Gaslight (1944) and the True Meaning of Fear

Gaslighting: The idea that a person will eventually become convinced of something through conditioning by an individual in a position of power and influence, despite being in direct opposition to what the person knows and believes to be true. It is a word we hear tossed around a lot these days, usually in reference to the behaviors of overtly biased media and their use of clickbait headlines and grossly out of context quotes, and the politicians’ not-so-clever sleight of hand in discussing issues and controversy with the public. We frequently hear our elected officials telling lies, or at best, half truths. If they keep repeating and reinforcing them, the lies eventually become the truth, right? That is the strategy, at least. Fortunately, we have a few sane, respected voices who help parse out the information, while reminding us to stay vigilant. These same respected voices often compare this dissemination of lies to “gaslighting,” a term originated from the stage play Gas Light (1938). “Gaslighting” is a form of psychological torture found in abusive relationships, specifically romantic ones. Using this term to describe the actions of our political and media class is often overreaction at best, potentially dangerous at worst, detracting from individuals, particularly women, who are suffering mental torture in intimate, abusive relationships. By using the term to describe any nefarious action, we inadvertently dilute its originally powerful meaning.

To fully understand the concept of “gaslighting” and its implications, take a look at MGM’s 1944 adaptation of Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Bergman is Paula Alquist, a young woman dealing with the trauma of her aunt’s murder. As a child, the orphaned Paula was sent to live with her aunt, the famous opera singer Alice Alquist, in London. Paula’s aunt served as her guardian and caretaker. She adored her aunt, having nothing but fond memories of their time together, with much of it centered around stories of Aunt Alice’s performances on the London stage. As a famous singer, Alice had her share of admirers, all devoted, but not always with the best of intentions. Late one night, young Paula stumbles upon her aunt’s dead body, apparently strangled, with no clue as to the murderer or the motive. Shocked and afraid, Paula, the sole heir to Alice’s estate, is sent away to Italy to study music. Many years pass, and Paula, still immersed in her music lessons with a renowned teacher, falls in love with the charming pianist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). After a quick courtship, wedding and romantic honeymoon, Gregory, aware of Alice’s murder, encourages Paula to return to the London home she once shared with her aunt.

It is important to note that Paula had not stepped foot into her aunt’s house since the night she left for Italy some ten years earlier. Just the mere mention of “Number 9 Thornton Square” triggers Paula’s anxiety. Gregory encourages Paula to face her fears by returning to the home, clear out much of the old furnishings and reclaim the space for them to start out their life together. At first, Gregory’s suggestion appears to be rooted in good intentions, even if at times he displays more of a paternal love toward Paula than that of a husband. Paula feels safe with Gregory. He fosters confidence and stability in Paula; she trusts Gregory implicitly, despite not really knowing him (something she readily admits during their whirlwind courtship). Even with Paula’s built up confidence, she is still terribly vulnerable, especially when faced with entering her aunt’s home for the first time as an adult. Unfortunately, Paula’s nightmare is far from over; she unknowingly falls into a dangerous trap set by Gregory. He devises a plan to slowly drive Paula insane, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. Jewelry and artwork go missing and reappear in odd places, despite Paula having no memory of losing the items in the first place. Gregory convinces Paula that she is ill and unable to go out in public or receive guests in their home. The few attempts at socializing with London high society go terribly awry, most notably during a private concert. Gregory confronts Paula during the recital that his pocket watch is missing from its chain, only to find it tucked away in her purse. Knowing that she didn’t take his watch, or at least having any memory of doing so, causes Paula to descend into hysterics. The public’s case for her insanity is all but final; she will never be able to show her face again without scrutiny. She’s increasingly isolated, left to sit alone with her confused mind, trying to sort out how she could possibly be insane. In addition to the accusations of stealing by Gregory, Paula frequently hears sounds of footsteps from above her bedroom and the strange dimming of all the lights in the home. Their two maids, Nancy (Angela Lansbury) and Elizabeth (Barbara Everest), are never around to witness this strange event. Further complicating matters is Gregory’s insistence that it is all in Paula’s imagination, adding to his case that she should be institutionalized.

Of course we know that Paula is perfectly sane, albeit vulnerable due to her traumatic childhood. This vulnerability is brutally exploited by Gregory primarily so that he can have full access to the hidden, valuable treasures that once belonged to Paula’s aunt. But it’s more than that; Gregory enjoys torturing Paula. While his ultimate goal is to be rid of Paula, he certainly takes his sweet time in doing so. He gains far too much pleasure in seeing her suffer, at times making the film very difficult to watch. The systematic psychological torture of a broken person desperately in need of love and protection, this is what should come to mind when the term “gaslighting” is mentioned, not partisan political nonsense.

Gaslight, currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of their Icons: Ingrid Bergman series, is an exceptional Academy Award-nominated dramatic thriller directed by George Cukor. The film features expert acting by Bergman, who won the Oscar for Best Actress, with excellent Oscar-nominated performances by Charles Boyer and a young Angela Lansbury, as well as supporting roles by Joseph Cotten and Dame May Whitty. This haunting film is one of the boldest productions to come out of MGM in the 1940s. Along with this adaptation, the 1940 version starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard is also required viewing.

his piece was originally published at StreamLine, the official blog of FilmStruck on January 12, 2017 and can be found archived here

About Jill Blake 65 Articles
Jill Blake is a writer and researcher based in Atlanta, GA. She is the co-editor of The Retro Set and the co-host of the podcast DWT: Drinking While Talking. Jill has written for various outlets including Indicator, Netflix Film, Turner Classic Movies, and FilmStruck. She is currently writing a book on stage and screen actors Fredric March and Florence Eldridge.

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