Blog: The Psychology Behind Gaslight

horrorliveshereBlog by Angel Street dramaturg Josh Portera

Out of the popularity of the Ingrid Bergman film adaptation of Gaslight in 1944, a new psychological term was born.  “Gaslighting”, named so due to the dimming of the gas lights being one of the main sources of Bella’s doubts within the play, came into public use to describe the particular brand of psychological torture and mental abuse that Mrs. Manningham is subjected to over the course of the play at the hands of her husband.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines gaslighting as “an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power[…]. Once an abusive partner has broken down the victim’s ability to trust their own perceptions, the victim is more likely to stay in the abusive relationship.”  When an abuser decides to gaslight their victim, they use convincing lies about the past to persuade their victim that their memory, perception, and sanity are not to be trusted.

Gaslighters use these falsehoods to bring doubt into their victim’s idea of what has happened in the past, as well as finding evidence to prove how they have previously behaved wrongly as support to a claim that they are behaving wrongly at the present time.

Psychology lists five different tactics as signs of gaslighting.  The first is Withholding, where the abuser pretends not to understand or refuses to listen to what their victim is saying with phrases like “I don’t want to hear this again”, or “you’re just trying to confuse me”.  The second tactic is Countering.  In Countering, the abuser bring’s the victim’s memories into question, even when their victim is remembering an event correctly, e.g. “You’re wrong, you never remember things correctly.”  Third is Blocking/Diverting, here the abuser changes the subject or questions their victim’s thoughts by claiming they’re imagining things, or they received a crazy idea from a family member.  The fourth tactic is Trivializing: a way for the abuser to make the victim’s feelings seem unimportant by saying things like “you’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?” or “You’re too sensitive.”  The final, and one of the most common tactics, is Forgetting/Denial.  The abuser pretends to have forgotten promises or statements made to their victim, or denies that the promise was ever made.

It wasn’t until Gas Light hit stages and movie screens that this form of mental manipulation gained any attention as a type of psychological abuse. Jack Manningham’s toolkit for driving Bella out of her mind brought awareness to the way domestic abusers could manipulate their victims into questioning their own sanity.

If you think you may be the victim of gaslighting, or any other form of mental, emotional, or physical domestic abuse, please contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or online at www.thehotline.org for resources or assistance.