The Forgotten Hollywood History Behind the Term Gaslighting

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944).
Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944). / FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images // AJWAD CREATIVE/iStock via Getty Images Plus

While the term gaslighting gets bandied about with casual inaccuracy these days, its definition is a little more complicated than simply lying to someone. To gaslight a person is to psychologically manipulate them into distrusting their own memories or even their entire sense of reality. Its oft-overlooked origin story features appearances by Vincent Price, Ingrid Bergman, and—most importantly—some actual gas lights.

In December 1938, London’s Richmond Theatre premiered Patrick Hamilton’s latest play: Gas Light, a psychological thriller set in the 1880s. In it, Mr. Manningham blames his wife, Bella, for a series of missing belongings, though she has no memory of having done anything with them. She then begins to hear noises coming from the attic at night, which coincides with the flickering of the gas lights.

As lighting a gas lamp can interrupt the flow of gas to other already-lit lamps, the implication is that someone is lighting one in the attic, causing the others to dim. Bella is made to believe that she’s imagined these observations, too. When a former detective reveals to her that a previous resident of the house was murdered, leaving behind as-yet-unlocated jewels, it becomes clear that Mr. Manningham was involved in the crime and is now hunting for the hidden riches. Worse still, to keep his wife in the dark, he’s slowly trying to convince her that she’s insane.

The play was a success, and adaptations soon proliferated across the entertainment industry, beginning with the British movie Gaslight in 1940. The following year, a Hollywood theater staged a three-person production of the play, titled Five Chelsea Lane, which Vincent Price and Edith Barrett happened to catch. The couple was so captivated that they decided to bring the story to Broadway. Barrett dropped out of the project, but Price didn’t. The show, retitled Angel Street, debuted at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre on December 5, 1941, with Price playing Mr. Manningham and Judith Evelyn as Mrs. Manningham. Though Pearl Harbor was attacked just two days later, that tragedy—and America’s entry into World War II—didn’t wreck the play’s run. It remained on Broadway until December 30, 1944.

Just months earlier, audiences had been introduced to yet another version of Hamilton’s doggedly popular psychodrama: Gaslight, a George Cukor-directed MGM film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer as the central spouses. Their maid was played by 18-year-old Angela Lansbury, making her screen debut.

This Gaslight in particular is probably the reason the term gaslighting essentially means “what happened to the woman in Gaslight.” Hamilton’s original stage play had a decidedly smaller reach, and its Broadway counterpart wasn’t even called Gaslight. The 1940 British movie was—but MGM undertook to erase it from film history by destroying as many copies as possible. Moreover, 1944’s Gaslight was a smash hit, garnering a sizable handful of Oscar nominations and a ‘Best Actress’ win for Bergman.

According to the 1994 edition of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the general public was already using gaslight as a verb at least as early as 1956. By the 1960s, it had entered the academic sphere. “It is also popularly believed to be possible to ‘gaslight’ a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness,” anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace wrote in his 1961 book Culture and Personality.

Thanks in part to today’s reality-warping, disinformation-filled social media landscape—not to mention the movement for better mental health literacy and support—the term gaslight comes up a lot. And while people don’t mention its whole melodramatic history quite so frequently, the topic does occasionally find its way into the mainstream. Saturday Night Live, for example, spoofed 1944’s Gaslight in a recent sketch, which might illustrate the concept of gaslighting better than any written definition could hope to do.