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Gaslighting

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"I began removing toys from the home while Beef sleeps. I want him to think that maybe the kid was never there to begin with, which seems like an inadequate mind game now that ghosts are forcing him to pee on himself."
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Gaslighting is deliberately trying to drive someone mad by altering their environment without their knowledge, then denying it. In a more general sense, it's denying someone's perceptions of reality in order to cause confusion, anguish, and paranoia. 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. Or you start acting drastically differently than you usually do. When they confront you about it, you claim to have no idea what they’re talking about and feign concern for their memory and mental health. Soon, they are convinced that they're hearing voices, seeing dead people, hallucinating, or whatever. The victim can become so convinced that they're going insane that they actually go insane.

The name comes from the 1938 play Gaslight (later adapted into two separate films of the same name), where a woman's abusive husband tries to manipulate her into believing she is going insane. It gets to the point where even the dim gas lights of their home make her question whether they actually are dim, or whether she has gone mad.

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In real life, this is a common tactic employed by the abuser in abusive relationships, especially those that revolve around an imbalanced power dynamic, including domestic abuse and school/workplace bullying. The goal for the abuser is to trick the victim into doubting their own sound judgement and perception at every turn, which usually serves a two-folded purpose. Firstly to make the victim susceptible to the idea that if the abuser commits a violent or other criminal/transgressional act on them, it didn't actually happen, just like the other things the abuser denied happened. Secondly, if the victim can be persuaded that they are not of sound mind and only the abuser is capable of seeing the truth, they can be fooled into depending on the abuser to tell them what's real and what's not, keeping them in proximity for the abuser to commit more abusive acts against them. In short, the abuser is able to both cover their crimes and gain the victim's captive loyalty by telling them a convincing lie enough times that their word becomes "the truth".

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As in fiction, this method of manipulation often leaves deep psychological scars that require extensive efforts to correct, including therapy and in some cases, even medication. The abuse victims suffer, and the destabilisation of their psyche often plays a role in later manifestations of mental illnesses such as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).

"Gaslighting" has undergone a certain amount of lexical devaluation. Rather than meaning "subtly influencing another's perception of reality to cause self-doubt," it is also often used to refer to subtle deception in general, or even brazen dishonesty in the face of all evidence to the contrary. At worst, one party in a conflict recalls events differently and accuses the other of "gaslighting" them even if no such malice is intended.

See also Why Did You Make Me Hit You?, Driven to Madness, Paranoia Gambit, and 2 + Torture = 5.


Examples:

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  • A Canadian Tire TV spot in, where else, Canada, had the current "bumbling chubby oaf" mascot guy hide in a woman's wall pretending to be the wall itself asking her to buy Canadian Tire brand paint to paint it with. The ad comes off REALLY creepy.
  • In this Tide-To-Go commercial, a Drill Sergeant Nasty chews out a soldier for having a stain on his outfit. When the sergeant turns around to address the other troops, the private with the stained shirt quickly cleans it using the Tide-To-Go. When the sergeant turns back to the private, the private asks what stain the sergeant is talking about.
    Drill Sergeant Nasty: What'd they do, send me a dag gone Houdini?!

