With its recurring habit of remaking foreign films – albeit usually ones produced in a foreign language – Hollywood sometimes attempts to eliminate all traces of the original movie for fear it will steal the remake’s thunder. In 1944 MGM was so determined its version of Patrick Hamilton’s stage play ‘Gaslight’ would be regarded as the motion picture version that it attempted to erase the existing prints of the 1940 British adaptation, even wanting to incinerate the negative. Happily, it didn’t succeed and the first film survives as a wonderfully atmospheric example of old-school British cinema shot entirely on a studio set that cleverly recreates a middle-class Victorian street; it reimagines a London square in the late 19th century with the same aesthetic inventiveness as David Lean reimagined the city’s slums in his take on ‘Oliver Twist’. The film stars Anton Walbrook as a sadistic controlling husband convincing his emotionally fragile wife she’s losing her mind, and is an enjoyable melodrama that nevertheless has some genuinely dark moments. Memorably claustrophobic as the virtually imprisoned wife played by Diana Wyngard becomes riddled with doubts about her sanity, it appears to be the source of a term now routinely used online, gaslighting.
The term gaslighting is recognised in psychiatry as an occasional symptom of interpersonal relationships – particular married ones – when one partner seeks to cover their extramarital tracks by infusing their other half with doubt over the alleged infidelity of the guilty party. Mind games between couples have long been familiar to relationship counsellors, but it took until the 1980s and 90s before gaslighting was acknowledged as a potent tool of psychological abuse, dependent upon an unequal power dynamic in which one partner holds the emotional upper hand and therefore has the strength to exacerbate the vulnerability of the other. The dramatic potential of gaslighting has also seen it become a staple storyline of soap operas, bringing the practice to a larger audience – such as in the abusive marriage of Helen Archer to the domineering Rob Tichener in ‘The Archers’ back in 2016.
In the context of relationships, gaslighting is not always the exclusive province of a blatantly wicked cad like the one played by Anton Walbrook in the aforementioned 1940 movie. It can often be a subconscious tactic used by one half of a partnership without necessarily seeking to reduce their partner to borderline psychosis; but it can inadvertently fuel underlying paranoia and doubts that were already present before the relationship even began. When one’s perception of reality is thrown into instability, the impact upon those with an existing grip on reality that could be described as tenuous – those whose relationship ‘rock’ served as the sole seemingly stable factor in their life – can be disastrous. Trust and faith in the sincerity of what people say and do can be a casualty of this infiltration of endless doubt into every discourse so that nothing is what it initially seems anymore.
If we broaden the scope of the term beyond the therapist’s walls, it can encompass any form of manipulation that persuades the manipulated to doubt their perception of a given situation. A type of gaslighting has long been a psychological weapon of warfare used to trash the certainties of the enemy in the righteousness of their mission, and has also been seized upon by totalitarian regimes as a means of controlling a peacetime population. Moreover, there’s no question gaslighting has been utilised during the pandemic to terrify the global masses into compliance. The flurry of misinformation that has permeated both social and mainstream media over the past couple of years has left many not really knowing who to trust or which path to take – pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination, pro-lockdown or anti-lockdown – so that division is rife and divide and rule is able to follow its familiar route in neutralising the prospect of mass disobedience towards the anti-democratic commandments of democratically-elected governments. One only has to look at the example of Australia to see this at its most extreme.
These lessons in gaslighting’s political effectiveness haven’t been lost on gatecrashers either. BLM have done it too – forcing the colour blind to see colour before everything else in a way their absence of prejudice never did until the relentlessly racist ‘anti-racism’ propaganda seeped deep, aided and abetted by utterly uncritical media reporting and endorsement. The imported idea of British society being some imaginary hybrid of Apartheid-era South Africa and an American Confederate State has no connection to reality for most in this country, but the fallacy is slowly becoming embedded in the public’s psyche, sowing division where it had never been before – and inculcating doubt. ‘Am I racist?’ is a question born of such reprehensible gaslighting. The infiltration of corporations and public bodies by the irredeemably toxic Critical Race Theory via compulsory Unconscious Bias Training, not to mention the transformation of the educational system into glorified CRT indoctrination, is breeding a generation convinced this is fact. When nothing is real, anything is.
The beginning of 2020 through to the end of 2021 has seen a traumatised population primed to be ‘triggered’ by gaslighting tactics on the part of both government and ideological movements such as BLM or Extinction Rebellion, and the policy appears to be working. The people of the Western world are now in an abusive relationship with their respective powers-that-be, coerced victims of the former’s gaslighting so that they now react to every ‘crisis’ with panic, hysteria and fear for their safety; compliance and unquestioning obedience seems the only safe option for many who just want an easy life – and that suits the gaslighters. We’ve gone from lockdowns and attendant coronavirus issues such as masks and vaccines to the imagined injustices exploited by BLM to the ongoing climate change apocalypse to rises in energy bills and taxes as well as the sudden shortage of HGV drivers that has in turn led to petrol shortages and empty supermarket shelves. And each has sparked varying degrees of panic. Job done.
Vaccine passports may have been – for the moment – abandoned as a China-style catch-all means of tracking and tracing the movements of the people 24/7, but evidence of one’s jab or non-jab are nonetheless being used by some businesses and institutions. The prospect of under-staffed professions being further depleted because some employees have the temerity to resist state-sanctioned medical intervention and therefore risk dismissal is a real one; and this is a tactic that hasn’t really been used since the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864. That was legislation designed to protect the armed forces from venereal disease, enabling police to arrest women on the suspicion of being prostitutes (mainly in ports and garrison towns) and giving doctors the right to initiate invasive medical examinations that no suspect had the right to resist; at the end of it, she’d be issued with a card certifying whether or not she was clean or unclean, and this would determine whether or not she’d be accepted back into polite society or would be blacklisted forevermore. Sound familiar?
When one thinks of how conditioned the people have become to receiving orders – remember that bizarre period when orders were effectively issued on a daily basis at SAGE press conferences – it’s no wonder those who remain resistant to them and are stubbornly continuing to think for themselves have been demonised. A pliable population successfully persuaded that they’re no more capable of rational independent judgement than a child is bound to react violently to the obstinacy of those who won’t play ball. The fact a ‘show me your papers’ rule has now been passed (albeit by the narrowest of margins) in the People’s Republic of Wales – opposed by every major party bar freedom-loving Labour – could either be an outrageous aberration or a victory for gaslighting that even those of us who fail to see the sensual appeal of sheep should be concerned about.
© The Editor