Curious buzzwords enter our ways of communicating seemingly out of nowhere. They tend to catch on quickly through social media or influential news headlines, spreading like wildfire until they’re casually rolling off everyone’s tongue. “Gaslight”, or “gaslighting”, suits this description to a tee. “Gaslight” has been thrown around with abandon over the past few years, yet it’s unclear what it means. Some think of gaslighting as good old-fashioned deception, but in reality, it’s much more complicated (and sometimes sinister) than that. The Oxford dictionary defines it as manipulating (someone) by psychological means into questioning their sanity.
Donald Trump has been accused of gaslighting America for years. So have popular news outlets filtered coverage of events like the Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard defamation trial on their social media. The term was recently used in High Court when a man was charged with convincing his wife she had bipolar disorder.
When analyzing our culture’s various usage of the word, it makes sense why many of us are confused about gaslighting’s meaning. There have been public uses of the term that are bang-on, but there are other cases that present grey areas, where it could be possible the supposed “gaslighter” was guilty of other manipulations, like forcing their aggressive influence or bullying tactics. “Gaslighting is often used in an accusatory way when somebody may just be insistent on something, or somebody may be trying to influence you,” says Robin Stern, Ph.D., co-founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect (2007). “That’s not what gaslighting is.”
Perhaps the best way to observe gaslighting in action is to watch the 1944 film it originated from. Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, was directed by George Cukor (the man behind The Women, 1939, and The Philadelphia Story 1940). Gaslight is based on a play by the same name, which premiered in 1938 at London’s Richmond Theater, and was followed by the British film version directed by Thorold Dickinson in 1940. However, when Cukor’s 1944 version was released in the US with Ingrid Bergman’s star power attached, it caused a sensation in Hollywood. Her powerful performance won her the first of three Oscars for best actress. Gaslight was nominated for a total of seven statues that year. It also took home the honor of Best Art Direction for its uniquely claustrophobic and ghostly setting.
Gaslight‘s plot begins with a teenage Paula (Bergman) being ushered into the night after a shocking tragedy. Her famous opera-singing aunt has been strangled to death in their London home. The traumatized girl is immediately sent to study in Italy to become a singer. As the years pass, she meets and falls in love with the charming Gregory (Charles Boyer). The two return to London and move back into Paula’s old home. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, Paula comments, “the whole place smells of death,” as she enters the home for the first time in ten years.
Within weeks, Paula begins to notice strange events in the house. Missing objects, the strange sound of footsteps at nighttime, and gaslights that frequently dim without being touched. As she slowly loses her perception of reality, Gregory gradually shows his true colors through cruel tactics that could make anyone question their mental health.
A true gaslighter at heart, Gregory preys on Paula’s vulnerability as he commits menacing acts to persuade her that she’s lost her mind. First, with a more subtle approach, like hiding her brooch and convincing her she’s misplaced it. Then, by removing pictures from the wall and accusing her of hiding them. He also keeps her isolated to remove any frame of reference. He forbids her to leave the house alone, explaining with faux concern that she isn’t well enough to go out. He even flirts openly with the parlor-maid (played by a saucy 171-year-old Angela Lansbury), driving a wedge between Paula and the servants, and completely inhibiting her sense of what is real.
One of the things that made Gaslight so daring at the time of its release was its unlikely casting and theme. It was unusual for MGM to release such an eerie and atmospheric drama (the studio usually counted on crowd-pleasing romances to sell tickets.) Curiously, the lead actors also seemed completely against type. Bergan was a strong, luminous woman, famous for her romantic role in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 drama, Casablanca. Whereas, in Gaslight, she plays a timid, vulnerable young woman who is being driven out of her mind. Similarly, Charles Boyer, at the time, was a traditionally handsome romantic lead. Yet, he is incredibly effective here as the terrifying man whose sole purpose is to have his wife committed to an asylum.
Gaslight is a film so chilling that it needn’t rely on horror or visual gore. It cleverly uses the power of psychology to remind its audience that human behavior can be the darkest and most fascinating of all subjects. Yet, the film seems to have been forgotten over the years. Perhaps it was overshadowed by successors where the emotional terror was more obvious. In later films like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and later Joseph Rubens Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), also about psychological abuse, the stories are more jarring and far-fetched, whereas the domestic conversations in Gaslight could easily happen in real life.
The film still holds up if you view Cukor’s Gaslight through a 2022 lens. Maybe it’s Paul’s extreme distress that makes you wonder if she is being driven mad, or maybe the sinister yet charming Gregory, whose presence sets a tone of bone-chilling creepiness. For a film with no gore and very little violence, Gaslight’s psychological qualities would scare most of us, possibly because we know these types of personalities exist in real life. Some of them even lead corporations – and countries.
When Drew Barrymore and Robert Osborne discussed Gaslight on The Essentials series on Turner Classic Movies, Barrymore shared a personal story about her relationship with the word. “The reason I discovered this film was because my therapist gave it to me when I was in my early twenties and she told me I was in a relationship where the gentleman was gaslighting me,” she explained. “I said, ‘I don’t know what that means,’ so she gave me a copy of the film and though it was not to the extreme of this movie, I was so excited to be brought into the term of what being gaslit meant.”
Though the psychology behind gaslighting can be fascinating, it can also be a glum topic with a heavy focus on the bleakness of humanity. It’s important to note that Gaslight isn’t a sad film about a tortured young woman held captive in a house of flickering lights. It also symbolizes a woman fighting for her power and eventually regaining it in a satisfying finalé. When Gregory is finally caught and exposed for his list of crimes by inspector Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton), Paula sees the light and recognizes his true objective.
At that moment, the audience understands the journey Paula has been on, and everything Gregory has put her through. Instead of bowing down, she asks for a moment alone with Gregory as he is handcuffed and about to be taken away. He begs her to set him free so they can run away together. Instead of doing as he says once again, Paula beats him at his own game. She is no longer afraid of him.
“If I were not mad, I could help you,” Paula says. “Whatever you had done, I could have pitied and protected you, but because I am mad, I hate you. Because I am mad, I have betrayed you and because I am mad, I am rejoicing in my heart without a shred of pity, watching you go with glory in my heart!”
This is undoubtedly the show-stopping monologue that rightfully won Bergman her Oscar. The audience holds their breath and feels her power as she finally takes back what is rightfully hers. Though Gaslight unearths the darkness of human nature, it also shines a light upon one’s ability to stand up for themselves and challenge those who attempt to trap them with such behavior.
Though Cukor’s Gaslight seems to be a forgotten Hollywood classic, there is optimism that Gaslight will celebrate a resurgence due to all the recent attention given to its title name. Indeed, director Harold Jackson III released his remake in June this year. The hope is not just to expose a new generation to Cukor’s well-acted and finely told story. Gaslight may also clear up anyone’s remaining misconceptions of the decade’s trendy buzzword.