Gaslighting is a curious term in that it originated in popular culture, retreated to the world of psychology, and then returned to the popular zeitgeist in full force. Gaslighting exploded onto the pop culture scene in the mid-2010s. It is talked about in Tik-Toks, the focus of many memes, and countless articles have discussed what it is and what it isn’t. The American Dialect Society named gaslight the “most useful” new word of 2016, and it was named Merriam Webster’s word of the year in 2022.

The term has its origin in a 1938 play called Gas Light, which was later adapted into a 1944 film renamed as Gaslight with one word instead of two. How this title became a term in its own right stems from the content of the plot and the popularity of the film. The term has been floating around ever since, showing up periodically in pop culture and psychology intermittently over the course of the past several decades.

In recent years the term has perhaps been overused, its meaning diluted through misuse to describe any minor disagreement or misunderstanding. But, simply put, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse wherein one person attempts to distort the reality of another person in order to exert control. The act of gaslighting is defined by the American Psychological Association as follows: “to manipulate another person into doubting their perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events. The term once referred to manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution but is now used more generally. It is usually considered a colloquialism, though occasionally it is seen in clinical literature, referring, for example, to the manipulative tactics associated with antisocial personality disorder. – gaslighted adj. [from Gaslight, a 1938 stage play and two later film adaptations (1940, 1944) in which a wife is nearly driven to insanity by the deceptions of her husband]”.

It is the 1944 film that I will mainly discuss here because, though 79 years old, it remains an incredibly relevant examination of gaslighting and many other emotional abuse tactics as well. I have seen this movie a handful of times over the years, and on my most recent rewatch, I was struck by its relevance, and most impressively the way it illustrates domestic violence without ever overtly naming it.

The Movie: A Deeper Dive

The film is set in Victorian London. It is the story of Paula, a wealthy young woman without parents who is groomed, gaslit and emotionally manipulated by an older man who calls himself Gregory (later it turns out that isn’t his real name). She is seduced and tricked into marriage by Gregory, the man who (unbeknownst to her) killed her aunt/ mother figure many years ago. Gregory’s abuse tactics are many and varied, spanning the Power and Control Wheel. So effective are his manipulations that he never escalates to physical violence. This alone makes Gaslight worth a watch as most films that focus on domestic violence, focus on extreme physical violence, which distorts reality and detracts from the prevalence of more subtle, insidious, and covert domestic abuse tactics.

Paula and Gregory’s relationship begins intensely, which is, of course, often a red flag. After two weeks of knowing each other, he proposes marriage, when Paula requests time apart to think it over, he refuses to give her space, following her to the lakeside retreat where she was going to spend a week contemplating her future. The love bombing works, and Paula gives up her musical studies to marry Gregory. From the time they marry, Gregory does everything he can to isolate Paula and make her doubt herself. He tells visitors she is too ill for company. He hires household help without her input and turns the new maid against her. He hides things and accuses her of losing them and responds to perfectly reasonable questions by calling her suspicious. He fabricates a story about her mother dying in a mental institution to further convince her of her own mental illness. The way he speaks to her is condescending, as though he is speaking to a child incapable of rational thought. If she poses any small resistance to his will, he raises his voice and becomes more insulting and domineering and then remarks that his reaction was for her own good. His violence is for her protection, he says. Their dynamic feels thoughtfully accurate in its depiction of domestic violence. Sadly, it feels, still, incredibly relevant.

Married women in the late Victorian era basically handed over all their rights to their husbands upon marriage. They were considered children. It wasn’t uncommon for unruly women to be imprisoned in asylums by their husbands or other family members with little proof of mental illness. In Springfield, Illinois, McFarland Mental Health Center was just renamed for one such woman, Elizabeth Packard, who advocated for women wrongly imprisoned in asylums as she herself had been. Her story is not uncommon. Gaslight exploits the threat of institutionalization women faced in the Victorian era; it is an example of how Gregory uses male privilege to gain power and control over Paula. Another example of male privilege explored in the film is the freedom of movement afforded men of the time. Gregory leaves the house at all hours and stays out as late as he likes. This freedom allows him to carry out his nefarious aims (namely searching their attic for jewels and driving Paula insane), while Paula is further isolated because of her position in society; “respectable” women rarely left the home without an escort or chaperone of some sort, a factor that further allows Gregory to effectively keep her isolated.