    Anime and Manga 
  • Blood-C: This is actually done by the Big Bad Fumito Nanahara where he hires actors to play as Saya's friends and lets them pretend that they were killed by the Elder Bairns just to provoke an emotional response from Saya just to see whether she could retain her new personality or not. He also drugged Saya with coffee and marshmallows whenever her old memories resurfaced. But the whole gaslighting stops after some of the actors get fed up waiting for Fumito to give them their rewards and decide to finish the job themselves by forcing Saya to drink her own blood and revealing to her that it's all a set-up.
  • In Heavenly Delusion, Kiruko ends up being a victim of this tactic by the Head of the Water Filtration Centre, who turns out to be Inazaki Robin, Kiruko’s former Big Brother Mentor who took advantage of her trust in him to rape her. However, at first Kiruko resisted and screamed, so Robin knew needed a way to keep her silent and make her more submissive. He recalled that “Kiruko” had the body of Kiriko Takehaya with Haruki Takehaya’s brain inside of it due to a medical procedure in the past, thus she believed herself to be Haruki, which gave Robin an idea to break her.
    Robin started off by questioning if Kiruko was really “Haruki,” which made her angry and confirm it was true. However, he then pointed out in a roundabout way that even if Kiruko had Haruki Takehaya’s brain, thus having his memories, that didn’t necessarily mean she was “Haruki.” It was possible she was really “Kiriko” who simply had Haruki’s memories, and that she was lying to herself the entire time. When Kiruko realized she didn’t have a way to counter this theory, she hallucinated and saw “Haruki” in a nearby mirror, making her think that “Haruki” was trying to save his sister “Kiriko” from being raped by Robin, which ended with Haruki’s reflection in the mirror disappearing and frightening her because it made her realize she might really be “Kiriko” after all.
    This revealed a deep-seated fear she had of her real identity after the medical procedure she went through in the past, which broke her down from a tough Action Girl who fought literal monsters and took crap from nobody into a traumatized wreck who only wanted to “obey orders” from her rapist. The only thing keeping her from crossing the Despair Event Horizon was that she knew her friend Maru was still out there, having resorted to pleading that he would save her. Fortunately, he did later after giving Robin a much-needed comeuppance for his betrayal of an orphan he used to take care of in the past
    .
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders:
    • Jotaro pulls this on Daniel D'Arby during their poker game. Jotaro sets his cards face-down, and then has Star Platinum move things around faster than D'Arby can see. D'Arby had already cheated to give himself a winning hand but now believes Jotaro has switched the cards without D'Arby being able to keep up. Jotaro's unwavering confidence only adds to D'Arby's unease, making him certain he'll lose.
    • Dio Brando later pulls a similar stunt on Polnareff. Dio stands at the top of a staircase, challenging Polnareff to come up and fight, or otherwise step down and swear loyalty to Dio. Polnareff attempts to answer the challenge, only to find Dio laughing, saying Polnareff must want to give in since he stepped down. Sure enough, Polnareff looks at where he is and realizes that, despite his attempts to go up the stairs, he keeps moving down. Dio is stopping time and moving Polnareff down every time he tries to step up.

    Film—Animated 
  • Coco: After Héctor realizes that De la Cruz poisoned him, De la Cruz tries to convince him it didn't happen. "You are confusing movies with reality." Seconds later, De la Cruz tells the security guards that Héctor "is not well".
  • Mr. and Mrs. Bettermans from The Croods: A New Age try to gaslight Grug and Ugga into giving Guy to them and needless to say, they aren't happy when they catch on.
  • Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame constantly gaslights Quasimodo to be an obedient servant.
  • The Lion King: Scar manages to manipulate Simba into believing that he is responsible for Mufasa's death when in truth, he did it.
  • Morag from The Loud House Movie gaslights Lincoln into thinking that he is responsible for causing Lela the dragon to destroy the town of Loch Loud when it was really her own doing.
  • In Ratatouille, Chef Skinner is under the impression that Linguini is doing this - trying to make him see a phantom rat everywhere after he ordered the rat killed. "Am I seeing things, am I crazy, is there a phantom rat or is there not, but oh, no! I refuse to be sucked into his little game..." There actually is a rat, however, and Linguini isn't trying to gaslight him. He is, however, suffering a Sanity Slippage because of seeing the rat, but not being able to catch Linguini with him.
  • Disney's Tangled practically revolves around this trope, with "Mother" Gothel hitting 11 out of the 11 signs of gaslighting.

