Gaslighting is deliberately trying to drive someone mad by altering their environment without their knowledge, then denying it. You move their things, transmit noises into their room when no one else is there, change little details about your dress behind their back and so on. Soon they are convinced that they are hearing voices, seeing dead people, hallucinating or whatever. The victim can become so convinced that they are going insane that they actually do go crazy.
A form of Psychological Torture and subtrope of Driven to Madness. Some of the same tactics can be used in a Paranoia Gambit. In Real Life this term also refers to just persuading someone that they didn't see what they thought they saw, obviously they are mistaken in what happened and why. See also Why Did You Make Me Hit You?. In some cases, it's a kind of Gambit Roulette, relying upon implausible chances. See also It Was There I Swear. Not to be confused with Farts on Fire or Fartillery.
Obviously, this is not something to do in Real Life. It is emotional abuse and psychological torture of one of the most severe forms (especially when it goes beyond seemingly silly pranks such as rearranging things into trying to convince people what they see and hear and feel isn't real/isn't important and/or that their self-concept is a lie). If inflicted against someone with an existing mental illness involving anything from catastrophic thinking and fearfulness to paranoia and reality testing problems (anything from anxiety to schizophrenia) it can be a Deadly Prank that can easily drive someone to suicide, and it can even be so if inflicted against a previously mentally healthy person who simply has an Adult Fear of Alzheimer's or schizophrenia or similar and fears losing control of their mind and reality. Even in mentally healthy people, it can result in PTSD or complex PTSD, or in having legal records that may bar them from everything from custody of their children to employment to firearm ownership and undergoing unnecessary and potentially painful and dangerous psychiatric treatment that they do not need. Finally, once gaslighters are found out, they can often be sued in civil court for emotional distress/mental cruelty and recovery expenses, as well as possibly arrested for any crime that the gaslighting involved (anything from stalking-related offenses to assault or burglary, or child abuse if the victim was a minor).
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Jotaro pulls this on Daniel D'Arby during their poker game in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders, using Star Platinum's faster-than-the-eye speed to change things around himself. He's not trying to drive D'Arby insane however; he's just demonstrating his speed, which makes D'Arby fear that Jotaro may have looked at their cards (Jotaro had earlier put his own cards facedown without checking them) and possibly switched them. Losing control of the game this way causes his sanity to crumble and his defeat is inevitable.
Dio Brando later pulls a similar stunt on Polnareff by standing at the top of a staircase and challenging Polnareff to come up and fight him - only to stop time whenever he gets close to the top, set him back at the bottom of the staircase, and taunt him for his apparent cowardice once time starts moving again.
It was done unintentionaly in one arc of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, when Houjou Teppei's body, recently done in by Keiichi, was moved, and he couldn't be sure if he'd ever killed him making him even more paranoid.
In an older Archie story, perhaps dating to near the Gaslight film's original release, Archie and Jughead, shortly after seeing the film, start gaslighting Veronica — because Archie forgot his date with her and he wanted to avoid her temper. In the course of a single scene, he has her doubting herself—but the tricky nature of doing such to a person in real life unravels the plot quite quickly: with a single line of dialogue from someone outside the plot. Jughead vamooses, and Archie is left alone with Veronica, wearing an evil grin, saying, "Have you ever heard of a movie called Gaslight?"
Master illusionist Doctor Tzin-Tzin tries to do this to Batman in the classic story "The House That Haunted Batman." He fails.
In Mysterio's second appearance in the Spider-Man comics, he poses as a psychologist and nearly convinces Peter Parker that the strain of a secret identity is driving him crazy and that revealing this identity to the friendly psychologist would cure it all... the changes were not terribly subtle though. More things like Peter walking in to the office to find the room was upside down, including the psychologist.
The Batman story Dark Victory (sequel to The Long Halloween) had Alberto Falcone get out of Arkham, only to become convinced that his home is haunted by the ghost of his father when he keeps hearing voices, and even receives a gun like the kind the Holiday Killer used. When he reports this to his siblings they think he's nuts, but it's actually the Calendar Man who has been talking to him through hidden speakers throughout the house in an attempt to drive him to kill.
In The Beano, in a Roger the Dodger strip, Roger wants a day at the beach but his parents won't agree to it, so he gaslights them by putting washing back in the washing machine and bringing back books that his father already returned to the library so they think they're getting stressed and agree to it. When his dad realises what Roger's been doing by checking the date the book was checked out on (that day, rather than whenever he'd originally checked it out), they turn the tables and gaslight Roger by going full circle around a roundabout on their way to the beach, telling him they've already been and are just coming back.
In an early Peter Milligan comic for Vertigo, Enigma, there's a supervillain team called the Interior League whose modus operandi is gaslighting. Specifically, they break into your house while you're out/sleeping, and rearrange the furniture into the exact right positions to turn you into a homicidal maniac.
In The Boys, the Homelander kept receiving photos of himself eating babies, eating hearts, and raping and killing people with a Slasher Smile. Since Homelander didn't remember doing any of that, he thought he was some kind of homicidal maniac who was far beyond saving. He eventually snapped and pretty much became one for real. Which is exactly what Black Noir, his clone and the one who really committed the crimes in those photos, wanted to happen. Black Noir was created to kill Homelander if Homelander ever went rogue, and he was sick of waiting. Black Noir drove Homelander insane so he could finally fulfill his purpose.
The Spot started gaslighting Daredevil as payback for Daredevil foiling one of his crimes and humiliating him in the process. He kept this up for months. His powers allowed him to do things like plant the remains of Murdock's father on his Matt's desk and teleport his institutionalized ex-wife to his bedroom and back to the asylum before anyone noticed she was gone. It didn't help that Matt's friends already thought he was going nuts because he was trying very hard to act happy in the face of all of the tragedy in his life.