As a film made in 1944, Gaslight is exemplary of the moral views of the time, but it also subverts them. By the 1940s, the few laws protecting women from spousal abuse were rarely enforced. Movies of this era were rife with gender-based violence, sometimes employed for comedic effect. For example, men spanking women to teach them a lesson is a fairly common occurrence in classic Hollywood comedies. Heroes slapping unruly leading ladies to put them in their place was par for the course across genres. Many romantic comedy plots of the era focused on a strong woman coming to terms with the fact that all she really wants is to relinquish her control to the will of a good man; dozens of examples of this trope exist in Katharine Hepburn’s filmography alone.

If comedies of the 1940s often focused on the end goal of safe and happy domesticity, female-driven thrillers of the time often explored the perils of getting involved with a dangerous man or “homme fatal” as film noir historians would later dub him. This character type is charming, handsome, and romantic, but also brooding and usually homicidal. Gaslight is part of this sub-genre. It is worth noting that psychological violence perpetrated by men against women was taken more seriously in such films than physical violence. It’s worth examining what that means, why Hollywood found slapping women more acceptable than emotionally manipulating them.  It’s also worth noting that the women experiencing the violence are often “perfect victims”, undeserving of violence because they uphold traditional standards of womanhood.

Paula too is an example of “the perfect victim”. She embodies all the qualities any man could ask for in a good wife, and for her to be otherwise would have been almost unthinkable at the time this film was made. And yet, Gaslight is still refreshing in that Gregory is presented as the bad guy without a doubt. The abuse Paula sustains is in no way condoned within the context of the film, nor is she ever blamed for it, which is impressive. It is also refreshing in that the audience witnesses Paula regain her power. There is a man who helps save her, but the audience still gets the satisfaction of seeing her confront her abuser (and move on unrealistically quickly). The other satisfying element is that the film is from Paula’s perspective. We never doubt her sanity. We see all along what Gregory is doing and the film blames her for none of it. The film is on her side, as is the audience: rooting for her to escape, feeling ourselves become outraged on her behalf, disgusted by Gregory’s patronizing façade. Most films, even today, tend to romanticize certain aspects of abuse and certain known abusers. But Gregory is portrayed as dangerous in a way that is cold and calculated rather than cool and sexy. The character was played by one of the leading romantic actors of the 1940s, Charles Boyer, and the film easily could have made him more sympathetic, but his actions are not given leeway, the camera does not linger on him with kindness.

Paula doesn’t save herself by herself. The presence of Brian, the reliable man, the good man, and foil to the wicked Gregory seems to serve as the audience’s reminder that “not all men” are bad. It takes him to convince Paula she hasn’t lost her mind, to re-see herself. What if Paula had saved herself, regained her strength, and sanity without the love of a good man? Would such an ending make the film stronger? I don’t know. What I do know is that it does often take another person to help us see the truth. We need that mirror. The nice thing about Brian is that he doesn’t save Paula solely out of romantic interest. He clearly likes her, and the film does hint at a possible romantic future for them, but ultimately he helps her because he sees her as a person in her own right, deserving of respect and kindness.

The film itself doesn’t describe Gregory’s behavior as “gaslighting” because the term did not yet exist. So, why has gaslighting come to mean what it does? If you haven’t seen this movie, it’s a little convoluted. Before electricity, homes were lit by gas. If a light was turned up in one room, it would lower in another. Paula kept noticing this happening even though supposedly no one was home to turn the gas up or down in another room. Ironically, messing around with the gas was not one of Gregory’s many intentional methods of gaslighting Paula. It was accidental. He inadvertently caused it by sneaking around in the attic, and it’s one of the reasons Paula began to believe herself to be losing her mind.

Gaslight was a popular movie at the time of its release grossing 4.6 million dollars at the box office and receiving 7 Academy Award nominations. Today, it is considered a classic. I’d like to stress that the media we consume matters: books, films, music – these shape our culture, and reflect it back to us. Gaslight shows that the impact of cultural objects can last a long time. Often much longer than the 80 years between this film and the resurgence of the term it served to popularize.  It is also a precursor to movies explicitly about domestic violence, a topic that was often explored in the 1990s both on television and the big screen. Of course, those films owe as much to the domestic violence movement (probably more) than they do to thrillers of the 1940s, but it is still interesting to notice what has changed and what hasn’t in the ways in which domestic violence is depicted in film and what that says about our broader cultural understanding of the topic.

— Sidney DeLeonardo, ICADV Capacity Building Support Specialist