The Origins of the Word “Gaslighting”: Scenes from the 1944 Film Gaslight

You’re not going out of your mind. You’re slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind. — Joseph Cotton to Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gaslight.

Remember when the word “gaslighting” elicited knowing nods from black and white film buffs… and blank stares from pretty much everyone else?

Then along came 2016, and gaslighting entered the lexicon in a big way.

Merriam-Webster defines it as the “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

Of course, you knew that already!

“Gaslighting” is unavoidable these days, five years after it was named 2016’s “most useful” and “likely to succeed” word by the American Dialect Society.

(“Normalize” was a runner up.)

As long as we’re playing word games, are you familiar with “denominalization”?

Also known as “verbing” or “verbification,” it’s the process whereby a noun is retooled as a verb.

Both figure prominently in Gaslight.

Have you seen the film?

Ingrid Bergman, playing opposite Charles Boyer, won an Academy award for her performance. A teenaged Angela Lansbury made her big screen debut.

In his reviewThe New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther steered clear of spoilers, while musing that the bulk of the theater-going public was probably already hip to the central conceit, following the successful Broadway run of Angel Street, the Patrick Hamilton thriller on which the film was based:

We can at least slip the information that the study is wholly concerned with the obvious endeavors of a husband to drive his wife slowly mad. And with Mr. Boyer doing the driving in his best dead-pan hypnotic style, while the flames flicker strangely in the gas-jets and the mood music bongs with heavy threats, it is no wonder that Miss Bergman goes to pieces in the most distressing way.

In the same review, Crowther sniped that Gaslight was “a no more illuminating title” than Angel Street.

Maybe that was true in 1944. Not anymore!

(Cunning linguists that we are, had the film retained the play’s title, 2022 may well have found us complaining that some villain tried to Angel Street us…)

In a column on production design for The Film Experience, critic Daniel Walber points out how Boyer destabilizes Bergman by fooling with their gas-powered lamps, and also how the film’s Academy Award-winning design team used the “constricting temporality” of a Victorian London lit by gas to set a foreboding mood:

Between the streetlights outside and the fixtures within, the mood is forever dimmed. The heaviness of the atmosphere brings us even closer to Paula’s mental state, trapping us with her. The detail is so precise, so committed that every flicker crawls under the skin, projecting terrible uncertainty and fear to the audience.

Readers who’ve yet to see the film may want to skip the below clip, as it does contain something close to a spoiler.

Those who’ve been on the receiving end of a vigorous gaslighting campaign?

Pass the popcorn.

Related Content:

Ingrid Bergman Remembers How Ernest Hemingway Helped Her Get the Part in For Whom the Bell Tolls

Alfred Hitchcock Recalls Working with Salvador Dali on Spellbound: “No, You Can’t Pour Live Ants All Over Ingrid Bergman!”

Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Morality: Insights from The Origins of Totalitarianism

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (11)
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  • Chris says:

    The 1944 film is a remake of a British film also called Gaslight. The studio attempted to destroy every existing print and the original negative before releasing theirs — thankfully it survived being completely erased. The original was made on a smaller budget, but both films are practically identical.

  • Wildfell Hall says:

    That isn’t true. The films are quite dissimilar, with the British treatment hewing much more to the playscript. Also, the husband in the original version was played by the phenomenal German actor Anton Walbrook (who made film history in the role of the impresario in the “Red Shoes.”) Boyer was OK. Walbrook was sinister, arrogant genius.

  • Blip says:

    It’s pretty funny how an article about Hemingway is linked when he was himself a propagandist. One on Arendt is as well though almost every leftist “thinker” has admitted lying and authoritarianism by another name is perfectly fine in pursuit of their goals.

    We also know from studies on individuals that more left wing people lie more, admit to their lies and other faults less, and just generally have a higher p-factor. They also turn everything into propaganda as there is no such thin as history/historical events rather all of reality must bend to the conflict theory/critical theory lens. Humans aren’t organisms in an ecology with individual and group interests but oppressors or oppressed which is rather a hypocritical way to frame things given the scientific pretense of having moved beyond bourgeois moralism

  • Mr Dan says:


    I’ll take issue with the cited review article and this one by pointing out that Boyer does not necessarily, and most likely does not have, awareness of the phenomenon of the dimming gaslight. The article cited gets it right from a simple factual point of view: gas lighting systems would have dimmed when more lights were lit, in the same way that the shower gets hot when someone flushes the toilet.

