In the opening scene of George Cuckor’s Gaslight, we see Paula (Ingrid Bergman) in a vehicle with a man telling her that she needs to learn to forget. Knowing what she’s experienced, what he’s really telling her is that she needs to learn to think again outside the confines of abuse, mind control, and “gaslighting” as it has come to be known in psychology. The rest of the movie happens in flashback, so that we see why Paula needs the freedom to think as a human being and not as a prisoner.
The term “gaslighting” originates from the Patrick Wilson play that this movie is based on. At a time of grief and despair, Paula was vulnerable to the attacks of the seemingly charming Gregory (Charles Boyer) who claimed to love her and proposed to her after only knowing each other for two weeks. The “gaslighting” begins right after they’re married when she finds a letter that incriminates Gregory. He takes the letter from her, initially offering a stupid excuse and later telling her that she had no letter in her hand, that it was a figment of her imagination. He takes down pictures and tells her she did it and forgot. The height of his mental abuse comes in the form of the titular gaslight. He makes her believe that he has left every night, when he is actually dimming the gaslight making her think that she is hallucinating. He makes her believe that she is losing her mind and as a result controls her thinking and forces her out of her mind. These actions that are now known as “gaslighting” have to be explained to Paula by an advocate played by Joseph Cotten once he is finally able to break through past all of Gregory’s deceit and discover the truth.
The movie takes us very deeply inside the existence of bondage that abuse victims experience, much like 2015’s brilliant Room. It is a very dark and grim reality that helps viewers who haven’t experienced severe abuse to empathize with victims and to learn how to help them begin to think again outside the confines of the abuse just as Paula needed to learn. It’s like a type of mental reprogramming that becomes necessary because the victim has been brainwashed believing things that aren’t true.
Gaslight is also valuable for the political climate we currently live in, especially in America. The term “gaslighting” has been commonly applied to the Trump administration, filled with lies and ridiculous stories that many people believe. They believe the lies because he has been so successful at taking advantage of where people were already vulnerable to bad thinking, just as Paula was caught in a vulnerable position. With an aggressive and abusive personality at its head, his administration has convinced people of terrorist attacks that haven’t happened, of massive numbers of people at his inauguration that weren’t there, and many other “alternative facts” that are easy to prove to wrong. It doesn’t matter how unreasonable the beliefs are, because as long as there is a group who will believe it, there are people he can “gaslight,” people he can control, people he can assemble for his own narcissistic purposes. The movie Gaslight is helpful for us now to watch this abusive process, disturbing as it is, and to see how a person can move from being controlled by the lies to thinking for themselves as a full human being. It is a very spiritual process that shows how the truth really does set us free.