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"Gaslight" at 80: A chilling thriller evolves into a psychological exploration

In 1944, a significant drama emerged, starring Ingrid Bergman in a movie called "Gaslight." This term, now known as "gaslighting," has become increasingly relevant 80 years after its debut.

Lanterns on the edge of the Großer Tiergarten in Berlin.
Lanterns on the edge of the Großer Tiergarten in Berlin.

Exploring the Human Mind: A Study in Mental Phenomena - "Gaslight" at 80: A chilling thriller evolves into a psychological exploration

Influencing an individual to make them question their own responsibility, recollections, and sensory perceptions is known as "Gaslighting." This phrase has gained popularity in the United States, particularly in light of Donald Trump's tumultuous behavior. It has also become a well-known issue in interpersonal relationships in this country. The psychological term was inspired by several adaptations of the English play "Gas Light" ("Gaslight") by Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962).

Eight decades ago - during the summer of 1944 - the most well-known adaptation of the movie was released (at least in North America and Great Britain): "Gaslight" starring Ingrid Bergman. The actress Angela Lansbury ("Murder, She Wrote") made her film debut as the maid Nancy in this psychological thriller, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Ingrid Bergman Earns Her First Oscar

The "Gaslight" in the movie is a mystifying flickering of the gas flame in the ceiling lighting of the inherited London townhouse. Bergman's character Paula is terrified by it due to her inability to provide a rational explanation. Bergman, who was 29 at the time, won her first of three Oscars for her role as Paula Alquist in 1945, defeating stars like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Bergman portrays a woman in the classic, which takes place at the end of the 19th century in Victorian England, whose husband has a scheme to drive her crazy. Paula is so smitten that she refuses to believe for a long time that her husband Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) is a thief and murderer who murdered her wealthy aunt to steal her jewels. Anton convinces Paula that the footsteps she hears on the attic and the dimming of the gaslight in the house at Thornton Square are merely figments of her imagination.

Victims of Gaslighting Can Suffer Serious Psychological Harm

The psychological abuse of what is known as "Gaslighting" often occurs within close relationships and over an extended period of time. At first, the victim is disoriented. Later, however, they begin to question their own mental health and accept the false reality of the Gaslighter. In severe cases, the victim no longer trusts their perception and surrenders to the perceived truth of the abuser.

The American Psychological Association (APA) states that the term "Gaslighting" - using the English word for gaslight as a verb (in German, "jemanden gaslichten") - is more colloquial, even though it occasionally shows up in clinical literature. Gaslighting is a technique used by people with antisocial (even narcissistic) personality disorders. Victims of Gaslighting can sustain significant damage to their self-esteem and may become seriously mentally ill.

About a year and a half ago, the American dictionary "Merriam-Webster" designated the term Gaslighting as the Word of the Year. It is a repugnant strategy used in relationships, families, friend groups, but also in media and politics. Additionally, there is medical Gaslighting, such as when medical professionals neglect the symptoms or illnesses of a patient - motto: "It's all in your head."

Psychologists view Gaslighting as a tactic used by populists, extremist politicians, authoritarians, or terrorist organizations. The psychotherapist and bestselling author Bryant Welch observed early on that Donald Trump frequently employed this technique. It involves causing confusion, eroding trust in established media, and constantly propagating one's own worldview while deceiving the public and presenting a counterfeit reality, according to Welch ("State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind").

The origin of the term "Gaslighting" can be traced back to the 1950s, when several sitcoms were stemmed from the mischievous behavior of Boyer's character in the 1944 Hollywood film. The transition from television gag to science occurred in the 1960s. The verb "to gaslight" first appeared in the works of anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace ("Culture and Personality," 1961).

The word entered common usage in the 1980s. Yagoda himself first encountered it in 1989 when he interviewed the 19-year-old Uma Thurman for "Rolling Stone." However, it was not fully integrated into everyday language until the previous eight years. Trump, who remains relevant in 2024, provided the impetus for this.

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The rise of the term "Gaslighting" in modern psychology can be attributed to its usage in pop culture, notably in the 1944 film "Gaslight" starring Ingrid Bergman. This concept has since been explored extensively, particularly in the context of interpersonal relationships and political manipulation.

"Gaslighting" as a technique is not exclusive to North America; it is a global phenomenon, with actors like Angela Lansbury and Ingrid Bergman showcasing its effects in movies like "Gaslight" and winning recognition at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

The Psychological Association of Great Britain has also recognized the detrimental effects of Gaslighting, highlighting the serious psychological harm it can cause to individuals, such as damaging their self-esteem and mental health.

In the world of politics, the term has gained notoriety, with Donald Trump's behavior often being associated with Gaslighting tactics. This is not a new phenomenon, as seen in the examination of populist leaders and their use of such tactics to manipulate public perception.

Bete Davis, a prominent star of Hollywood's Golden Age, received an Academy Award nomination for her role in a Gaslight-themed movie, subtly highlighting the prevalence of this concept in the world of cinematography and the Academy Awards.

The term "Gaslighting" has gained considerable traction in British headlines and top-rated news, reflecting the growing awareness of this psychological manipulation and its far-reaching implications.

Ingrid Bergman, a renowned actress from Sweden, won her first Oscar for her portrayal of a Gaslight victim, further emphasizing the significance of this concept in the entertainment and film industries.

The impact of Gaslighting is not confined to individual relationships; it can extend to groups and organizations, requiring a comprehensive understanding of psychology to recognize and address such tactics effectively.

Recent global events, such as the use of Gaslighting in political spheres, have brought increased attention to this subject, with the American Psychological Association and anthropologists like Anthony F. C. Wallace contributing to the growing body of knowledge in this field.

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