In the new Transformers comic More Than Meets the Eye, the motormouth Autobot Swerve brags about doing this to his roommate, the paranoid security chief Red Alert, just to make him freak out. He then says he's going to wheel Red Alert into a different room while he's offline recharging.
An EC Comics story subverted this with a story in which a woman believes she is losing her mind after the death of her young son. It's actually a ploy by her husband to get her committed to an asylum, which is successful - until the reveal that he's going to the asylum, and she played along with the doctors to lure him there. She had found out what he was doing and that he, not her, is the one who's mentally ill.
The Italian Mickey Mouse story Mickey and the visionary syndrome (1997) features a particularly elaborate one. The story opens with Mickey, in detective mode, trying to capture a duo of industrial spies. He falls from a considerable height and suffers a concussion. For a while he is delirious. The spies are apprehended by the police and Mickey is to be the key witness in their trial. When Mickey is released from the hospital, he is still in poor health and unable to fully care for himself. Conveniently, a previously unknown Country Mouse cousin drops by for a visit and offers to move with him for a while. The cousin takes over all the housework and even volunteers to do repairs in neglected areas of Mickey's household. A few weeks later, Mickey feels fine enough to go out for a walk with the cousin. The cousin soon seems to vanish into thin air and with him all the improvements he made to Mickey's house. Mickey's family denies the existence of this mysterious cousin and no associate of Mickey remembers meeting him, only hearing Mickey mention him in phone conversations. Everyone concludes that Mickey has not recovered from his concussion and suffers from hallucinations. His allies in the police loose all faith in him, he is discredited as a trial witness, and Mickey genuinely starts doubting his own sanity. Then he notices an overlooked detail in his house and starts figuring out what happened. The overlooked detail was a rope knot performed by the cousin which failed to vanish with the other improvements. He soon figures "the cousin" was a con-artist connected to the industrial spies. The entire gaslighting operation was intended to have the case against them collapse before the conclusion of their trial. During his stay, the cousin claimed shyness to avoid meeting any of Mickey's associates. He orchestrated his own disappearance, while his accomplishes were working hard to undo or improvements and repairs in Mickey's residence.
Gaslight is probably the modern Trope Maker and is certainly the Trope Namer. In that film, a man marries a woman so he can get into the loft her aunt willed her and get at her treasure. To get her out of the loft, he starts a plan to make her think she's gone insane so that he can commit her to an asylum.
Max Keeble's Big Move: The titular character is the king of the gaslighters. Especially with Troy McGinty
Amélie (original film title: Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain) does this to the grocer as a punishment of sorts for berating and belittling her friend. At first, they're just little things — for example, she replaces his slippers with identical ones that are a size too small, swaps his lightbulbs with much dimmer ones, and exchanges his toothpaste with a cream intended for his feet. Eventually, her tricks get more and more elaborate until he really begins to question his sanity... but the real kicker is when she replaces the speed-dial number for his mother to that of a mental hospital.
Stanley Kubrick does it to the viewer in A Clockwork Orange. He made continuity errors on purpose during the scene where Alex has dinner with the author. The dishes on the table move around and the level of wine in the glasses change between shots.
In The Shining, the hotel sets are deliberately constructed to be geometrically and architecturally impossible. It's too subtle to notice unless you are REALLY paying attention to the sets, but rather cleverly inflicts unease in the audience.
Shutter Island uses continuity errors to suggest insanity. For instance, while one of the patients is being questioned early on she asks for a glass of water. She's brought a full glass in one shot, in the next shot she drinks it, but there's no glass in her hand, and in the next shot she sets down an empty glass. All these shots are so short (about a couple seconds each) that it becomes harder to notice, heightening the unsettlement the audience feels for reasons they can't really explain.
Mentioned in The Darjeeling Limited. When Jack discovers his ex-girlfriend's perfume in his luggage, Peter suggests she might be trying to gaslight him.
A large part of how the conspiracy is maintained (most namely with the therapist and, for instance, his disappearing drink) in The Forgotten (2004).
Referenced in Bordello of Blood, although in that case it was less about driving anyone mad and more about concealing criminal activities.
A variation of this idea forms the plot of the 1969 film The Big Cube. In it, spoiled rich teenager Lisa tries to con her stepmother Adriana out of the money her recently-deceased father left her by driving Adriana insane. She and her drug-dealer boyfriend try to accomplish this through a combination of LSD and a hidden tape-recorder. The boyfriend takes things too far, however, when he adds an extra message to the tape urging Adriana to jump out the window to her death...
Psycho II. Norman Bates came home cured. Marion's sister decides to unravel that.
In the Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera, the brothers do this to a police inspector. He checks Groucho's apartment for Chico, Harpo, and Ricardo, and the brothers try to conceal the fact that they are staying there by hiding the fact that there are four beds. The beds get repeatedly shuffled between rooms until the cop is convinced he is nuts.
In Les Diaboliques, a man's mistress and his wife conspire to kill him. But after they drown him, signs turn up to make it unclear whether he's really dead or not. The mistress and the husband are actually conspiring to frighten the wife, who has a weak heart, to death.
In the 1940s film The Dark Mirror, the evil twin, Terry, attempts this on the good twin, Ruth. She uses such tricks as turning the lights on quickly in the middle of the night and telling her now-awake sister she must be hallucinating, and hiding a music box in the house and leaving it on.
The Tenant, Roman Polanski's self-starring conclusion to his "Apartment Trilogy" (with Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby), has the protagonist moving into a new apartment whose former tenant (a woman named Simone Chule) had committed suicide. Over time, he becomes convinced his neighbors are conspiring to turn him into Simone's likeness. It is probably more likely that he is going mad on his own, but the film does leave room for interpretation.
