‘Gaslight’ and the Political Psychology of a Melodramatic Thriller

‘Gaslight’ may have been political to begin with, but the term it spawned has still become overused for political discourse.
Gaslight Film Screencap
By  · Published on May 3rd, 2019

The most well-known version of Gaslight is the Hollywood production directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten, which opened in New York City on May 4, 1944. An earlier film adaptation was made in England in 1940, and that version only survives (and is actually more easily available via Amazon Prime) because MGM was unsuccessful in an attempt to destroy all prints of the film.

Following the 1944 release, which earned Bergman her first Academy Award and garnered Angela Lansbury her first Oscar nomination in her film debut, numerous TV and radio versions of Gaslight were produced, and that doesn’t even include the parody “Autolight,” over which MGM tried to sue Jack Benny. All are based on Patrick Hamilton‘s 1938 play, which has a slightly different title of Gas Light and which was alternately known as Angel Street in the US.

In recent years, Gas Light has become more and more relevant for the term it spawned. During the 2016 US presidential election, both sides claimed the other was gaslighting Americans with everything from lies to the spreading of fake news and other kinds of disinformation. Simultaneously, the consideration of gaslighting as a form of abuse, typically as it is in the play and films as psychological manipulation of a woman by a man, has become significant to the #metoo movement.

The Oxford English Dictionary shortlisted “gaslighting” for their word of the year in 2018, and had it won (“toxic” was ultimately chosen), that would have been a great 75th birthday present for the Cukor movie these six months later. But is that version the one deserving credit for the etymology? At the time of the announcement, and in the past few years while it’s been so prominently used in the media, the verb “to gaslight” has been cited as originating with the 1944 adaptation.

As the more popular incarnation of Gaslight/Gas Light, perhaps that is valid as far as where the inspiration directly came from. But it’s probably more appropriate to reference the play, as many other websites have done. In 2017, the Los Angeles Review of Books dug even further back to determine the true origin of the gaslighting idea that inspired the term is in a 1930 novel titled To Be Hanged: A Story of Murder. The author: Patrick Hamilton’s brother, Bruce Hamilton.

The reason To Be Hanged can’t really be the source of the term, however, is that the book’s use of gaslights as a major plot point has nothing to do with someone trying to deceive another person and make them question the truth or their own sanity. Patrick borrowed, with permission, Bruce’s use of gaslight as a gimmick for two purposes, one of them similarly as a way to expose a criminal’s movements and another as a mere part of the greater psychological manipulation going on.

That manipulation aspect of the melodrama of Gaslight/Gas Light shouldn’t be sidelined for the now more prominent political usage of the term. The story is concerned with the way in which men, in particular, take a position of dominance over women by crushing their self-worth, here specifically with regards to whether they are of sound mind or not. The patriarchy has a history of diminishing women with psychological claims, clinically labeling them as hysterical or commonly calling them crazy.

Another thing most media gets wrong about referencing Gaslight as the source of the term is what the male character (Boyer in the 1944 movie, Anton Walbrook in the 1940 version) actually does with the gaslights. He never intentionally dims them to fool his wife (Bergman in 1944, Diana Wynyard in 1940). The lights dim in the main part of their home as he secretly explores their attic, turning on the light up there, which causes the others to fade (per the LARB article, this wouldn’t actually happen in the days of gas lighting). But he does lie to her when she mentions the dimming, assuring her she’s seeing things.

The male character does commit more direct actions to mess with his wife, though. He hides a broach so she thinks she’s lost it, he moves a painting off the wall and convinces her that she did it, he makes her think she’s forgetting things all the time. These and other manipulations are not intended to necessarily drive her mad nor are they entirely motivated by a desire to have control over his wife. It starts because she’s discovered something that will implicate him in a murder, and he has to distract from that by brainwashing her so she believes she just imagined the whole thing, along with other delusions.

We can draw parallels between that kind of manipulation to the political sphere, for sure, but not as generally as some media would put it. When Patrick Hamilton wrote the play Gas Light, Adolf Hitler was deceiving the world on a grand scale and then not only acting like but convincing millions that he wasn’t doing anything of the sort. This was on top of the more definable propaganda machine of Nazi Germany, which certainly relates to gaslighting in the way the government officially set out to make citizens see things that weren’t there, manipulating them in a form of manufactured mass delusion.

Hitler’s idea was never to make the people doubt their own sanity but to reinforce their trust that the state couldn’t possibly be unreasonable. This was through the “big lie,” as he explained in Mein Kampf. “In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility,” he wrote. “It would never come into [the broad masses of the nation’s] heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” Basically, we’d be crazy to think the person stating this “truth” would be crazy enough to make such a crazy claim if it weren’t indeed the truth.

It wasn’t just the big lie itself that was the big lie, however. The Nazis would tell a big lie claiming others — most notably the Jewish people — were telling a big lie about them. It was then a cyclical propaganda trick that now happens all the time in politics and the political media of today. Pointing fingers back at finger-pointers. “I’m not crazy, you’re crazy.” He’s not denying anything, she’s making it all up. “The light isn’t dimming, you’re seeing things.”

Was Patrick Hamilton thinking about propaganda, by the Nazis or anyone, when writing Gas Light? That’s unknown but has often been speculated. He was anti-fascist, more explicitly addressing fascism negatively in the novels he penned after he wrote Gas Light. Maybe he meant for the play to be about the big lie. According to the LARB article, it was Bruce Hamilton who seemed to address their ironic mistake in being pro-Stalin while being anti-fascist. Patrick could have felt the same way.

In 2017, writing for the LA Weekly, April Wolfe presumed an influence. “Though Gas Light is seen as a domestic Gothic drama, which many have rightly gone on to interpret through a feminist lens, what we often fail to miss is that it’s also an allegory for standing steadfast against propaganda from those who do not have your best interest at heart and who seek to hurt you,” she wrote. “Hamilton lived through a time when even seemingly good British people found themselves swayed by the adulation of a violent dictator, and watching Nazi sympathizers bloom in that atmosphere must have been a mindfuck.”

Regardless of this other cycle involved, if Gas Light was inspired by political psychological manipulation, which then inspired a new term that would be used for political psychological manipulation, “to gaslight” shouldn’t be reappropriated. As Amy Glynn put it in Paste in 2017 when explaining the misuse of the term, “A gaslighter is a specialty narcissist or sociopath who uses intimacy, personal approval, knowledge of the specific details of your life and personality, and importantly, isolation, to unhinge you.” They’re close and direct and deliberate.

Lies should be labeled lies. Big lies should be labeled big lies. Propaganda should be seen as propaganda. And gaslighters should be mostly defined as emotional and psychological abusers because there’s a genuine need there for such distinction for acknowledgment’s sake. But no matter what’s what, many of us could still use a Scotland Yard detective (Cotten in the 1944 film) of our own to guide us back to reality and reason sometimes. Bergman shows us that we can all be so vulnerable.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.