Are You Gaslighting Me?


About a month ago, I found myself on a scavenger hunt trying to find where I could watch a specific foreign film, having no luck with the numerous streaming services I already had.

I came across a number of apps, one of which was the Criterion Channel, who specializes in pre-code films from the 1930s, classic horror, and other films that were otherwise overlooked by the major streaming platforms. 

This particular app just happened to have the movie I was looking for (Come and See) and I instantly downloaded it on my TV in giddy enthusiasm.

After I watched the 1985 World War II film in its brutal and captivating entirety, I decided to scroll through the countless movies the channel offered.

The film that quickly caught my attention was the one-word title, Gaslight, its thumbnail a smoky black and white.

Throughout recent years, I had heard the term gaslight, but was unaware of its origin and I was certainly unaware of just how far back it went.  While new words are being created all the time and sometimes my 35-year-old self only keeps up with about half of them, I knew that gaslight wasn’t just a word that popped up overnight. In fact, the word is fifteen years shy of being 100 years old!

In 1938, British novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton wrote Gas Light, a thriller story about the deceit and manipulation a husband uses on his wife to drive her to the brink of insanity with the intent to steal from her.

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller film of the same name based on the play.

Gregory Anton, played by Charles Boyer, is a suave, charming musician who captures the love and trust of Paula Alquist, played by Ingrid Bergman, an opera singer whose familial trauma plagues her after her aunt is brutally murdered in her home.

It doesn’t take long before the viewer can see that something isn’t quite right with Gregory after convincing Paula to move back into the home where her aunt was murdered, allowing him to take advantage of her fragility and vulnerability.

Although he may outwardly show affection and concern for Paula, he is able to find ways to slowly break down her sanity, from hiding an object to make her think she had misplaced it, or cancelling plans that he had made without her knowing then making her believe she had forgotten about them.

At one point in the film, Paula convinces Gregory to allow her to attend a symphony, a perfect setting for him to pull a stunt to humiliate her in public.

During the concert, he pulls his “missing” watch from her purse indicating that she had stolen it from him, throwing her into a manic episode and drawing attention from the audience to witness her fragile state of mind.

He keeps her cooped up in the house with the two maids he has deviously pitted against her and doesn’t allow her to leave, often sending her to her room to be left alone for hours at a time, driving the insanity further.

It’s at this point in the film when the viewer learns the origin of the term, gaslight.

Sitting alone in her room every night, Paula believes that Gregory leaves to go to a music studio to write new songs, unaware that he has in fact not left at all.

Every night after he “leaves”, he walks around the back of the building and turns down the gas causing the lights in only her room to dim.

From there, he climbs onto the roof of the building and goes through a window to enter into the attic that he had previously boarded off from the inside so Paula couldn’t get to it.

From the dimming of the lights and the footsteps heard above, Paula’s disillusioned mind causes her to believe that she’s being haunted, only for her to be told she’s imagining it after expressing her concern to the maids and Gregory.

The sole intent of his tactics were to steal from her, not only the valuable heirlooms hidden in the attic, but also her confidence and sanity, thus gaining power over her.

By historical definition, gaslighting, also called coercive control, refers to extreme psychological manipulation to commit an individual to a psychiatric institution or cause mental illness with the intent to brainwash. It describes the subjective experience of having one’s reality repeatedly questioned by another. 

The term seems to have lost most of its meaning in the past few years, typically used when someone doesn’t like or agree with something they’re being told or doesn’t know how to differentiate when someone is truly being a gaslighter or just a jerk.

In a 2022 Washington Post report, gaslight was described as a “trendy buzzword frequently used to describe ordinary disagreements, rather than those situations that align with the word’s historical definition.”

I decided to write this opinion piece because I found the origin absolutely fascinating as well as surprising. My reaction to seeing the gaslight in Paula’s room going dim and her horrified reaction to it left me in disbelief that that’s where the term came from: a literal gaslight. 

While the movie itself is dark and beautifully made, it’s also an effective and influential tale of subtle deception, manipulation and slow-burn psychological torture that highlights the importance of upholding the true definition of a word that can and has been dangerously misconstrued throughout the years.