The term “gaslighting” has been thrown around a lot over the last nine months, and for good reason. A form of psychological abuse, it’s been a favourite tactic of the loose-knit group of internet bullies terrorising women online lately - but it wasn’t born on the internet. Gaslighting is an umbrella term describing anything designed to make the target doubt their memory or sanity. But where did the term come from? What did it originally refer to? For the answer, we turn to the George Cukor’s 1944 classic Gaslight.
A film noir in the true, thematic sense, Gaslight is all about insidious psychological games. The film races through its early story: young Paula (Ingrid Bergman) moves from her London townhouse to Italy following her opera-star aunt’s murder, only to end her own music tutelage in order to get married. Her new husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer), suggests they move to a London townhouse. It seems like a coincidence, but as they move back into the foreboding No. 9, Gregory’s suggestion becomes the first step in a grand scheme of psychological abuse.
It’s a scheme that takes many forms. Many of Gregory’s actions involve making Paula believe she’s forgetful or absent-minded - like removing a picture from a wall and demanding to know where “she” hid it. He plants notions that the maid (a sarcastic and wonderful 18-year-old Angela Lansbury) despises her. He even makes up a story about Paula’s estranged mother, claiming she died in an insane asylum. Eventually, he convinces her that she can’t be trusted to go out - that it’s for her own good. Making Paula self-enforce his rules - making her believe that he and they are her only protection against total self-destruction - is a key part of his schemes. And all the while, Gregory keeps reiterating how concerned he is for her, working to cement her insane self-image under the disingenuous guise of care.
A frightening element of Gaslight is the apparent innocence with which the abuse begins. The line “you are inclined to lose things” is a gentle tease that starts a campaign of terror, as Gregory removes and replaces items seemingly at random. Whenever it comes up, he minimises the issue, ensuring it sticks in Paula’s mind by repeatedly dismissing it. This is a key aspect of gaslighting: saying it’s all in the target’s head, making them distrust themselves. Gaslight’s screenplay is subtle to the extent that without knowing its subject material in advance, it’s possible to experience it entirely from Paula’s point of view. Only the suspenseful music really clues us in.
By the halfway mark, Gregory has made Paula frantic and terrified at all the things she’s “imagining”, begging him for help. Bergman sells the confusion terrifically, taking us with her on a gruelling mental journey. Using the flickering Edwardian gaslight as an ever-present signifier of Paula’s psyche, director Cukor creates a claustrophobic picture of paranoia and despair. The lights go up and down seemingly at random, terrifying Paula. They loom over her in every room of her increasingly grim, imposing house, a false oasis amidst a sea of London fog.
Of course, since this is a movie, there’s a broader conspiracy in effect - namely (spoilers!) that Gregory is actually Paula’s aunt’s murderer, looking to have Paula committed so that he might search for her aunt’s concealed jewels uninhibited. Sometimes, the truth is too bizarre to believe; it’s easier for Paula to conclude that she’s insane than to cotton on to Gregory’s motives. Joseph Cotten’s detective is the only person suspicious of the increasingly slimy Gregory. Through a disarmingly simple questioning process, he not only demonstrates Paula’s sanity, but unravels the mystery. Paula’s refusal to acknowledge the revelations just goes to show how powerful a single trusted person’s influence can be on one’s opinion of the truth. In the end, Paula gets a powerful scene of reversal - one which the audience gleefully joins in on.
Adapted from the 1938 stage play and 1940 film of the same name, Gaslight grossed over $100 million worldwide (adjusted for ticket price inflation), and was nominated for seven Oscars, winning for Best Actress and Black and White Art Direction. Such was the impact of the play and the film(s) that “gaslighting” eventually became the accepted term for the abuse depicted therein. Echoes can be seen in films like Force Majeure and in far too many real-world scenarios.
Most gaslighters don’t need a material motivation like Gregory has; psychological control itself is what they seek. Gaslighting is also frequently a gendered act, used by men to exert control over women. There are so many telling lines of dialogue in Gaslight. “I don’t want to upset you, but...” “Stop being hysterical.” “What makes you do these crazy things?” These are things said so frequently as to become cliche nowadays, and typically by men to women. There’s a huge range of acts that qualify as gaslighting, from the subtle to the catastrophic. Many go unnoticed - in some situations, even the aggressor can be unaware of exactly what they’re doing.
In the age of the internet, with the aid of dogpiles and deletable or editable content, it’s all the easier to accomplish. The internet is full of accounts of these abusive situations, but one needs only look as far as the GamerGate fiasco to see the applications and effects of gaslighting in a modern setting. Every major target of the hate mob has been accused of imagining or making up the death or rape threats made against them, often by the same people making the threats. I can’t say whether this gaslighting successfully instills doubt in the targets’ minds, but much like the manufactured climate change “controversy”, the mere hint of doubt - however contrived - is enough to convince a stupid, angry mob to amplify it.
But the core strategies of gaslighting are bigger and older than the internet, and require only cruelty and commitment to carry out. Tragically, we’ll never hear about most cases of it. Perhaps the worst aspect is that regardless of how false the pretences, it ends up genuinely putting targets into a state of psychological trauma. The legacy of Gaslight is greater than simply being a good movie; it inadvertently named and classified a whole category of abuse. By codifying it so elegantly, it’s made such practices easier to identify. Hopefully, it also makes them easier to stop.