Lifetime Movie of the WeekIn The Dark has this being done to a woman who has recently been blinded in an accident, the culprit being her volunteer aid, who is also her Stalker with a Crush. The purpose is make her feel helpless and thus more dependent on him - thus he'll do things like move an end table just enough that she'll trip over it the next time she enters a room, or take a vase from her house and hide it in plain sight, then buy her flowers and "find" the vase for her, pretending it was there the whole time and she missed it while feeling around the shelf.
Used on the main character as a worthiness test in Neverwhere.
In Time and Again, one of the criteria used in choosing a time-traveller was to see how he reacted to apparently reason-defying events: he responded rationally and soon figured out how the testers had tricked him.
Whether it was his intent or not, Dracula did this to Jonathan Harker while he had Harker imprisoned in his castle. Harker was convinced he'd hallucinated the whole thing for a long time afterward. By the end of his stay, not only is Jonathan a psychological wreck, but he's practically become nocturnal to match the Count's own sleeping habits.
The Agatha Christie novel Third Girl has the man pretending to be Norma's birth father attempt to paint her as emotionally unstable and on drugs in order to frame her for murder twice.
Also, in one of her short stories part of the Labors of Hercules cycle, the Cretan Bull, Hercule Poirot investigates the apparent mental breakdown of the almost-wedded son of a navy officer. Turns out that the officer, whose madness runs in the family, was trying to drive the young man insane (helped by an interesting use of a drug- probably thanks to Christie's background as a pharmacist- spiking his shaving lotion with belladonna eyedrops, which soothe the eyes but are poisonous and psychoactive if ingested), in order to get revenge on the family friend who had an affair with his wife and is in fact the guy's real father. He wants to convince him that he's Axe Crazy and murderous, to drive him to suicide. Since he isn't the Admiral's son, he doesn't have his madness, and everything ends all right. (Though interestingly, the officer himselfdoesn't survive all of this.)
According to the Tom Clancy novel The Cardinal of the Kremlin, this is a technique sometimes used by the KGB to break down prisoners. Particularly messing with their perception of time, by putting them in a windowless cell and moving their mealtimes around so feel like they're suffering from time-dilation or compression, but also sometimes more... unusual methods are taken into use. Like having somebody dress up like the prisoner's long-dead war-buddy and pop up in the middle of an interview, with the interviewer not 'seeing' him...
And this is their soft torture. When they capture a Western spy who is young enough for them to properly torture, the place her in a sensory-deprivation tank for hours. She ends up thinking she's died and gone to Hell.
Roald Dahl's The Twits was all about this - the titular dysfunctional couple do it to each other to begin with (for example, adding a small segment to the bottom of a walking stick every day to make the wife think she's shrinking), and have it spectacularly turned on them at the end (they're tricked into gluing themselves to the floor, and end up shrinking down into nothing in their efforts to get themselves unstuck).
In Captain Underpants, George and Harold do this to their science teacher, Mr. Fyde, by making animal noises very quietly and then denying that they heard anything.
A The Vinyl Cafe short story recounts how a Chinese restaurant owner using this managed to get a bigoted regular customer to slowly feel more and more subconsciously uncomfortable and to stop coming there on his own. Over the course of a year, he slowly increased the portions that the customer received a spoonful at a time, shortened his chair with a file, and changed a painting that he liked to look at while he ate a brushstroke at a time (it used to be a summer scene, and it was turned to a winter scene by the end).
In the V. C. Andrews standalone, My Sweet Audrina, Audrina's whole family engages in gaslighting (particularly to fake the passage of time), which leads her to believe she is someone else after her sexual assault.
In The Fifth Elephant, Acting Captain Colon becomes convinced the rest of the Watch is doing this to him — specifically, stealing the sugar lumps — to try to drive him mad. They're not. Colon's really bad at counting, and it doesn't help that he starts eating them while he's trying to count them.
In Going Postal, this is the point of Lord Vetinari sending Clerk Brian, something of a Highly-Visible Ninja, to spy on a banker. Rather than get actual information, Vetinari wants to make the banker nervous. He (Brian, not Vetinari) rearranges some of the banker's stuff.
In James Thurber's The Great Quillow, the title character uses this to drive away Hunder the giant.
Caroline B. Cooney's Losing Christina trilogy deals with a seemingly charming husband and wife duo who enjoy doing this to young women For the Evulz. The main plot of the series involves one of their latest targets, Christina, figuring out what they've been doing and trying to convince people of their real nature, all the while holding onto her own sanity.
This is part of a sub-plot in The Fear Index where the computer program VIXAL-4 has been using his bank accounts to buy things, using his e-mail to contact people, even hacking into his doctors notes and using little bits of that to get a guy to break into his house and murder him.
In the children's book The Night It Rained Pancakes (adapted from a Russian folktale), a Russian peasant does this to his impressionable brother not to make his brother question his sanity, but to make their feudal lord question the brother's sanity so he won't believe the brother's claims that gold was discovered on their land.
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Tom insists they do this as part of his infamous and unnecessarily convoluted scheme to rescue Jim the "proper" way. He and Huck hide spoons while Aunt Sally counts them, and then replace them when she tries to re-count, as well as sending mysterious threatening messages.
A textbook example occurs in a YA novel by Steven Oftinoski that reads in some ways like an homage to The Screaming Skull, right down to its name—The Shrieking Skull. A reclusive widow is being tormented with visions of a skull and recorded screams to make her think she's being haunted by the ghost of her long-dead decapitated lover. This is so that she can be declared insane and put in a mental hospital, thus paving the way for the sale of her old mansion to a greedy developer, a sale that will make the gaslighter rich. It's her seemingly kindly doctor. The plot is only exposed when the Kid Detective starts investigating and the gaslighter, afraid they will be discovered, tries to scare him away with the skull, thus proving it isn't all in her head.
