The Origins of the Word “Gaslighting”: Scenes from the 1944 Film

You do not go from your mind. You are slowly and systematically driven out of your mind. – Joseph Cotton to Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gas light.

Do you remember when the word “gaslighting” evoked knowledgeable nods from black and white movie lovers … and blank stares from pretty much everyone else?

Then came 2016, and gaslighting came into the encyclopedia in style.

Merriam-Webster defines it as “psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time, that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perceptions of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of self-confidence, and self-confidence. esteem, insecurity about one’s emotional or mental stability and a dependence on the perpetrator. “

Of course you already knew that!

“Gaslighting” is inevitable these days, five years after it was named 2016’s most useful “and” likely to succeed “word by the American Dialect Society.

(“Normalize” was second.)

As long as we play puns, are you so familiar with “denomination”?

Also known as “verbing” or “verbification”, it is the process by which a noun is transformed into a verb.

Both appear prominently in Gas light.

Have you seen the film?

Ingrid Bergman, who plays opposite Charles Boyer, won an Oscar for her performance. A teenager Angela Lansbury made her debut on the big screen.

In his review, New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther steered around spoilers as he pondered that the majority of the theatrical audience was probably already hip to the central conceit, following the successful Broadway race of Englegade, The Patrick Hamilton thriller on which the film was based:

We can at least throw away the information that the investigation is all about a man’s overt efforts to drive his wife slowly to insanity. And with Mr. Boyer driving in his best dead pan hypnotic style, while the flames flicker strangely in gas jets and mood bongs with heavy threats, it’s no wonder Miss Bergman breaks down in the most disturbing. way.

In the same review, Crowther sneaked it Gas light was “a no more enlightening title” than Englegade.

Maybe that was true in 1944. Not anymore!

(Clever linguists, as we are, if the film had retained the title of the play, 2022 might very well have found us complaining that some villain was trying to give us Angel Street …)

In a column on production design for The movie experience, critic Daniel Walber points out how Boyer destabilizes Bergman by fooling around with their gas-powered lamps, and also how the film’s Oscar-winning design team used the “narrow timeliness” of a Victorian London lit by gas to create a warning:

Between the street lights outside and the luminaires inside, the mood is forever subdued. The heaviness of the atmosphere brings us even closer to Paula’s mental state and catches us with her. The detail is so precise, so engaging, that every flicker crawls under the skin and projects horrible insecurity and fear to the audience.

Readers who have not yet seen the movie might want to skip the clip below, as it contains something close to a spoiler.

Those who have been on the receiving end of an energetic gas lighting campaign?

Send the popcorn.

Related content:

Ingrid Bergman remembers how Ernest Hemingway helped her get the role for whom the bell rings

Alfred Hitchcock remembers working with Salvador Dali on Spellbound: “No, you can not pour live ants over Ingrid Bergman!”

Hannah Arendt explains how propaganda uses lies to erode all truth and morality: Insights from the origins of totalitarianism

Ayun Halliday is chief primatologist in East Village Inky zine and author, most recently by Creative, not famous: The little potato manifesto. follow her @AyunHalliday.


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