By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ‘gaslighting’ has become an everyday term in the last few years, so a few words about its curious origins – and the precise meaning of the word – may be helpful (or, indeed, illuminating). The story of the word ‘gaslighting’ takes us into the world of 1940s cinema and, before that, early twentieth-century theatre. So let’s shed some light on that gaslight …
The story begins with the English playwright and novelist Patrick Hamilton (1904-62). Hamilton, whose champions over the years have included Doris Lessing, J. B. Priestley, and Graham Greene, wrote a trilogy of novels collected together as Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky as well as the more famous novel Hangover Square, but he was also a playwright.
Indeed, Hamilton wrote the play on which Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope was based. The precocious Hamilton was still in his twenties when he scored a huge theatrical hit with Rope, about friends who conspire to commit murder together.
But Hamilton’s other most successful work for the stage would have an even greater impact, if not on the world of iconic Hitchcockian cinema, then on the English language. For Hamilton’s other best-remembered work in the theatre was a 1938 play named Gas Light (though it was renamed Angel Street in the US). Gas Light is about a married couple whose relationship is based on deception and trickery, featuring a cunning but morally bankrupt husband who decides to make his wife go insane so he can steal from her.
Gas Light enjoyed considerable success on the London stage, and was adapted for film in the UK in 1940. A US version followed in 1944, with the two-word title becoming a single word, Gaslight. The film starred Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman as the carried couple. In the film, Paul Alquist (played by Bergman) marries a man named Gregory Anton, only to discover later (spoiler alert!) that her husband is really Sergis Bauer, the man who murdered her aunt Alice years before.
It unfolds that Sergis sought her out because he is looking for her aunt’s jewels, which he had been thwarted from stealing from Alice when he murdered her (he was interrupted by a fourteen-year-old Paula, who, needless to say, didn’t recognise him when she met him again as an adult). All of the strange behaviour that has recently been going on in her marriage to ‘Gregory’ starts to make sense: the footsteps she had earlier heard in the attic were his as he searched the house for the jewels.
What’s more, the flickering gaslights which he told her she had imagined were caused by his turning on the attic lights (and, through doing so, reducing the gas supply to the downstairs lamps). He had ‘gaslighted’ her: convinced her that the perceived change in the gas lighting was all inside her head.
The 1944 film, rather than the 1940 adaptation or Hamilton’s original play, would be responsible for inspiring the term gaslighting. The husband’s psychological manipulation of his wife would inspire the verb to gaslight and the noun gaslighting, to describe a form of psychological abuse in which one presents one’s victim with incorrect information or a false narrative in order to make the victim doubt their own memory of what had happened. In turn, the victim may come to doubt their own sanity.
The term gaslighting took its time to penetrate the lexicon, however, despite an early citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1961 (A. S. C. Wallace’s book Culture and Personality, refers to gaslighting as a potentially ‘mythical crime’). It would only be in the 2010s that it could truly be said to have entered common usage, being applied to any scenario in which somebody tries to make someone else doubt their understanding of reality. For instance, a politician might publicly deny saying something they clearly did say, in order to sow doubt into the electorate’s minds. Did he not say that, after all? Is my memory playing tricks on me?
At the opposite end of the spectrum from gaslighting is the Mandela effect, whereby people believe something definitely did happen when it never did (this psychological effect is named after a collective false memory that Nelson Mandela died in the 1980s, with those afflicted with this belief could vividly recall – or thought they could recall – watching the news coverage of Mandela’s death at the time). The Mandela effect might be regarded as the flipside to gaslighting.