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"Gaslight", a.k.a. "Angel Street" (1940) is a psychological thriller that pits a young wife, Bella, against her genteel yet intractable husband Paul, who insists she has been stealing small objects and imagining things. Though he seems certain, Bella holds fast to her innocence. As the film proceeds, it appears to the viewer that she's the victim of a dastardly campaign to erode her sanity, and we're left asking the questions Bella doesn't: Why is the man she loves bent on breaking her mind? And what should she do to survive?

Paul frequently threatens Bella with the specter of doctors and the insane asylum. Since he's isolated her from friends and family—all on the claim that she needs peace and quiet "for her health"—she feels totally reliant on Paul's mercy. Fortunately, an impulsive act of charity raises the interest of a new acquaintance, who just so happens to be a police inspector.

The title of the film refers to the villain's manipulation of the system of gas lamps throughout the house. By turning on lamps on an unoccupied floor, he causes the lamps on the lower floors to dim. When Bella remarks on the change in light, her husband tells her she'd imagining things.

Gaslight systems were widely used in larger cities and towns before electricity became available. Coal is starting point for many of the fuels that were burned to illuminate gas lamps, though propane (a by-product of natural gas processing and petroleum refining) gained dominance toward the end of the 19th century. The cultural impacts of gaslight, which was clearer, bright, and cheaper than candlelight and oil lamps, are said to include increased literacy rates and productivity, as people were able to light homes and workplaces more completely and longer into the night.

Based on Patrick Hamilton's 1938 stage play "Gas Light", the 1940 film aired for UEN SciFi Friday should not be confused with the 1944 version with Ingrid Bergman and Angela Lansbury, which reveals the identity of the true menace much soon than the 1940 film. Taken together, these films inspired the use of the term "gaslighting" to describe a certain kind of psychological abuse.

The Science

Bryan Taylor

Bryan TaylorBryan Taylor of Questar Gas Company talks about energy conservation and the technology of home lighting as portrayed in the 1940 classic thriller, “Gaslight.”


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Related Resources

Psychological Gaslighting

Questar's Thermwise Program

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