From the fluffballs to the barbaric horde, what do the cryptic ?three Gremlin rules? tell us about the mysterious Mogwai biology?
Warning: This movie has NOTHING to do with airplanes.
As Halloween nears, tis the perfect season to embrace our favorite pop-horror Christmas creep: those scaly, mischievous holiday monsters that captured our hearts in 1984 and have fiendishly held on ever since.
Gremlins was the brainchild made possible by the dream-team of writer Chris Columbus, director Joe Dante, or executive producer Steven Spielberg ? names that hold credits for Home Alone, Small Soldiers, and Ready Player One respectively. The film is a genuine B-horror masterpiece, hailed for inspiring a new generation of charm and liveliness in the famed ghoul-and-goblin cinematic genre. Roger Ebert may have said it best in his markedly mixed review of the film:
?At the level of Serious Film Criticism, it?s a meditation on the myths in our movies: Christmas, families, monsters, retail stores, movies, boogeymen. At the level of Pop Movie-going, it?s a sophisticated, witty B movie, in which the monsters are devouring not only the defenseless town, but decades of defenseless clichs.?
And of course, the movie gave us Gizmo. What a pure symbol of love, joy, and a strict set of ownership guidelines for which any violation risks unleashing sheer terror on everyone in the immediate vicinity.
What a class act.
Above all, the stickiest corner of the Gremlin mythology seems to remain the three cryptic rules that are spelled out in the film?s opening moments, only-so-slightly foreshadowing the doom and gloom to follow:
1. Do not expose to bright lights2. Do not let them get wet3. No feeding after midnight
So simple, really. And from here on out, the movie becomes laced in a classic horror trope: defy a set of simple rules and face the dire, deadly consequences. The harbinger from Cabin in the Woods would like to have a word with you.
For the curious breed of filmgoers out there, these rules are far more than a fleeting, ephemeral plot device. They?re a doorway into a deeper pathway of discovery. Where there are rules, there are consequences! There?s structure to the Gremlin life history that just begs us to ask deeper questions! Why do such strict rules exist? Where do they come from? How are these creatures meant to live when the mitigating oversight of humans is not present?
Oh, it?s a lovely thing.
It really can?t be overstated how charming this movie is.
First, any investigation wouldn?t be complete without laying out some background knowledge. In truth, my early curiosity on the subject was oriented around gremlin mythology ? and more pointedly, whether these three rules existed before the inception of the film version in the 1980s.
Far from the little demons we?ve come to love today.
As it turns out, gremlins aren?t an ancient, centuries-old mytheme. The stories originated in the 1920s through folktales told in the British Royal Air Force, when pilots would refer to ?gremlins? as little gnome-like men who lived in the wings of planes, causing unexpected mechanical failures. Author Roald Dahl would absorb these stories during his time as a pilot, and as his first children?s novel in 1942, spun tales about a race of miniature airplane saboteurs who sought revenge against humans for destroying their forest home. Dahl was the first writer to introduce ?The Gremlins? to a mainstream public, and although he depicted the little men with tinted skin and pointy horns, they were hardly the malicious fiends we seem to know today.
ACK! Also, this was directed by Richard Donner. Go figure.
That turn came in 1963, when in an episode of The Twilight Zone, William Shatner famously spotted an evil goblin destroying the wing of his commuter flight. The script refers to the monster as a ?gremlin? in reference to the airplane saboteurs of WWII, not necessarily because of its grotesque appearance:
Julia, there?s a man out there. I-I don?t mean a man, I mean? I don?t know what I mean. I mean, maybe a? what?d they call them during the war? You know, the p-pilots? Gremlins! Gremlins.
Now through these decades of growing folklore, the throughline of gremlin aesthetic and behavior really isn?t anything goblin-like or malicious in nature? It?s a passion for airline disobedience. Most of the qualities we know today ? including the three gremlin rules ? seem to be original ideas introduced by Chris Columbus in the 80s.
