Everyone is Still Misusing the Term “Gaslighting”

80 years later, “gaslighting” has become a surprisingly common (and incorrectly used) phrase.

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“You know, you are inclined to lose things, Paula.”

“Gaslighting” is a popularly used — and popularly misunderstood — term for a specific kind of psychological abuse that makes the victim doubt their perceptions, memory, and perhaps even their sanity. It comes from George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight (a remake of Thorold Dickinson’s 1940 film of the same name, both of which were based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light). In Cukor’s film, Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer chillingly demonstrate just how insidious (and perpetually relevant) gaslighting truly is. It’s a concept that needs to be understood so that we can have informed conversations about this type of abuse and better help those affected by it. Appreciating this classic film is a perfect place to start.

Years after fleeing London following the murder of her beloved aunt Alice, singer Paula Alquist (Bergman) falls in love and marries her accompanist Gregory (Boyer), who manipulates her into moving back into the home she shared with Alice. Gregory begins a subtle, methodical campaign of convincing Paula that she is losing her sanity so that he can gain control of Alice’s estate. The title refers to the gas lights that dim whenever Gregory leaves the house. He secretly enters the boarded-up top floor and uses their gas supply to turn on lights as he searches for Alice’s jewels, but he convinces Paula that she’s imagining the noises she hears upstairs and the lights that dim every night. His campaign of manipulation begins with small insinuations disguised as concern over Paula’s alleged absentmindedness — hiding items from her that he then tells her she lost — but his abuse escalates to cold accusations and angry outbursts, until he finally tells Paula that he’s going to have her institutionalized.

Boyer weaponizes his legendary charisma to a terrifying degree. It’s easy to see why Paula falls in love with Gregory so quickly and why other people believe his lies about her “condition.” His true self emerges slowly from his charming façade as the audience begins to understand how dangerous he is. Amused smirks play on his lips when he sees his plan working. He undermines Paula’s sense of self so effectively that his voice replaces hers inside her own head. She starts questioning her own memory and sanity without any further prompting from her husband, following the abusive script he set into motion because the man she loves and trusts has systematically cut her off from any reality beyond his own.

Bergman’s performance is mesmerizing. It’s difficult not to spiral alongside Paula as she battles the confusion and heartbreak caused by Gregory’s secret cruelties, especially if you’ve experienced this type of abuse yourself. The viewer keenly feels her isolation even when she’s surrounded by people (including their impertinent housemaid Nancy, played by Angela Lansbury in her film debut). Bergman commands the screen even as Paula shrinks down to fit inside the box Gregory has assembled for her. The deep shadows and sharp contrasts of Joseph Ruttenberg’s gothic noir cinematography highlight the extremes of Paula’s emotional distress, driving home the injustice of Gregory’s abuse.

Ingrid Bergman’s Paula exmaines the dim gaslight.


Paula only escapes her abuse when Scotland Yard Inspector Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) speaks to her alone and validates her perceptions. When he remarks on the gas light going down, she reaches out to him like a drowning woman grabbing a life preserver: “You saw that too?” The relief that washes over her face is devastating, but it’s also a beautiful glimpse of hope. Inspector Cameron breaks down the wall of isolation that Gregory has built around Paula and finds that she is still herself inside of it. Despite Gregory’s systematic abuse, Paula holds onto her grasp of reality and retains her inner strength. She just needed to know that she wasn’t alone, that there was still a world outside of Gregory. Paula’s triumphant final monologue when she confronts Gregory is a stirring reclamation of her autonomy and a life preserver of its own for fellow survivors.

Gaslight invented a term that would be the perfect shorthand for a more subtle form of abuse. But, in recent years, its use has expanded beyond its description of manipulating a person’s perception to gain power over them. It has entered the vernacular through the media cycles and political landscape — albeit in a way that is a frequently imprecise or incorrect usage of the term. But even 80 years after its release, Gaslight is just as effective now, thanks to its deeply felt performances and sharp insight into the subtle dynamics of abuse. It not only gives a name to a type of abuse that is diabolically difficult to pin down; it also gives hope to those who survive it.

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