#554: Gaslight (1944)

How a classic noir thriller helped shape how we talk about abuse

june gloom
5 min readNov 13, 2023

Initial release: May 4, 1944
Director: George Cukor

Merriam-Webster, that superstar of a dictionary outfit, defines “gaslighting” as this:

psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator

A handy term for an insidious form of abuse, one that has seen popular modern use — perhaps to the point of losing all meaning — in recent years as we’ve become more aware, perhaps hyperaware, of the many forms of abuse and manipulation.

But where did it come from?

In 1944, George Cukor (pronounced “kyu-kar”) directed a film titled Gaslight. Ingmar Bergman is Paula, a young opera singer who returns to England a decade after the murder of her aunt Alice, moving into her childhood home with the man she loves, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer.) Almost immediately, Anton begins to act quite strange: her discovery of a letter to her aunt triggers a violent outburst; he empties the house of her aunt’s things and puts them all in the attic. The staff he hires to maintain the house are either half-deaf, or conniving and disdainful of Paula. He gifts her a brooch that supposedly belonged to her mother, but she soon loses it and cannot explain how. He keeps her isolated, and does not permit visitors nor lets her go out. At night, when he goes to work in his rented studio, strange noises are heard overhead, and the gas lamps dim — but when she asks him about it, he tells her she imagined it. In this, gaslight — which features throughout the film, from the very beginning with a lamp lighter illuminating the streets of London — is the clue that saves Paula, as it helps uncover Anton’s true intentions: he is actually attempting to drive Paula insane so that he can have her committed, which would allow him to search unhindered for the jewels that he murdered Alice for a decade prior.

Gaslight is a classic period film noir, a study in paranoia and mental abuse that is as excruciating to watch as it is to experience. Those familiar with the premise of the film and the tools of abuse can recognize Anton for what he is: a cruel abuser who cannot completely hide his hard edge behind the sinister, seductive softness with which he slowly convinces Paula that she is insane.

While Cukor’s 1944 film is clearly famous in its own right, and is the originator of “gaslighting” as a term, it’s actually a remake of a British film from 1940. Ironically, in acquiring the rights for the remake, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer attempted to gaslight audiences by stipulating that all copies of the 1940 version be destroyed, even the original negatives. Obviously that did not happen, as the 1940 version remains available to watch. It’s sharper than its remake, its Gregory Anton a more openly sinister figure, but Cukor’s version allows for more characterization and is ultimately the smoother, better film — if only by a slim margin.

As great as these films are, they’re almost unknown outside of film buff circles despite their tremendous influence on the language of abuse. While “gaslighting” as a term didn’t take off right away, in recent years its definition has ballooned as the global political environment has changed and society becomes more aware of what abuse looks like.

Merriam-Webster, that superstar of a dictionary outfit, defines “gaslighting” as this:

the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage

While this seems like a rather simplistic definition for something you could simply just call “lying,” it has an expressly political usage. It is this usage that has driven the increase in the term’s popularity. The first definition is something that an individual does to another person (usually a man to a woman.) The latter, more political meaning, is what an institution does to a person or group of people, for example when police convince a rape victim that what had happened to her was not really rape, or that she had been asking for it somehow, or that she made it all up; or perhaps we should look at how right-wing politicians can try to give cover to a violent insurrection despite the fact that the entire public saw the world’s most mid people bursting into the United States capitol building in realtime, live on camera.

I think it’s this political definition, which has arisen in the last nine years to help describe the nightmare reality we’ve all been collectively forced to live in since Gamergate, that is partially responsible for “gaslighting” as a term to lose meaning. We’ve been collectively gaslit by a rogue’s gallery of white supremacists, finance bros, neo-monarchist weirdos and avaricious politicians with no clear ideology beyond gaining as much money and power as they can; it’s so widespread, our awareness of abusive behavior patterns so hyper-attuned, that “gaslighting” has joined other descriptors of abuse and trauma to become a high-volume, low-power form of ammunition towards anyone who might upset us, a phenomenon called “trauma creep” or “concept creep”.

With this in mind, I think it’s valuable to go back to these classic mid-century noirs and see what gaslighting in its original definition actually looks like, especially since this kind of abuse is notoriously difficult to prove in court — unless you can convince a judge that “gaslighting” is a valid legal term. Or you could watch quite a list of other films, ranging from 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby to 2016’s The Girl On The Train (in which a depressed, alcoholic divorcee is convinced by her violent ex-husband of heinous acts that she supposedly committed while blackout drunk, that later turned out to have never happened.)

It’s a sad fact to state that abuse, unfortunately, is everywhere. When you learn the patterns and tells, it becomes distressingly easy to spot. Wherever there is an imbalance of power, wherever someone is looking for an outlet for their pain, there is the potential for abuse, even if it’s just someone hurting themselves. We need to be careful to not let the language of trauma blind us to the trauma happening all around us.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]