I was maybe four the first time I saw the 1984 film Gremlins. It was in the ‘90s. It was on TV. I told my mother I wasn’t scared. She went upstairs to play piano while my sisters and I clustered around the television to watch mogwai become gremlins, attack teachers, explode in microwaves.
To some, Gremlins is a Christmas movie. A boy is given a gift by his father for Christmas: a mogwai, a furry creature with big ears his father found at a shady Chinese shop. The mogwai comes with instructions: don’t put it near light, especially sunlight. Don’t get it wet. Don’t feed it after midnight. Of course all three of these simple instructions are ignored, and the mogwai reproduces. His fellow mogwai transform into mischievous monsters called gremlins. They create chaos and terrorize the town.
The night I watched Gremlins, I lay in bed shaking with fear. My teeth clattered like they do in cartoons. My mom and sister Marie sat with me for a while, wondered if I was cold, tried to talk me down. I remember this as though I’m looking at myself, and not as though I’m in my own body at all. I remember this as though I’m Marie, or my mother, gazing upon a defenseless shivering girl, wondering how to make her believe she is safe, that nothing is coming for her.
A basic definition of gremlin is “an unexplained problem.”
It’s not clear who coined the term, but it seems to have originated in aviation and been popularized during World War II. Breakdowns or technical malfunctions were blamed on gremlins. Men who worked in the Royal Air Force (RAF) in particular complained about gremlins getting into engines, biting apart wires, causing crashes. It was a joke. A way of explaining the unexplainable.
But some weren’t joking. Some swore they really saw small creatures. Folklorist John W. Hazen once himself attested to seeing one. In an academic article, he says he saw “a parted cable which bore obvious tooth marks in spite of the fact that the break occurred in a most inaccessible part of the plane.” He says he heard a “gruff” voice say, “How many times must you be told to obey orders and not tackle jobs you aren’t qualified for?”
These testimonies are dismissed by those who say the altitude and the stress of combat caused hallucinations. Visions of gremlins were merely coping mechanisms the mind created. In 1944, Charles Massinger published an article called “The Gremlin Myth” in which he asks, “What are some of the circumstances that have led so large a body of men to believe so vividly in the existence of a world of fantastic and vicious little creatures?” He later suggests, “Quite justifiably we may say that the ‘Gremlin’ myth serves the useful purpose of filling in those inevitable gaps frequently occurring in the thought trends of rational man, for no man lives by fact and reason alone.”
While I was growing up, my family kept an old Apple computer my grandpa gave us when he upgraded. To play games, you’d insert a hand-sized floppy disk and listen to the computer boot it. One of our games was called Gremlins, after the film. At ten or so, I was removed enough from my initial gremlins experience to excel at this game. The objective was to collect mogwai and deposit them safely into a pen before they ate a midnight snack and were transformed into gremlins. You were equipped with a sword to kill gremlins. If you failed, they attacked you and you instantly collapsed to a pile of white bones. You wanted to survive as many nights as possible before you were killed, and each night there was more to do—more to be saved, more to fight. You collected points for the number of mogwai you saved. There was no real end to this, no beating the game. No matter what, you were always killed.
These are the kinds of life lessons we learn as children. More to save, more to fight. The nights will just keep going till you die. Eventually something will get you. I once made it to night 42.
Fear can function differently, I’ve learned, when you grow older. It can nag. It weighs. As a child, my fears would come on me at waves at only certain moments—at night, looking towards the door’s rectangle of light. In the morning, all was harmless.
I’m grown, and there is no shaking, no teeth clattering, but neither is there relief in daylight.
Once, not too long ago, my little sister called me and asked what I thought of the Syrian refugee crisis. The question took be aback, because at the time I hadn’t yet been asked to articulate an opinion, and I didn’t know if my opinion had yet reached clarity. Social media at the time was full of narratives—full of images of migrants’ bold, reaching bodies. I watched a video where a woman in Greece protested that they are destroying her country. A coworker told me, “My professor said–and this makes sense—if you were going to ship in a hundred apples and you knew five of them would be rotten, why would you buy them?” I thought: that makes no sense at all. People are not apples.
The fear was that terrorists lurked in the midst of the victims, and we’ve had enough of terrorists. My mother confessed she feared too the way such an influx would change the culture, change the way of life she associates with her home.
The days feel heavier than usual, but the heaviness for me has to do with uncertainty. When you’re a child, you have touchstones. My mother was one. Now, she asks me, “What obligation do we have in taking those people in?” When migrant men harassed and groped German women in Cologne, my mother said, “You see?”
I only recently watched Gremlins again, the first time since that first time. I realized that somehow, in the years since I was small, I revised the film. In my memory, the hand I see reaching up from behind the desk is the bloodied, mangled hand of the teacher. In the film, it is actually the hand of a gremlin, clean and reaching around for a snack. In my memory, the mother in the film dies. Really, she’s thick-skinned and kills one gremlin in a kitchen blender, another in the microwave, and she stabs a third repeatedly.
What I feared most, I invented myself. With a little prompting, I created all manner of things ungrounded in reality. I saw gremlins slumping down the hallway towards my bedroom, the hall light spilling over their bat-wing ears, their boney shoulders and gray-green legs.