    But the article says that in order to cause Bergman to not connect the dimming lights with his rummaging in the attic, he has to drive her mad. Again, factually, barely-visited attics would never have been gaslit – in fact, it would have been an incredible danger to do so. So the film depends on a plot convenience that serves the production design, but makes no sense. She would have no reason to expect that the gaslight dims because someone is in the attic, because the attic would have no gas. That’s why all her numerous inquiries are about lights below stairs.

    Boyer drives her mad because he’s the murderer of her aunt, has insinuated himself into her life to get access to the house where the goods that he tried to steal as part of the original murder are secreted. His goal is to destabilize her so that he can have her certified insane. Before the end of the film, and before the climactic scene, he is explicitly putting this in motion. The point however, is that she isn’t mad – and she always hangs on to the fragments of doubt that his stories seek to sow. Talk about losing the plot – the term recently popularized destroys all this proto-feminist brilliance for a mediocre and defeatist meme.

    The story builds on the idea that a man – whatever man – who marries a woman becomes the head of the household by legal procedure and convention. That motivates the marriage. But it also builds on the idea that the man dominates the woman, and the whole show is a beautifully constructed critique of everything to do with these ideas. Nominally, the title, “Gaslight” hearkens to a past time, to suggest that this is all about something long ago. The irony of the writers is that they strongly suggest that these attitudes, ought to be an artifact of a past age, but are very much alive in the present day of 1944, as they are today. There’s a reason the original play didn’t refer to gaslighting in the title.

    The really important part of the movie is Bergman’s turn, once Boyer’s appalling scheme is revealed. True to frequent form, Joseph Cotton seems to have been cast as the guy he often was – striking, charming, but slightly ineffective. The whole point of the film is that once the tables are turned, Bergman becomes a real lioness, enraged at the wrong that has been intentionally done to her, and the betrayal of her love. And an such, she is fully capable of resisting Boyer’s appeals to fairness, mercy, consideration, forgiveness – all the “feminine” traits. She adopts the persona of the madwoman that Boyer had tried so hard to inculcate in her to destroy his appeals – why would a madwoman do any of that? Only a mad woman would not behave as a properly mannered woman should, and instead exact her revenge. The final scene where she rises up is what the film ought to be remembered for – effectively for the fact that the attempt to “gaslight” her failed, and ended up undoing her nemesis.

    Incidentally my Mum, born 1930, and still with us, grew up before the war in a gaslit house for at least part of the time – it was hardly ancient history. And some parts of the streets of Liverpool were still gaslit, with lamplighters to go about in the evening and.morning to manage them.

  • Skeptical says:

    Blip, what studies?

  • Ray says:

    You said a mouthful. I have always known, or at suspected, what you say to be true. I only wish I could have stated it as eloquently as you. You may be William F Buckley reincarnated.Kudos Brother ( Sister?) It is refreshing to see one who forms opinions on reality, rather than form opinions on other’s opinions. You would likely be banned from many social media sites…..Who needs them

  • Batman says:

    Drats …foiled again.

  • Mar Wol says:

    “Cunning linguists” … I see what you did there.

  • Ken says:

    Only a vulvacious personality would employ such a linguistically cunning phrase!

  • Noreen says:

    The medical profession does this all the time. I had recent experiences with St. Joseph’s Hospital and Denver Health ERs where Denver Paramedics took me against my will. There is a financial incentive of $100K for diagnosing Covid 19 SCL/St. Joseph’s tries to label everyone as having Covid and treats the patient with horrible meds which debilitate patients and then label patient with a brain disorder so SCL can ship the patient to a nursing home with no opportunity to leave. They have suspended the patient bill of rights with CDC’s blessing. Get rid of medicaid amd part b medicare. It is too tempting for SCL and Denver Health to make money. Denver Paramedics tried to perpetrate the fraud further by saying I have dementia. My short and long-term mental capacities are excellent. I escaped the nursing home CORRELYN in Littleton, Colorado with the help of my emergency contact. Correlyn was systematically poisoning me with high doses of insulin and a steroid I was allergic to so I refused all meds. They gave me a walker for a 6′ tall man and I am 5′ tall, and I have tailbone problem. They were paralyzing me so I could not leave. I got home but when calling for Denver Fire Dept lift assist paramedics took me to ER’s three days in a row. Complaints go nowhere because Colorado is a nanny state. Leaving for Florida. I have no housing there but I will just live on the street until I can secure housing there.

  • Noreen says:

    All of the abpve is true. But I defeated Denver Health by keeping a primary care doctor and never doing anything but telephone appointments! I never see doctors except those I choose to see. I taught myself to walk again. No physical therapy was needed. My doctor would not provide durable medical equipment so I could even use the toilet! I am grateful that I could escape!

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