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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