The word “gaslight,” when used as a verb, means “to manipulate someone into questioning their own sanity; to subtly drive someone crazy.” It’s a term that’s been used on this website to describe the psychological damage inflicted by a psychopath.
I was aware that the word, when used in this way, was a reference to the 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Angela Lansbury and Joseph Cotton. But I had never seen the film. A few days ago, I watched Gaslight for the first time.
The story is set in Edwardian London, where an accomplished singer is mysteriously strangled in her home. The crime is discovered by the singer’s young niece, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman). Paula is traumatized by the murder and leaves London to live in Italy.
Ten years later, Paula falls head-over-heels in love with a handsome and suave pianist, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and they quickly marry. The couple returns to the London house, which Paula has inherited. Then Gregory begins a slow, calculated campaign to make Paula believe she is becoming forgetful, then hysterical, then insane.
Working on the mind
Several film reviews call the villain of the movie, Gregory Anton, a psychopath. Most movies that are supposedly about psychopaths do not, in fact, portray them accurately. Gaslight does a fairly good job.
Gregory maneuvers himself into Paula’s life and quickly sweeps her off her feet. (Does this sound familiar to anyone?) Gregory has an agenda, which is revealed later in the movie. He manipulates Paula into going along with his plans—starting with going back to the London house.
Gradually he starts working on Paula’s mind. He moves things and then asks Paula what she did with them. When Paula is understandably confused—after all, she didn’t do anything—he feigns concern, while making more and more items disappear.
Gregory shames Paula in front of their servants, and gradually convinces the servants that there is something wrong with their mistress. (Has anyone experienced that?) He lets it be known in society that Paula is not well, and then contrives to make Paula have a very public breakdown.
The psychopath shows flashes of rage, then quickly shifts to solicitous manipulation. He becomes more and more dominant—telling Paula what to do and where to sit—while his wife crumbles.
In my opinion, Gaslight provides a fairly good representation of the destructive relationship between a psychopathic predator and his victim. The only big thing that seems off is that Gregory, the villain, has a motivation for what he is doing. From what I’ve seen, many psychopaths destroy the people they supposedly love for no reason at all.
Understanding the dynamics
I was hoping that I’d be able to tell people to watch Gaslight and they’d understand what it’s like to be victimized by a psychopath. Although anyone who has experienced a psychopath will recognize the villain’s behaviors, I’m not sure the movie will help people who haven’t been there understand the dynamics. The film is just a bit too theatrical for the manipulation to be perceived as real.
I also watched American Psycho. In the beginning, the portrayal of the psychopathic character, Patrick Bateman, does seem to capture the grandiosity and cold heartlessness of a psychopath. But then the film turns into a bloody slasher movie, or maybe a horror fantasy—I couldn’t figure it out. In the end, it’s just another one of those movies that confuses people about psychopaths.
So we are left trying to explain to people how the psychopath manipulated us, how we could have fallen for it, why we didn’t see it. And the words just never seem to capture the experience.