Forms a major part of the plot in the Phryne Fisher mystery Ruddy Gore.
In Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen, Chaz Perrone is driven insane in many small ways by his wife Joey, whom he thought he had killed.
Molly Sterling's ex-husband Rodney in Catherine Anderson's Sweet Nothings was a pro at this, convincing not only those around him but Molly herself that she was unstable and belonged in a mental ward, just so he could get his hands on her family's money.
Used as a roundabout method of murder in I, Claudius, where Claudius' superstitious brother Germanicus is tormented to death by a variety of inexplicable occurrences. The culprit? His young son, Caligula, who got in touch with his inner psycho very early on.
A profoundly important aspect of 1984, it is taken to the absolute extreme, with every aspect of the past being constantly altered and treated as if it had never been altered, with dissent to this process punishable by the Ministry of Love.
Live Action TV
In Happy Endings, the episode The Kerkovich Way reveals the eponymous way involves lying to someone, flooding them with specific details until they question their own perception of reality. Alex protests and says its wrong, while Jane (who does it so often to her husband he's one MRI away from a free MRI) uses it very often, to crazy extremes in this episode.
One episode of Corner Gas had the entire cast, mostly Brent and Emma, do this in order to make Oscar think his memory was slipping.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Gone": An accidentally invisible Buffy does this to a social worker (moving her coffee mug and whispering, "kill, kill...") who was probably about to have Dawn taken away. Kind of mean, since the social worker wasn't being unreasonable, she just happened to visit the Summers' house on a really bad day... which is probably every day around there...
Season 6 also played this for drama at one point, with Spike convincing the already severely depressive Buffy that she Came Back Wrong, and is thus inherently evil. Buffy ends up telling Tara (who was also gaslighted into thinking she was inherently evil for a long time) about this, and she convinced Buffy that it's false.
Angel did a variant of this with "Dear Boy", with Wolfram & Hart using the recently resurrected Darla to tease Angel, making his friends think he's lost it.
Wesley: Vampires don't come back from the dead.
Angel: I did. And I saw her. I'm not crazy!
Angel: Right between the clown and the big, talking hot dog.
In Monk, apparently convincing someone and her friends that she is insane and hallucinating will ensure that you can murder someone using a method she devised and not get caught. After all, if an insane woman says she knows how a murder was carried out, there's no reason to even test the theory.
Inverted only to be played straight in "Mr. Monk Goes to the Asylum", where Dr. Lancaster dresses as Santa Claus to gain entry to a chimney in a mental institution to retrieve the gun he used a few years ago to shoot and kill a rival doctor at the institution, because he knows the patient in the room overlooking his route is obsessed with Santa Claus and won't be believed. Unfortunately, Dr. Lancaster's plan backfired when he was forced to abandon the search because one of the patients was throwing a fit, and he apparently didn't anticipate that the patient in question would actually photograph him or that Monk would start investigating. As an emergency fix, he makes things seem as though Monk and the patient in question were becoming insane (or in the case of the patient, more insane than he already was), such as stealing the camera as well as rags from his Santa suit that Monk discovered, stealing a fellow inmate's necklace and somehow planting it on Monk to make it seem as though he stole it, and replacing pictures he drew with more disturbing pictures.
This seems to be happening to Sharona in "Mr Monk and the Girl Who Cried Wolf", providing the first example.
In "Mr. Monk Goes to the Dentist", there is an episode-length use of this trope: Randy is undergoing a dental operation at Dr. Bloom's to remove an infected tooth. During the operation, a bald man barges in and furiously demands that Dr. Bloom tell him what he's done with Barry Bonds, who is worth $13 million. A fight breaks out, with Dr. Bloom and his assistant Terri ultimately killing the intruder. When Randy comes around after his operation is over, he looks around and sees no signs that a fight ever happened, because Dr. Bloom and Terri had dumped the body in the woods and also replaced broken equipment. Everyone, Stottlemeyer included, dismisses Randy's claim as an affect of being under anasthetics at the time. When the victim's body does turn up, Randy identifies him as the man Dr. Bloom killed, but is laughed at by the other cops and quits in anger (Stottlemeyer theorizes to Randy that according to him, the intruder confronted Dr. Bloom because he thought Dr. Bloom kidnapped Barry Bonds and they were arguing about the ransom money). Randy only realizes that he wasn't hallucinating when he notices an article about the armored car robbery that the dead man, Denny Jardeen, had been involved in: in that robbery, armed men with pistols and rifles had hijacked an armored car, unloaded it at a warehouse, shot and killed both guards, and made off with $13 million in bearer bonds. Randy realizes that one of the guards punched Jardeen in the face before he was shot, Jardeen had gone to Dr. Bloom's to get a broken tooth fixed, and divulged the location of the bonds to him and Terri while under anasthesia. The good doctors went to his house, found the money in a toolshed, but instead of turning the money into the police, they kept it. When Jardeen figured out what happened to the bonds, he confronted Bloom about it, forcing Bloom and Terri to kill him. Randy misinterpreted "bearer" as "Barry", explaining the Barry Bonds discrepancy.
Another case happens to Monk in "Mr. Monk Is Up All Night": Suffering from insomnia, Monk is wandering through the streets, and happens to pass by a diner kitchen where he heres an argument going on. He peeks through a window and sees a drug deal going bad, with the dealer and customer debating if a third man at the deal, an Asian, is actually a cop or not. Suddenly, the Asian pulls a badge and gun and declares the other two men under arrest. Monk looks away as the drug dealer attacks the undercover cop, only to hear a gunshot. He looks and sees the drug dealer has shot and killed the cop (and blood has splattered everywhere). The dealer hustles the customer into a waiting car that speeds away. But when the police arrive, however, the kitchen (which was destroyed in the fight) is spotless and immaculate, and there is no evidence that a murder happened, not even a body to prove a thing, and no cops have been reported missing. Monk later finds the supposed "undercover cop" at a train station, but he denies ever having been to the diner. He also locates the customer, a coin dealer, who denies ever having been there. The apparent murder was an elaborate con by the Asian and "drug dealer" to steal the coin dealer's merchandise, tricking him into thinking he had witnessed a murder and was paying them hush money. The reason why the kitchen was spotless is because a waitress at the restaurant helped the Asian clean up the kitchen before the cops arrived.
