The surprising World War II origins that led to ‘Gremlins’

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Capitalising on the uptick in interest in marrying horror with comedy, Joe Dante’s Gremlins became a much bigger hit than anyone was expecting when the mischievous creatures stampeded their way into cinemas in June 1984.

Screenwriter Chris Columbus was inspired by the noises that came from within his own home, except in his case, the house was under attack from mice rather than mogwai. The premise captured the attention of producer Spielberg, who ended up enlisting Dante to direct. Once the script was made slightly less gruesome and more palatable to a wide audience, it was all systems go.

As tends to be the case in any vaguely fantastical film, dangers arise from creatures doing exactly what people have been warned they should never be allowed to do. Don’t expose the mogwai to bright light or water, and never under any circumstances feed it after midnight. Suffice to say, the advice is not heeded, and all hell breaks loose.

An energetic and gleefully anarchic slice of madcap mayhem, Gremlins was nothing short of a sensation. Recouping its budget almost 20 times over at the box office and giving rise to a merchandising machine that sent the profit margins soaring through the roof, it’s become both a staple of the Christmastime viewing calendar and a genuine pop culture touchstone.

While ghoulish monsters that derive immense enjoyment from wreaking havoc is hardly a groundbreaking concept as parents around the world will no doubt agree, gremlins themselves first entered the mythological lexicon during World War II when they ended up being fingered as the culprits for technological malfunctions in aircraft.

In 1938, Scotland was described as “gremlin country” in Pauline Gower’s novel The ATA: Women with Wings, holding them responsible for severing the wires holding biplanes together whenever the pilots weren’t looking. There were numerous references made by soldiers, writers, and reporters throughout the rest of the war, because whenever there wasn’t an obvious cause for an airborne issue, it must have been the gremlins.

The Royal Air Force held a particular habit for pointing the finger of blame at gremlins for technical faults, and beyond using them as an easy way to be absolved of any oversights, pilots trading tales about their own gremlin experiences helped boost morale and ensure they could at least make the best of a dire situation whenever their planes were repeatedly cursed by all manner of malfunction.

Gremlins may have repurposed them as the basis for a moneymaking Hollywood favourite, but some filmmakers never forgot where they came from in the first place. Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud stands out as perhaps the most prominent example, if only because it’s an aerial-set World War II creature feature where one of the pesky buggers decides the best use of its time is to try and take down a bomber.

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