What psychology can learn from film

‘Gaslighting’ is a tactic used to manipulate one’s significant other in a way that alters their reality. The origins of the term, however, are much more nuanced.


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According to a Vox article, gaslighting was named by Oxford Dictionaries in 2018 as one of the most popular words. Today, the word is being employed as a phenomenon to call out several fabricating politicians although its definition was distinguished back in 1980 in an academic journal highlighting women’s socialization. So what does this word mean exactly, and what does this have to do with the art of film?

To gaslight someone means to flood them with so much information to an extent that alters their reality. It’s a psychological behavior of forcibly altering or changing truth by manipulating somebody's thoughts, emotions and environment for a self-serving purpose.

An example is how one partner in the relationship strives to underplay how their partner feels and this can mean simply denying the things one person has said. It can further progress to hiding objects, a manipulation tactic used to make someone feel unworthy as if they aren't the person they once were.

Julie Elman, associate professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies department, said she believes gaslighting to be a common component of every emotionally and physically abusive relationship.

“Gaslighting is about power and control,” Elman said. “And in order to be able to challenge some of the rules and restrictions placed on you, you need to have a sense of reality.”

Essentially, the partner who is being gaslit puts all their trust into their significant other and it degrades their self-esteem to the brink of depletion. Isolation is another key factor, for abusers to easily engage in gaslighting tactics which includes a remark such as ‘you’re being too sensitive,’ or another truth-bending statement. Gaslighting means lies, lies, lies. Or, it’s saying a lot of nonsense. But either way, it’s saying anything but the truth.

The term is not gender-specific nor is it age-specific, and thus Elman believes it can happen to anybody. It’s never coming from a loving place to gaslight somebody, but she pointedly noted sometimes gaslighting isn’t as simple as being straight-up malicious. Instead, she clarifies, sometimes the gaslighter themselves have experienced this form of abuse in past relationships and that is why they utilize it in their present ones.

In looking at the origins of the word, although, it appeared even before 1980. The word was born from the old American thriller Gaslight (1944), which was famously created by British dramatist Patrick Hamilton and starred well-known actress Ingrid Bergman.

Bergman plays Paula, a beautiful opera singer whose fairly new husband isolates her socially and goes on many tangents to fully convince his wife that she’s gone mad. The husband, played by actor Charles Boyer, has a primary goal to get his wife sent to an institution by power of attorney so he can seize the expensive jewels she has acquired after the unexplainable death of her aunt.

The story draws many conclusions about Paula’s identity in the process of her husband constricting Paula’s reality, confusing her on a regular basis about what’s real and what’s fake. Household items go missing, though Paula swore they were there. Paula receives a mysterious letter, though it’s actually just scribbles from her husband’s other identity. From there, Boyer's character enacts his manipulation, spun from a web of lies and spells of aggressive blasphemy.

Paula’s husband argues Paula should not go outside, because she is so “unstable,” and paranoid about life. He really defines what Paula can and can’t do. He even claims that the flickering of the gaslight in the attic is a figment of her wide imagination.

This 1944 film relatably depicts the factors that are evident in unhealthy relationships even today. Trivializing someone's feelings is as relevant today as it was in 1944.

Signs that you are being gaslight in a relationship aren’t always easily distinguishable. Look for indications such as feeling unlike yourself and isolated from friends and family. If you are apologizing often or making excuses for your significant other than this can be a good indicator something is wrong.

Ways to avoid gaslighting include spending time with friends or staying busy (as isolation is a clear gaslighter tactic), building up individual self-confidence is also huge, and seeking therapy is a recommended way to express what is going on.

Gaslighting is successful because the gaslighter uproots all mental clarity, and people tend to second guess themselves. A mental shift is recommended to enhance coherence and self-esteem and sift through all the transparent nonsense that is being thrown at the mind.

A prime example is how Paula finally turns away from her husband because she meets a friend. He is an inspector who confirms there is a flickering gaslight seen by Paula in the attic.

If you or anyone you know is being gaslit, do not be afraid to seek help. You deserve it. MU campus has ways to professionally help against relationship violence and abuse at the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center located at G216 MU Student Center. It’s a completely confidential resource for any Mizzou-affiliate.

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