Something similar happens in Scrubs. The Janitor convinces Kelso that he's suffering memory loss like this. Largely by yanking Ted around with a crane, but whatever works for comedy. Kelso does figure it out though, and gets back at the Janitor. And then done to the Janitor in the last season, where they actually convince him all the weird stuff he did (building a giant sand castle in the parking lot, etc.) was just in his mind. He believes it. Or does he?
J.D. also mentions that he's attempting to do this to Turk when he asks Melody to keep a tiny bottle of ketchup so that he can replace everything in his apartment with tiny versions and convince Turk that he's grown extraordinarily tall.
In the episode "My Buddy's Booty", the Janitor reveals to Dr Cox that he stole the keys to J.D.'s apartment, so he can go in, switch off his alarm and move stuff around. He then pushes it beyond deniability by taking J.D.'s bed to the hospital while he's asleep, and leaving it in front of an ambulance.
In an episode of Medium, a man tries to get his wife committed to an insane asylum by drugging her candy with hallucinogens. It gets out of control when the priest accidentally takes some, too, and the man who was drugging his wife hits him on the head, causing him to fall down the stairs (he feared that the priest would be suspicious once he became lucid again).
In the Arrested Development episode "My Mother The Car," Lucille crashes her car with Michael riding shotgun, giving him a head injury. She spends the rest of the episode trying to convince him the crash was his fault, giving him a Tap on the Head whenever he starts to remember the truth, all while being an extremely eerie Stepford Smiler "caring mom" to her injured son.
An Eastenders plot had Nick doing this to his mum.
Done in an episode of Australian drama series The Flying Doctors. For an extra twist, a medicine with the known side effect of making people dizzy and confused is mixed into the victim's food, in addition to basic gaslighting.
Used in retrospect in Burn Notice. The original plan was just to freak out their target (an abusive and politically connected ex-husband) enough to make him run, but unfortunately the target's mob boss big brother wouldn't let the target run, since big brother needs his connected little brother to keep the criminal enterprise going. The group's last-ditch effort involved making the target appear to be paranoid and crazy, which was aided by what they'd already done. When they do get big brother to believe that little brother had completely lost his marbles, little brother gets sent to a padded room for a long time. Features an awesome performance by Michael as a Catholic priest.
Michael referred to the last-moment change as a "Crazy Ivan", which Sam immediately recognized. Apparently they've done this kind of thing before.
Occasionally used on Leverage. "The Order-23 Job" has the team use a faked outbreak to freak out a germophobic Corrupt Corporate Executive who's about to go away to Club Fed, and "The Three Days of the Hunter Job" has the team target a tabloid TV reporter and make her think she's stumbled upon a conspiracy theory. "The Three Days of the Hunter Job" gets extra points when the team convinces the reporter that there's a chemical in the water supply, and give her pills to counteract it — pills that turn out to be anti-psychotic meds. Guess what happens when she interrupts a broadcast for "breaking news" and her producers tackle her...
"The Morning After Job" may take the prize. The team convinced a protected federal witness that he had killed his one-night stand, played by Parker, to convince him to give them evidence against Big Bad Moreau. The plan goes awry, so they end up bringing Parker into the courtroom when he's about to give his testimony and escape all consequences for his actions. Needless to say, he flips out and ends up being tazed after leaping off the stand screaming "WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?" at Parker and a bewildered FBI agent(who believed that Parker was also FBI).
That show loved this trope. There's another point in that episode where he pays off an entire restaurant to use Monopoly money instead of cash, much to the horrified confusion of the victim. Then, to drive the nail home, he has them switch back to real money when the victim is in the bathroom, then back again when he goes to pick up the check. It works beautifully.
In Cold Case, when the team is investigating an alleged suicide, it was played straight, in that the nanny did this to the victim in order to get to her husband, and subverted, in that it was the husband that killed his wife to hide his plagiarism and just made it look like a suicide, taking advantage of her previous apparently insane behavior.
In The Prisoner, Number Six does this to a particularly nasty Number Two in the episode "Hammer Into Anvil." He's long since learned that his fellow citizens will immediately tattle on every action of his. But if he does random things for no reason, the other Villagers have nothing to report. But Two can't accept that. They must all be in cahoots with Six!
Used in Malcolm in the Middle by Dewey to punish Lois for not getting him an ingredient he needs for a science experiment.
He also did this to Hal for refusing to buy him a piano. Mostly by making things go missing. It would eventually reveal that the many things he stole throughout the episode were for an organ he was constructing in the garage.
The Adventures of Superman had an episode where this was apparently being done to Jimmy Olsen. Items were moved around in his house and the painting in the living room kept changing. Ultimately, the gaslighting was unintentional, the result of burglars using his house to stash stolen goods while he wasn't there.
In another episode, Perry White starts seeing Gaius Julius Caesar's ghost (a play on his Catch Phrase "Great Caesar's Ghost!"). It turns out to be a ploy to undermine his credibility as a witness in an upcoming gangster trial.
Dax (with Quark's help, evidently) moved Odo's furniture while he was regenerating "four times in the past year" preceding the fourth-season Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Homefront". Of course, she's only moving his stuff two or three centimeters each time, but it still drives him crazy enough to confront Quark about it.
