Gaslight: How a harrowing Ingrid Bergman film inspired the psychology buzzword

You’re not going out of your mind,” a detective tells Ingrid Bergman’s Paula in the climactic moments of the 1944 film Gaslight. “You’re slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind.” Seventy-eight years later, the term “gaslighting” has been used in a published High Court judgement for the first time ever, after a woman’s abusive partner gradually convinced her she had bipolar disorder.

The term refers to a very particular and insidious kind of abuse – the kind where a person is deliberately manipulated into questioning their own sanity. The thriller, which won Bergman an Oscar for Best Actress, was adapted from a 1938 play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton, an English novelist and playwright who also wrote the source material for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Funnily enough, the “gaslight” of the title was not the method of manipulation, but a vital clue to its discovery.

Bergman plays Paula, a young woman whose new husband Gregory (French-American actor Charles Boyer) begins a campaign of abuse against her. He gives his wife a precious brooch, only to trick her into thinking she’s lost it. He starts removing more objects from around the house and accusing her of hiding them. “I hope you’re not starting to imagine things again,” he says with faux concern, using her supposedly troubled mind as an excuse to bar her from seeing any visitors or leaving the house. He openly flirts with the maid (Angela Lansbury in her film debut), and turns her against his wife. As Paula grows more and more distressed, he twists that against her, too – “Paula you silly child”; “Paula, stop being hysterical”; “Please control yourself” – until even she is convinced that she is losing her mind.

Just as Paula reaches breaking point, a detective turns up to convince her otherwise. Her husband is – spoiler alert – the man who murdered her aunt years earlier, in pursuit of her precious jewels, and he is now trying to drive Paula out of the house and into an asylum so he can continue his search for the gems. The gaslights that dim whenever he leaves the house for work? He’s actually been going into the attic to search for the jewels, and when he turns the lights on there, the rest of the house’s power dims.

When Gregory is arrested, he tries to convince Paula to help him escape. She plays him at his own game. “If I were not mad, I could have helped you,” she says with relish. Thanks to Gaslight, this brutal form of emotional and psychological abuse has been given a name, but one that has only recently entered common parlance. The New York Times first used the term in 1995, but it was barely used again for the next 20 years. Some believe it was Donald Trump that helped push it into the mainstream, with his tendency to make incendiary statements and then deny having ever said them – a habit that the media started describing, controversially, as “gaslighting”. By 2016, the American Dialect Society had called it the “Most Useful” new word of the year.

Gaslight isn’t the only film to show the horrors of this kind of mental manipulation, with Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Rosemary’s Baby (1978) and Sleeping With The Enemy (1991) all depicting various kinds of gaslighting. More recently, 2016’s The Girl On The Train starred Emily Blunt as a woman whose violent ex-husband plants false memories in her head when she’s drunk; 2018’s brilliant, panic-inducing Unsane saw Claire Foy being tricked into committing herself to a psychiatric hospital; and in the Netflix drama series Unbelievable, Kaitlyn Dever’s college student was effectively gaslit by the entire criminal justice system after being raped.

It might be hard to corroborate with real-life statistics, but in popular culture at least, gaslighting is overwhelmingly something men do to women. The 2020 blockbuster horror The Invisible Man, meanwhile, was about a woman who escapes from her abusive partner only to be stalked by his invisible presence – if that sounds ridiculous, it does to her too at first, but it transpires that he’s wearing an invisible bodysuit after faking his own death. Elisabeth Moss told The Independent that the film was a “gigantic analogy” for gaslighting. “The invisible man could be your ex-boyfriend, ex-friend, ex-boss, whatever it is that you feel like you’re haunted by in any sort of abuse cycle,” explained Moss. “That was the story that we were trying to tell, while Trojan-horsing it in this horror thing.”

These days, the term “gaslighting” is so well-known that there is already the whiff of a backlash emerging. SNL parodied it earlier this year, recreating the Forties film but taking it to ludicrous extremes: cast member Kate McKinnon is told a pineapple is a steak, and that a book is a rat. And an article in The New York Times suggested that in being overused, the word had lost its meaning. “Gaslighting”, argued Jessica Bennett in the piece, is meant to refer to a pattern of behaviour, not an individual instance of it – and it is not synonymous with simply just lying either. She cited the psychologist Nick Haslam, who has talked of a phenomenon known as “trauma creep” – “when the language of the clinical, or at least the clinical-adjacent, is used to refer to an increasingly expansive set of everyday experiences”.

Still, when used correctly, “gaslighting” can be a useful, even lifesaving, term. Take the recent High Court court case in the UK’s family courts: ruling that a man had indeed raped and abused his wife, as well as convincing her she was bipolar, a judge used the word “gaslighting” in his written statement – the first time the word has been used in a published High Court document. Speaking to The Independent, Charlotte Proudman, a leading human rights barrister who led on the case, said that she had used the word in previous cases, but that the judge had either not grasped the term, or not deemed it to be proper legal terminology. She said this new ruling gives the word “legitimacy and credibility”, adding that abusers have long been warping victims’ “realities”, but that there had been no legal term for it.

Elisabeth Moss explained that a number of women wrote to her after The Invisible Man to say how much they related to the story. “I would have friends who I didn’t know had gone through an experience like that say to me that it was cathartic to watch,” she says. “That story of abuse is not something that has arisen in the last five years. It’s not a bandwagon anyone can jump on – it’s a tale as old as time.”

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