Who knows where Gremlins 3 will go, but the underworld certainly isn?t off limits.
OR ARE THEY?! There?s one final twist to the story, and it actually connects to not the gremlin lineage, but the cultural origins of mogwais ? the cute ?cousins? the scaly gremlin breed.
This lore does actually go back centuries, laced in both Chinese and Buddhist mythology, where mogwais are mischievous, shapechanging demons. As the stories go, mogwais only reproduce during the rainy season knowing that the times ahead will be more prosperous.
Aha! Don?t get them wet. We?ve found the first and only connection to the Gremlin rules, although to be frank, almost all sources for this fact I could locate online pointed through Wikipedia to a single article that does not mention mogwais nor rainy seasons.
In short, if we?re questioning whether the ?three rules of gremlin care? have basis in mythology or folklore? they really don?t, and that?s perfectly fine. It means that the canon biology for the goblins in the film is entirely fresh, entirely unique, and entirely open for deep scientific analysis. Let the games begin.
The exposition is delightful, really. So clean.
Rule 1: No Bright Light
It?s not quite as simple as ?gremlins are nocturnal,? but that does get us close.
In Gremlin canon, exposure to bright light ? such as flash bulbs or sunshine ? causes the creatures to burn, bubble, and boil-over into a pile of slime. It?s a recipe for instant death, so no wonder it comes as a topmost stipulation on the warning label.
But what does this tenet tell us about gremlin biology? Well, in their general day-to-day, we can safely assume the creature?s don?t get much sunshine exposure ? it?s possible they?re nocturnal, but since dim light seems to have no ill effect, the species could have evolved dwelling in forest undergrowth or any other low-light ecosystem.
The light-shy life we see in real Earth biology, however, doesn?t have catastrophic system failure when exposed to sunlight ? in How Stuff Works? analysis of the gremlin anatomy, they note a species of salamander that reacts to sun with changes in skin tone, but again it?s nothing grotesque.
The symptoms almost mimic an extreme version of Xeroderma pigmentosum, a real genetic disorder, however in the case of the mogwai breed we?re not looking at a fluke mutation. Instead it seems as though something much deeper is clearly at play, like an enzyme or protein that?s immensely sensitive to light and is degraded under UV rays ? not dissimilar to what happens to genetic material in our own cells, but at a far faster scale.
This feature, though, wouldn?t be an evolutionary accident; some element of the sunlight adaptation must help gremlins thrive in their native habitat.
Consider this: gremlins living in low-light ecosystems evolved a method to derive energy from what little sunlight is available ? a symbiotic adaptation that?s been observed in real-world marine organisms. There?s a clear benefit to gremlin robustness, but given the molecular sensitivity? sure, too much sunlight could reap terrible, immediate effects on their cellular makeup. It?s nothing we?d consider biologically impossible.
Still with me? Ok good!
Rule 2: Don?t Get Them Wet
Aha, another interesting turn! The murmurs I mentioned above about ancient mogwai mythology actually offer some pretty spot-on insight here ? these little gremlin beasties might just be waiting for the wettest, most nutrient-rich time of the year to reproduce.
There are plenty of actual animals that employ this tactic to schedule their mating seasons, and the best parallel is probably the locust. Hell, look at this quote from a NYTimes article on the subject: ?Locusts are grasshoppers that have evolved to undergo a sort of Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation, a result of sporadic patterns of rainfall.?
Not too far away from the gremlin phenomenon, right?
So gremlins = grasshoppers? Did we solve the movie?
And the science here is sound ? animals that live in harsh, nutrient-scarce ecosystems don?t benefit from breeding at non-random intervals, and nor do they want to depend on strict yearly cycles when there may not be enough food to sustain a population surge. This opportunistic breeding strategy takes advantage of ecosystem cues ? like an abundance of rain water ? to trigger a rapid spike in mating behavior. For gremlins, that ?mating? happens to be the asexual budding of new fluffballs, but the biology here is easy to piece together. The species evolved in an ecosystem of low nutrient availability, so when a population encounters rain, *poof* they pop a dozen more gremlins into existence. Quite elegant, really.