Crops up in Jonathan Creek in "The Judas Tree". Jonathan also mentions Gaslight at one point during the episode.
On Neighbours, Elle Robinson did this to Max Hoyland in revenge for his role in her brother's death (a case of mistaken identity, due to said brother having an evil triplet. This was his exit storyline, as his marriage never recovered even after regaining his sanity.
Years before that, Michael Martin gaslighted his stepmother Julie Martin; he always blamed her for breaking up his mum and dad's marriage, driving his mum to alcoholism and later death in a car crash. Michael proceeded to gaslight Julie by moving objects around the home (or hiding them), pretending he hadn't talked to her about things (or alternately, pretending to have talked to her when he hadn't), and altering her dosage of tranquilisers. By the end, he had her convinced she was insane, including leaving the house and running around the back to make it appear that there was more than one of him, and was only caught out because he got too cocky. He was sent away to juvenile detention, and later his mother committed suicide entirely off her own bat. (So...he won?)
The Victim of the Week in an early episode of NCIS was subjected to this treatment via a radio hidden in her house's ventilation to make her hear voices.
One Criminal Minds episode had the good guys doing this to an Islamist terrorist who had information about a bomb attack; by reducing the time between his prayer sessions bit by bit each day so they could eventually say it was too late, and thus the guy would give away some important thing during his Evil Gloating. Which he does, of course.
In Psychoville we have a character do this to themselves, creating a false borderline schizophrenic hallucination in order to remain committed, only to eventually go genuinely insane.
In the Quantum Leap episode "A Portrait for Troian", Sam jumps into the body of a parapsychologist working with a young widow who insists the ghost of her late husband is haunting. It turns out to be a plot by her brother to gaslight her.
In 7th Heaven, Annie Camden was becoming emotionally distressed that the twins would not call her "mommy", yet repeatedly called Ruthie "mommy". Turns out, Ruthie managed to somehow teach them how to call Ruthie their mommy (in a manner similar to how a Sea World trainer teaches aquatic animals tricks) as a prank for Annie.
An episode of T And T had a spoiled brother and sister do it to their (grand?)mother so she can't disinherit them and give everything to her parrot. To complicate matters, the butler is trying to murder her and the parrot.
M*A*S*H did this in the season 1 episode "The Ringbanger" — Leslie Nielsen played a visiting colonel with an unusually high casualty rate, and the doctors gaslit him in order to prevent him reassuming his command.
In the episode "The Winchester Tapes", BJ switches Charles' uniforms with those of heavier/thinner men to make him think he's losing/gaining weight. Hawkeye asks BJ what's next. The answer: "He gets taller."
In the White Collar episode "Vital Signs", Neal comes up with a plan to do this to a crooked doctor. They convince him that his kidney failed while he was on a flight to India looking for an illegal transplant, that he's currently in India hooked up to a dialysis machine, and that Neal (posing as a doctor) can get him the transplant he needs if he gives up the number of the account where he keeps his ill-gotten money.
Parodied in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 when Pearl makes the bots hallucinate. While it fails to have any effect on Tom Servo (who sees everyone as an Eldritch Abomination, just like normal), Crow's hallucinations bring him to the brink of despair when he sees that Mike's Snickers bar is suddenly a Milky Way.
Inverted in an episode of Full House. After accidentally damaging the wall in Danny's room, the girls move everything over by about 3 inches to hide the damage and maintain the symmetry of the room. This allows us to see how set in his ways Danny is when he starts dropping things on the floor because he had memorized exactly where everything had been.
On one of his shows, Derren Brown used this technique as part of his experiment to see if he could get an ordinary person to think he might have committed murder. He had him unknowingly invited to a "conference" for a weekend that was populated entirely by actors, and they would start by switching ties or jackets when he wasn't looking, and at dinner they distracted him so that they could switch his plate and glass a few times. They also used other psychological tricks to induce feelings of guilt whenever he heard a bell, and carried his bed outside one night to the location where the "corpse" of someone who had been rude to him was found, so that he had hazy memories of being there. The combination worked so well that when somebody who had been obnoxious to him was apparently discovered dead, he went to the nearby "police station" to turn himself in.
Brody does this to Carrie to some extent in season one of Homeland. She's completely right about him, but he manages to convince her that it's all in her head. It helps that she really is bipolar.
A really disturbing example of this was used in the BBC series Murder in Mind. A middle-aged doctor 'confesses' how he helped his wife commit suicide after she developed a degenerative brain disorder. What he doesn't tell is that he wanted her out of the way and she was perfectly healthy- he created her problems with a poisonous metalloid combined with this trope.
Namechecked by Roz in an episode of Frasier where he seems to be getting more forgetful and she pranks him into thinking he'd made an appointment with his hairdresser.
In an episode of The Drew Carey Show, Oswald and Lewis play pranks like this on Drew. They change the settings on his scale so he thinks he's lost a bunch of weight, they then giddily explain to someone that they plan on exchanging his bed for a smaller one while he sleeps so he'll think he's gotten huge.
In the episode "The Ian Cam" from the BBC series Clone, Victor gaslights Rose in order to convince her that she has Alzheimer's disease so that she will have a brain scan.
In American Horror Story: Murder House, malevolent ghosts do this to Vivien, in order to get custody of her about-to-be-born baby taken from her and given to her husband, so they can more easily steal the baby. The ghosts are real, but intentionally either appear only to Vivien, or convince the other characters to lie when asked about seeing them.
Cole does it to Paige in an episode of Charmed , along with having a demon possess her with insanity. He uses demon powers around her, and erases the evidence, so she can't be sure she's seen anything.
