responsible for aircraft-related malfunctions and annoyances. Also, they were invisible, except to pilots and crew. An excellent overview of the history is “Gremlins!” by Robert O. Harder in the Autumn 2019 issue of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History.

Gremlins were usually discussed whimsically or with a dry wit, but there were people who regarded them seriously. Australian fighter-pilot Mark Sheldon was quoted in “The Gremlin Question,” Royal Air Force Journal, April 18, 1942, “The whole thing is, they more or less reflect your mood: - if you fly carefully and well, they treat you good - if you fly badly, they act badly by you."

“The Royal Air Force has begun to make its own myths. Just as the sailor has his sea serpent, so the pilot of the skies has his ‘Gremlin.’” The Ottawa Citizen, Sept. 19, 1942.

The Leader-Post, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada April 15, 1942

Many Americans were introduced to Gremlins via a 2-page article, “It's Them” in Time magazine, Sept. 14, 1942., which said:

“For nearly three years the gremlins devoted themselves exclusively to the R.A.F… A noted gremlinologist, [Pilot Oscar Coen found out] that the gremlins had joined the U.S. Air Forces and that the time had come for their activities to be explained properly to the U.S. public.”

Columnist Edith Johnson wrote in The Daily Oklahoman, Sept. 16, 1942, “Does the Royal Air Force believe in fairies? Will U. S. airmen, participating in the bombing of German-controlled territory, come to believe in fairies, too? … In the belief of certain rational and intelligent persons these ‘little people’ as they sometimes are called, actually exist - a few declare they have seen them.”

Walt Disney and Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl, long before Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in 1942 was a Flight Lieutenant of the Royal Air Force. Due to medical problems sustained during a crash, he’d been relieved of active service as a pilot, and he tried his hand at writing.  He drafted a work based on the stories he heard from RAF crewmen about Gremlins. Walt Disney was interested in turning the story into a movie, using “live actors for the pilots and real airplanes… Only the little fellows themselves will be animated.”

Daily News (Los Angeles), Nov. 14, 1942

CAPTION: IN THE STRIP above are preliminary sketches for Walt Disney's film version of "The Gremlins," Flight Lieut. [Roald] Dahl's story of the hobgoblins of the air who ride with Allied flyers. Reading from left, to right, we have a Widget, or child gremlin; a Fifinella, one of the ladies of the tribe; Gus, oldest known gremlin, and a common or garden specimen of the gremlin family with a sand gun.

Gremlins were getting a lot of U.S. press and catching on.

LIFE magazine, Nov. 16, 1942, presented a 4-page article with “authentic illustrations”, “The Gremlins.” It stated, “Only aviators see gremlins. But gremlins are just as real for aviators as, for instance, Santa Claus is for children. … Gremlins have never caused fatal accidents or, if they have, pilots haven't lived to tell them.” The article pointed out that “Special Kinds have Special Jobs to Do,” some sabotaging paperwork and airfields, not just planes. It inconspicuously disclosed, “All the gremlins on these pages, by the way, were drawn by Boris Artzybasheff who has never seen one.”

Walt Disney didn’t want to lose his company’s claim on Gremlins, and made sure a few things were published to establish the copyright.

The Evening Star, Nov.  17, 1942 

Cosmopolitan magazine, Dec. 1942 featured “The Gremlins,” an article by Roald Dahl under the pseudonym “Pegasus.”

"Gremlinology" by Keith Shackleton, published in Canadian Air Cadet and The Aeroplane, Dec. 4, 1942, featured a directory of Gremlins, and stated that Flt. Lieut. Montagu Trimtabb was an expert who had looked “deeply into the biological side of Gremlinology.” As best we can tell, Lt. Trimtabb was as real as any Gremlin.

“Gremlin smoke" contrails The Whittier Star Review, Jan. 25, 1943

Meanwhile, the gremlin fad had some prominent detractors. U.S. war correspondent Gladwyn Hill reported from London in an Associated Press story in the San Pedro News-Pilot, Feb. 25, 1943:

“Everybody was just o-oh so tickled a few months ago when somebody discovered the imaginary sprites which the RAF has cherished for years as the explanation for otherwise inexplicable flying accidents. …everybody from magnates to mounted police was a coy, giggling expert on [gremlinology]… ad nauseam. Well, the nauseam has set in.

…[O]ne of England’s most popular columnists, Tom Driberg of the Daily Express… flew in the face of the whimsicalists… He made the further serious suggestion that the public craze for gremlins had dangerous implications of mass escapism."

Aeronautics magazine said, "The gremlin whimsy… [is] inappropriate to the RAF... Surely the greatest flying and fighting service is not going to ape Sir James Barrie at his worst… Yet here are distinguished authors writing about gremlins, artists drawing gremlins, and film companies and newspapers adopting gremlins. An impression is abroad that the whole thing is quaint, clever and delightfully whimsical and sweet… Those who persist in this twee and twittering whimsy should visit a psychoanalyst.”