Rule 3: No Food After Midnight
And yes, we?ve finally made it to the thorn in the side of a neat, clean gremlin evolution narrative.
First and foremost, yes the idea of ?midnight? isn?t something that generally concerns animal biology. There have been hints in a rejected script for Gremlins 3 that for mogwai, the phenomenon comes down to a minute-by-minute threshold, even taking timezones into consideration. This is harder to swallow than a vaguer interpretation of the rule: don?t feed gremlins around solar midnight, a natural nightly phenomenon that can sync with organic circadian rhythms and doesn?t rely on calendars, timepieces, or daylight savings time.
But still, this rule is really perplexing.
?Circadian rhythm? may seem like a magic wand capable of answering any line of pseudo-science jibber-jabber? And yeah, it sort of is.
We can see in even our own metabolic patterns that late-night calories are processed differently by our bodies than midday snacks, so I?m not too concerned over the how of gremlin transformations ? let?s focus on the why.
Upon eating a late-night snack, the cuddly mogwai species transforms into a scaly, ravenous gremlin. The metamorphosis is a one-way street and is seemingly irreversible ? scaly gremlins that bud new offspring don?t create fluffy mogwai. Once a lineage changes, it?s changed for good.
And that?s messed up. Some blogs look at this process as part of the ?natural? gremlin lifecycle, and it?s really not. If this were the case, at some point all fluffball mogwais would be stripped from the genepool as more and more individuals undergo the scaly, midnight transfiguration. No, something bigger is afoot.
What?s been posed on the Naturalish podcast takes this theory into a twisted direction: what if the ravenous gremlins aren?t a phase in a lifecycle, but rather a reversion to a more natural state? Enter the ?feral gremlin theory,? where the cuddly Gizmo-style mogwai is actually a domesticated subspecies of the naturally occurring, scaly gremlin race.
Big if true!
Finally, everything seems to fit neatly into place. Wild gremlins had been domesticated and bred over generations to create the furry, docile version of the species ? but with a remarkably sensitive metabolism. Food delivered into the gremlin digestive system far after sunset, and close to solar midnight, can trigger a rapid transition into the species? feral state. It?s not unheard of ? dogs have been observed to engage in ?survival instincts? after just a few days of extreme behavioral exposure.
So?let?s be real. Can we put blame on the ravenous Gremlin horde for acting like a natural, wild species? They?re a swarm, like locusts that evolved in nutrient-scarce, low-light ecosystems. Humans have held mogwais captive for who-knows-how-long, breeding them in cages to be docile and fluffy, whereby in nature these creatures invade like a plague before devouring resources and moving onwards into the twilight.
It?s a bit beautiful, really.
OF COURSE the novelization comes along and messes everything up.
That is, if the Gremlin species did actually evolve. In the decidedly non-canon novelization of the film, Gizmo recounts the tail of Mogturmen, the alien scientist who developed the mogwai creatures as heralds of peace and happiness throughout the galaxy. Apparently through a fluke in his designs, most mogwai turned out evil. Whoops.
So look, I?ll admit that all the evolutionary theorizing can be stalled ? even nullified ? by a stray line of non-canon narrative. We?re not using this blog to answer questions, we?re using it to ask them. I think the big lessons here are that if all animals came with a rulebook, evolutionary science would be a hell of a lot easier.
Such innocence and purity. We can?t stay mad at you.
And for gremlins, it really does seem like this is a breed of monster that?s been getting the short-end of the biological stick for the better half of a century. In some cases, this is a wild species that probably shouldn?t be domesticated and bartered on Christmas Eve ?and in others, they?re just airplane saboteurs seeking a little innocent vengeance.
At the end of the day, it?s a kernel of folklore that deserves our admiration. Happy holidays, you filthy animals.