Don’t you hate it when somebody does the complete opposite of what you asked them to do?
It’s annoying enough when it’s a coworker. Or a friend. But a kid with a seemingly harmless exotic pet that has the potential to cause chaos, ruin, and mayhem?
Welcome to Gremlins.
Monsters and Mayhem
For those of you unfamiliar with the film from 1984, let me break it down. When a young man in a sleepy small town receives a strange animal from his father for Christmas, he accidentally breaks the creature’s three rules for care taking, and inadvertantly creates a host of ugly, evil monsters that try to take over the town. Both hilarity and horror quickly ensue.
These monsters are, of course, the titular gremlins, but they start out that way. The first form of the animal is introduced as a “mogwai,” which is a cute little creature in a Jim Henson, big-eyed, slightly-less-possessed-than-a-Furby kind of way.
The misspelling of the word “furby” I think only further cements my point.
According to the internet, “mogwai” means “ghost,” “demon,” or “evil spirit” in Cantonese, which plays a prevalent role in Chinese mythology. The word “gremlin,” however, is much newer one, coined in times of war.
Gremlins rose to popularity in Great Britain’s Royal Air Force sometimes in the 1920s. Pilots and air crew would often blame mechanical failures on strange, mischievous creatures that could cut wires and grease floors to sabotage important missions. Though naturally unfounded, these stories proved invaluable support to troops morale even into World War Two, as airmen went up head-to-head against the German Luftwaffe.
It’s a lot easier to blame your failures on a mythical creature than it is to take responsibility for your actions.
Which bring us back to the movie. On the one hand, you can’t blame poor old Billy for the havoc he’s caused. He didn’t know what was going on, and most of it was an accident. On the other hand, isn’t that what brought gremlins into the world into the first place?
It’s interesting to me that gremlins seem to represent mistakes. They are careless, thoughtless actions that hurt the people around you. For those of us familiar with the terminology of sin, it strikes a pretty clear comparison.
There’s no small coincidence in the fact that, in the Cantonese translation of the Book of Job, the translators use the word “mogwai” instead of Satan.
Obviously, Steven Spielberg didn’t intend for this movie to be a metaphor for the sin in someone’s life, but the similarities don’t stop there. Consider the nature of the gremlin: they multiply quickly, without any chance of covering them up. They start out small, unassuming, even cute, only to quickly take over your life.
The ending for Billy turns out differently. He doesn’t need some messiah or savior; he learns how to erase his mistake. But there’s something powerfully symbolic in how he uses bright light to kill the gremlins. Again, the imagery might be unintentional, but it’s still there: darkness, as always, is conquered by the light.
Add this to the fact that the film takes place during Christmastime, and there’s something very powerful about it.
Of course, this is also one of the two films in 1984 that prompted the MPAA to conceive the PG-13 rating; apparently, some viewers were shocked to watch a scene where a gremlin is set on fire in a microwave.
Now that’s what I call a TV dinner.
All this to say: sometimes movies aren’t that deep. But sometimes, beneath the surface, they really are.