A 6-page comic book adaptation of Dahl’s “The Gremlins” appeared without fanfare in War Heroes #4 from Dell Comics, dated April 1943.

Roald Dahl’s “Gremlins: A Warning!” appeared in the newspaper magazine supplement, This Week magazine, April 11, 1943:

“All through this war, we in the RAF have had our Gremlins. … Allied pilots the world over... are capable of seeing them. But no one else. …Nevertheless, the legend grew. …We heard with surprise that Gremlins were supposed to be puncturing tires and undoing shoelaces… of a hundred other wild and ludicrous things. …don’t, for heaven’s sake, blame them for all the silly things that happen everywhere in the world!”

Released in May of 1943, The Gremlins was Dahl's first book and was written for Walt Disney Productions, published to promote the forthcoming feature-length animated film. Likewise, the characters were featured in advertisements, comic books, and merchandise.

Life, May 31, 1943 - Life Savers ad

Despite the favorable reception from the public, Disney decided to not to make The Gremlins movie.

Roald Dahl continued to write, and five years later, he released another book on Gremlins, an adult novel with a decidedly darker tone, Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen. 1948. Gremlins were the original rulers of the earth but the spread of mankind drove them underground. They briefly reemerged in World War II “in an effort to hasten the eradication of the human race.” Concluding humans would destroy themselves, they wait until after the atomic destruction of World War IV to emerge. The fanzine Fantasy Review likened it to the tales of Richard Shaver!  

Government Disclosure of Gremlins?

During World War II, Gremlins were frequently featured in U.S. military publications, depicted on unit patches, war plane nose art, safety posters, and other places.

The U.S. Navy magazine, All Hands, May 1943 featured a photo article of Gremlins plaguing sailors at the Naval Training Station in San Diego. The editor’s note stated, “the only gremlins recognized so far were those that haunted the RAF.... With reports from Navy ships and stations such as those here... will probably possibly set off a feud between students of gremlinology. The debate; Whether U.S. gremlins are the original article, or close relatives.”

LIFE, May 15, 1944, Gremlin imagery adopted by the 339th Fighter Squadron.

The U.S. Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) asked permission and adopted Disney’s drawing of a Gremlin Fifinella as their mascot for patches on their flight jackets.

Starting in the 1950s, ufologists began discovering similar government paraphernalia relating to flying saucers in military patches and emblems. Since then, proponents have asserted it was tacit evidence of the reality of extraterrestrial UFOs by the U.S. government, a “soft Disclosure.” If so, it proves Gremlins, too. 

Exploitation, Overexposure, and Commercialization

Gremlins were everywhere, cartoons, comic books, advertisements…

“Gremlins. What a fairy tale. Little men, oh brother!”

Bugs Bunny in “Falling Hare,” released Oct. 30, 1943. The title was changed from "Bugs Bunny and the Gremlin" at the request of Disney who was trying to protect their brand.

Superman no. 22, cover dated May-June 1943 (on sale March 3) featured, “Meet the Squiffles, little green imps led by Ixnayalpay who allied with Hitler. Superman recruits the (orange) Gremlins to defeat them.

(Ixnayalpay from this story may have been retooled into Superman’s interdimensional impish Gremlin-like foe, Mr. Mxyzptlk.)

Months later, a different version of the Gremlins appeared in the Superman Sunday comic strip, Dec. 19 & 26, 1943, uncharacteristically depicted as little green men. They were meddlesome ghost-like imps, vulnerable only to being struck by patriotic articles like ration books and war bonds.

Mobilgas launched an extensive ad campaign to protect consumers’ automobiles against the Gremlins.

Two RAF Gremlinologists, Sqd-Ldr V.A Hodgkinson, and Flt-Lieut T.L. Dulgan, modeled 15 varieties of Gremlins in plasticine figures.

The Argus (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) Jan. 15, 1944

"Gremlins — True or False” was the subject of the lecture on Jan. 23, 1944, at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society headquarters in Wheaton, Illinois.

The American Theosophist, March 1994

Someone who saw Gremlins as more than a joke was Charles Massinger, who wrote the “The Gremlin Myth” in The Journal of Educational Sociology., Vol. 17 No. 6 (Feb. 1944). pp. 359-367. He was gravely concerned about how the “fantastic imps” had “infected the psychology of the American airmen,” and that rational people were becoming believers.

The Indian Listener, March 1944

As World War II came to an end, the talk of Gremlins diminished. In 1947, news exploded about something else pilots reported seeing in the skies. Next time in part two, we'll look at Gremlins in the Flying Saucer Era.

1 comment:

  1. I found the first hints of this unlikely collaboration in an aviation magazine that reprinted a short snippet about this project.

    From what little I'd learned subsequently I got the impression that Dahl still being a serving member of the RAF at the time might have had something to do with the project being cancelled. What you've posted shows it got much further along than I ever suspected.

    The six page strip in the Dell comic appears to be cut down version of a longer comic book that was released in the 1940s and then republished by I think Dark Horse in the early 2000s.


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