Namechecked in the Made In Canada episode "Alan's Brother", in which the executives at Pyramid Productions do this to erstwhile CEO Alan's older brother (and legal owner of Pyramid) Frank after he is released from a mental hospital, takes over as CEO, and proves even more inept than Alan. They start by replacing the coffee mug on his desk with other mugs while he is out of the room and then accusing him of stealing them, while placing his mug in strange but highly visible places. This escalates to putting all of the office's coffee mugs in his desk drawer, at which point production adviser Veronica dresses as Frank's abusive mother to confront him over the "theft". He proceeds to re-commit himself and hand the reins of Pyramid back to Alan.
In the Babylon 5 episode "Passing Through Gethsamane", a group of people do this to Brother Edward, who is actually a former serial killer subjected to death of personality for his crimes, and doesn't know it. They use a bloody message on a wall (made with the future equivalent of disappearing ink), speakers carefully hidden in walls, and a Centauri telepath to "trigger" a fake memory.
In thisDilbert, the title character says that he goes down to marketing every week to move an employee's cubicle wall in by a quarter inch. When asked why, he comments that he's been at it so long (Given that the cubicle is now about six inches wide, he's apparently been doing this for roughly eight years without the owner of the cubicle noticing) he forgot what the original point was.
Gaslighting is a gameplay mechanic in the Ravenloft campaign setting of Dungeons & Dragons. Basically, this is altering circumstances to force another character to take a Madness check. Naturally, this is an evil act, and doing this to anyone for any reason always attracts the attentions of the Dark Powers.
Arguably, any time you Slipshank (reach under, behind or into a convenient object and grab something that shouldn't be there) something in Continuum, this happens, only instead of you thinking you are insane, until you go back in time and put it there to begin with, you acquire a small amount of Frag (your memories and the universe disagree, therefore you start fading out).
Part of the mystery of Andrew Plotkin's Shade is finding out why your potted plant keeps turning into other types of plants. And why little bits of sand keep appearing in your apartment. It eventually comes to light that the player is dying of thirst in the Death Valley desert, and is hallucinating the entire thing in the first place.
The Endermen in Minecraft invoke this, as they actively pick up and move blocks around for no reason.
Fallout: New Vegas features a Vault where half of the population is genuinely crazy, while the other half is full of sane people who are subjected to this. Given that this Vault in particular is thought to be the home of the drug-crazed Fiends clan of raiders, the experiment did not end all that well.
The nastiest example is the later Scarecrow vision that starts with a burst of digital static and then begins replaying the game's introduction; the player soon sees that Batman and the Joker have swapped places, but before that, a reasonable assumption is that the game has crashed and restarted.
This is a favorite tactic of certain culprits in the Nancy Drew PC game series, with examples even appearing one after the other at times.
Bro isn't the only one gaslighting everyone; there is a memorable instance, described in the Homestuck page, when the author gaslighted the audience. We discover that many of the kids have disturbing graffiti on their walls, but are effectively blind to it until it's explicitly pointed out to them. One character took rather normal-seeming pictures of John's room and posted them online. After the reveal, the author modified the pictures to contain the graffiti, changing the URLs by one letter. Before◊ and after◊.
Rayne Summers of Least I Could Do once got his best friends to play a prank on their friend Mick where they tried to convince Mick that Rayne had been dead for years. See it for yourself.
When Linkara begins seeing and hearing people who aren't there during his review of Silent Hill: Dead/Alive, he tells himself that someone must be trying to pull this trope on him. It doesn't seem to be helping much. It turns out he's right.
The premise of youtube series Henry Tumbleweed involves a trio of con artists breaking into the main character's house dressed as monsters in order to convince him that he is insane, and needs the help of an expensive psychiatrist, who is actually one of the con artists in disguise.
The guys at Rooster Teeth have been prone to do this to each other for kicks. Two known instances were when Bernie and Ryan replied to Gus' IMs with quotation marks around their replies, driving Gus nuts as he was wondering how that was happening and when Ryan rigged a buzzer under Gavin's desk.
In Worm, Imp uses her ability to terrify people by misplacing or stealing their things, moving their furniture, giving them small cuts that they don't remember getting, and so on.
Tried on Bruce Wayne in one episode of Batman Beyond. It didn't work because the "voices" called him Bruce, and his identity as the original Batman was so ingrained that he didn't even think of himself as Bruce Wayne anymore. (Although it did work in that it got him committed for a while, until the transmitter that was creating the "voices" was discovered.)
In Batman: The Animated Series, a pair of mooks try to drive the recuperating Ventriloquist insane so Scarface will emerge again. When Scarface finally surfaces, he starts a job and betrays them, telling them he was laying low and they forced him out early.
In an early episode of Sea Lab 2021, Sparks had the orphans pee in Captain Murphy's bed every night to make him think he was wetting himself, as part of a larger plot to drive him insane.
An old Looney Tunes short has mice Hubie and Bertie driving Claude Cat up the wall and out of the house in this fashion.
Recently done by Rallo in The Cleveland Show, along with the help of Cleveland Jr, to get back at his senior friend's Gold Digger newlywed wife. It eventually culminates with them placing several cats around her home and having her being wheeled away to a mental hospital.
The Tom and Jerry short "Year of the Mouse" revolves around Jerry and a mouse friend trying to make Tom think he was attempting to kill himself while he slept, then laughing at his increasingly frantic reactions. The plot was pretty much a remake of the Hubie and Bertie short, but it ends with Tom catching the mice in the act.
In Family Guy, Brian replaces Peter's I Can't Believe It's Not Butter with real butter, driving him insane.
Lois Griffin: I don't know, doctor. Looking back, I think it might have been real butter.
Doctor: Your husband murdered three children.