When my sister Marie and I talk about it now, we laugh, but Marie tells me her own fear was of me laying in bed, shaking. She thought I was possessed. She thought something dark had gotten tangled up inside me. Had messed with my inner machine.
She says her seven-year-old daughter, Emma, is also afraid. Some movies make her shake like I used to. She fears the witch in Tangled. The taxidermist in Paddington Bear. Marie knows Emma is afraid when she reaches for Marie’s hand.
Roald Dahl’s first children’s story was called The Gremlins, and it was meant to serve as a promo for a movie Disney planned to make based on Dahl’s story. Dahl was an officer of the RAF, and there was some concern about whether the term “gremlin” could be copyrighted, since the entire RAF knew about gremlins. Nonetheless, for a while the project was quite the endeavor. Extensive research was done. Disney sent an article to an RAF journal asking for first-hand accounts of gremlins. He was concerned with authenticity. Did he know how he was teased behind his back for his apparent belief that there was something to these sightings? Even Dahl teased. In 1942, Dahl wrote a letter to the studio to express hope that Disney hadn’t decided for certain that gremlins didn’t wear bowler hats. He’d seen preliminary drawings of the gremlins that featured them sans hats. Dahl wrote that just because an artist chose to draw a gremlin different from “what he really looks like” wouldn’t mean that every gremlin would change its appearance. After all, you wouldn’t expect elephants to turn into horses just because you drew them that way.
For many reasons, that film never happened. It cost too much. The public was getting weary of the publicity for the project, as they were getting weary of the war. And there was the question of ownership. Who “owned” the story about gremlins? Could anyone really lay claim to it? Gremlins felt specific and common all at once.
I don’t know if we can say that all those things we imagine and invent in order to fear are always so wrong, or so far off the mark. I don’t know if we can say there is nothing to fear. There is some self-awareness in fear, perhaps—awareness of our own fragility, a fragility that is sometimes more than we can stand. But how can we begin to face something we can’t locate or identify? Giving some sort of shape or substance to a problem seems our best chance of confronting it. Understand, “gremlins” were never metaphors. They were only ever an explanation.
There is a gene named “gremlin,” and it is the reason why ducks have webbed feet and chickens do not. Scientists did an experiment where they introduced the gremlin gene as a chicken was developing, and—while not perfectly—it did indeed create a connection between the chicken’s claws. Spaces, absences were filled by messes of uncertain tissue.
I think of Massinger’s conclusion regarding RAF pilots’ visions, that the Gremlin Myth fills “inevitable gaps” in our reason, that such filling in of gaps is “useful,” probably because it can be unbearable to face uncertainty, or a problem that has no satisfying definition or explanation.
But I question this usefulness. It must depend on the circumstances. After all, a duck has need of webbed feet. A hen undoubtedly is made clumsier with such an aid.
My sister dozes off on the couch as we watch Tangled. Emma has insisted she’s not scared. Marie asks me to hold her daughter’s hand, just in case. And I do. I feel honored with the privilege though our hands are only hands.
But Emma believes that I—my hand, slender, warm, average—can save her. She imagines I can somehow protect her from everything that is to come, and in that way, holding her hand is all I need to do. Because imagination has power. For worse and sometimes for better, the imagined becomes our reality.
Sometimes, I too just want someone to take my hand. For what feels like no reason, I feel drained, as though there’s a burden on me I cannot quite locate. It’s 2017. These days I sense, stronger than ever, an eagerness in those around me to give shape to fear—to give it a name and a face. I’m suspicious of the instinct, but I understand it.
Emma’s hand in mine is soft and sticky. If I nudge my thumb up to her wrist, I find a gentle pulse. She has purple marker on her index finger, evidence of a day’s work. I cradle the smallness of her, picture the years that will wear and grow her hands like mine. I imagine future scars, see her sitting bored in a classroom, see her driving across the US, crying over a breakup, renting her first apartment. I trace veins on the back of her hand and see them rising, big and blue, from her skin someday—the way her mother’s do, and mine, and our mother’s. For a moment, she grips tighter, and I become bolder. This is imagination, or empathy. It’s a shape for power.
When my mother asked what I thought—do we let the refugees in or not? I told her, “How can we not?” She pressed. But what should we do to make sure the people here stay safe? I didn’t know.
Perhaps my mother imagines what happened in Cologne happening here. Women cornered and powerless against a sea of men emboldened. Perhaps she imagines something worse. I can’t dismiss this. But I know those people have their own fears, and it’s not in me to dismiss them.
This is all I can claim: something older, something unsolvable. I’m certain of my uncertainty. I am nostalgic for a time when my mother hovered over my bed telling me I was safe. She’d leave the light on. She the touchstone—a comforting certainty. I wonder if my mother was in awe of her hands, of her body—the way its presence could mean protection. I wonder what she might have thought, back then, that she was protecting me from.
Elizabeth Horneber’s essays have appeared in AGNI, PRISM international, Chattahoochee Review, and elsewhere. She was a Loft Literary Center Mentor Series winner, and earned her MFA at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She currently teaches writing in southern Minnesota.