In The Simpsons, Lionel Hutz uses this as a dirty tactic against Apu while defending Marge against shoplifting charges. Hutz asks Apu what kind of tie he's wearing and Apu describes it and even how he's wearing it. Hutz then turns his back to Apu, removes his tie and claims he was never wearing one. No one is any the wiser and Apu starts to wonder if he can trust his eyes.
Two episode of "The Scooby-Doo Show" has this as the villian's plot:
"Vampire Bats and Scarey Cats" has Uncle Leon/Gramps the Vamp trying to convince Lisa that she is going to turn into vampire..
"Make A Beeline From The Feline" has Dr. Bell/The Cat Creature trying to turn an aunt of one of members of Mystery Inc into thinking she is turning into the cat creature.
In an interview on C-SPAN in 2004, Jon Stewart actually referenced the idea, saying that the Bush administration's spinning in the face of what Stewart, at least, believed was overwhelming evidence made it "feel like they're trying to Gaslight me".
Interestingly enough, due to change blindness, it's been proven that you can make huge changes in an environment without the viewer even noticing, so some forms of gaslighting may not actually work in real life. Hence, the method of choice is to make a large number of small changes, like which drawer a pen is in or which jacket pocket their wallet is in. Most will be ignored or missed but a few will get noticed and sub-consciously the victim will get uneasy, possibly without knowing why. From there, once the person already has doubts, you escalate to the larger stuff.
One of Derren Brown's shows used this technique on an unknowing subject. See the Live Action TV section.
A couple of years ago, a British mental health organisation ran a series of banner ads on various websites (including youtube) in order to increase awareness about various mental health issues. One of the banner ads was about paranoia, and it involved playing constant, quiet whispers over the speakers/headphones that were alternatingly insulting and indistinct, until the user rolled their mouse cursor over the advert. Some people, however, did not notice the advert and were genuinely disturbed by the effect, thinking they really were hearing voices.
This can happen with internet ads or autoplay audio/video in general, especially advertisements that aren't obviously ads at first. The ad just needs to be on a part of the page that hasn't been scrolled down to yet (autoplay ads have this effect on TV Tropes itself, especially if you have many tabs open or are browsing on a mobile device) or be a popunder ad, which are loathed almost everywhere because of this reason and the effect they have on users of shutting down everything just to find the damn ad and turn it off.
One of hobbies of the Manson Family was to break into people's houses and rearrange all of their furniture, most likely used as a terror tactic to start their global race war.
This is, unfortunately, one of the favored techniques of domestic abusers: they'll make the changes to make their victim unsure of themselves in order to get them to depend on the abuser ("They'll look after me, I can't even keep where I keep my keys straight...") and go from there.
Gaslighting is a favored tactic of some arguably abusive high-demand coercive religious groups, and why many survivors of such groups have complex PTSD or PTSD. In many, many ways, but a few are below:
Such groups succeed by destroying or severely damaging someone's self-concept ("I'm an okay person") and replacing it with a "herd mentality" ("I'm only good if I'm like everyone else") or being an Extreme Doormat or childlike ("I'm only good if I follow the rules."). It is arguably part of the reason why the Felony Misdemeanor is so common among such groups: if such things as having consensual sex, exposure to Explicit Content in media, responsible alcohol consumption, and similar things that normal adults not belonging to the religion do in their society are suddenly "sinful" and "evil," or must only be done according to the group's rules, and especially if the desire to participate is attributed to demons/engrams/negative thinking/buzzword of choice, it's easy to convince people that their own minds/souls/capacity for judgment/whatever is so flawed that they need the group or its leaders or its teachings.
Splitting people from contacts outside the group is this as well: the group convinces members that people outside it are evil or sinful or to be avoided and feared or something similar, and members will slowly begin to interpret even caring family or friends as their enemies which need to be converted or abandoned. Sometimes the group will actually begin with getting someone out of an existing abusive or traumatic situation - because this shows their "sincerity" to the victim as well as making the person an obvious target for their interests.
Demanding increasing involvement/financial donations is a combination of this plus invoking the Sunk Cost Fallacy: someone who gives increasing amounts of money and time to a group will feel more attached to it than they may even actually be, and even if someone regrets handing over their money and their time, they may feel so "stuck" or invested in it or alternately so ashamed and fearful of being seen as played for a fool that they believe they can change it/engage with it better/that there's no hope elsewhere, and keep on giving and stay around rather than walk away.
An inversion of it followed up with being played straight is behind the "love bombing" tactics of such groups: make a new member feel welcomed and cherished and really, truly loved - then start slowly instituting increasing conditions for what was at the beginning unconditional "love."
The Stasi (secret police of East Germany) loved this. If someone was suspected of being a dissenter, they'd sneak into the person's house and move things around, switch out types of tea, and do other things to distress them without them knowing what is going on. Needless to say, the Stasi were quite effective.
As thisTumblr post shows, apparently some people need to be told that gaslighting isn't funny and that they shouldn't be doing it. In all seriousness, don't. To you it might just be a joke and not a big deal, but you have no idea how it will affect the person you're doing it to (even if it's someone you know), and you may end up seriously harming them.
In the mid 90s, a paraplegic Australian athlete told an anecdote about getting drunk with a blind friend of his. His friend thought it would be funny to slash the tires of his wheelchair; he retaliated by rearranging the man's furniture.
Many feminists argue that forms of gaslighting are often used to downplay the concerns and feelings of women, thus keep them down. For instance, when a woman complains about something, the complaints may be brushed off with "women are so overly emotional" or "she must be on her period". This sometimes results in women being less likely to complain or fight back against anything, because they grow to believe that any problems really are only in their heads.
This can happen non-maliciously (or perhaps maliciously) when editing a collaborative document like in Google Docs. You could write the outline of a paragraph at the top of the page, work on a different part of the document, and then come back to find the paragraph fleshed out by someone else, or even deleted without a trace.