    Music 
  • Eminem:
    • Eminem's gaslighting at the hands of his mother and her Münchausen Syndrome is mentioned in numerous songs, such as in "Kill You" (where she tried to turn him against his absent father until Slim realises she was the crazy one) and "Cleanin' Out My Closet", in which Marshall says that his whole life he was made to believe he was sick when he wasn't. "The Apple" contains a gruelling anecdote about his mother attempting to convince the young Marshall that he had a sister who died, even showing him a picture of one of his relatives to try and force him to doubt his own memory.
    • "Stepdad" opens with a near-literal example. Slim's stepfather wakes up his young son and beats the shit out of him for leaving the lights on in the kitchen, profusely swearing at him and ignoring the child's protests that he didn't do it. The stepfather knows this, and in fact, he himself left the lights on just so he could have an excuse to blame his abuse victim.
      Last night, he said I left the kitchen light on
      But he walked in there this morning and purposely flipped it, I saw him
    • In "Insane", Slim's stepdad keeps bursting into the bathroom when Slim was using it, claiming Slim needs his help to pee properly, despite being a big boy now. This left the young Slim confused about his own developmental age — which probably has something to do with the Psychopathic Manchild personality he ends up with in adulthood.
  • The advice Shaggy gives to his cheating friend in "It Wasn't Me" boils down to convincing his girlfriend that she hadn't witnessed her boyfriend sleeping with the next-door neighbor, despite the Implausible Deniability of having caught them in the act. Shaggy's advice extends beyond merely insisting "it wasn't me," encouraging his friend to further mess with his girlfriend's head by convincing her nighttime is daytime.
    If she say, "A night," convince her, say, "A day"
    Never admit to a word weh she say
    And if she claim a yuh, tell her, "Baby, no way!"
  • Steely Dan's "Gaslighting Abbie" from their Two Against Nature album. Invoking the movie which is the Trope Namer, the narrator and partner engage in all sorts of tomfoolery against the aforementioned Abbie: dimmer lightbulbs, doppelganger tactics, and even "a fright night with blood and everything". In true Steely Dan form, this malicious mischief is delivered in their signature smooth tunefulness.
  • The trigger of The Who's rock opera Tommy. As a child, the title character witnesses his mother and father kill the mother's lover (or vice versa, depending on version) and is told "You didn't see it, didn't hear it / You won't say nothing, no not a word of it". The only way the boy can reconcile reality with parental directive is to become deaf, dumb, and blind.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • In this Dilbert, 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.

    Podcasts 
  • The Magnus Archives:
    • Melanie is unwittingly the only one who remembers the original Sasha, who has been replaced by the Not-Them. When she asks Jon where Sasha is, he replies that she already saw Not Sasha. Melanie assumes Jon is trying to gaslight her and storms off angrily.
    • The episode "Wonderland" consists of three patient sessions in a mental hospital. In each session, the doctor informs the patient that they are lying or delusional for repeating the information that was told to them in previous sessions.
  • In Welcome to Night Vale, the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your House does things like this.

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • Dane Cook discussed this and played it for laughs in his "B&E" routine. He tells the story of a time that he kicked in the front door and a closet door of some stranger's house, then ran away without taking anything. Cook admits that it must have been bizarre for that family to come home to find nothing missing, further imagining a scenario where he keeps randomly kicking in the front door of the family's house for no reason whatsoever, psychologically destroying the father of the household into wanting a divorce.

    Theater 
  • The play Angel Street was the original source of the Trope Namer, Gaslight.
  • Mean Girls: The original movie hinted that Regina did this to Aaron in order to convince him to take her back, and the musical expands on it. In the number "Someone Gets Hurt," Regina rewrites the story of their breakup as Aaron only seeing her for her social status and cruelly dumping her as soon as the excitement wore off, when in reality the inverse is true. She then tried to frame his desire to ask out Cady as simply moving on to a new popular girl and leaving her in the dust without caring about her feelings. Of course, none of this is true, and in reality, Regina doesn't care about Aaron and only wants him back because she doesn't want Cady dating her "property."
  • In Edward Taylor's Murder By Misadventure, Harry Kent is increasingly spooked by several small things being misplaced about his apartment — a book, a bottle of pills, a bottle of whisky, even a set of golf clubs. It takes a bit of deft sleight-of-hand, and a few secret doors and hatchways on the set, to make them appear and disappear in the stage production.
  • In Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, the turning point comes when Kate submits to Petruchio and agrees with his insistence that it's 7 am and time to go out when it's really no later than 2 am. Shortly thereafter she agrees with his insistence that the sun is really the moon and that an old man passing them on the road is really a young maid. Kate gives Petruchio no trouble thereafter.
  • In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Toby, Maria, Fabian, and Feste decide to humble Malvolio, who has been dismissed by Olivia for following the instructions in the forged letter which he believes is from Olivia, much to her displeasure; Feste puts on a fake beard and gown, disguising himself as a curate priest.
    Sir Toby: Come, we'll have him in a dark room, and bound. My niece is already in the belief that he's mad; we may carry it thus, for our pleasure and his penance, till our very pastime, tired out of breath, prompt us to have mercy on him: at which time we will bring the device to the bar, and crown thee for a finder of madmen.

    Toys 
  • This can be incorporated with The Elf on the Shelf figures. The idea is the titular elf is a scout for Santa Claus, reporting which children are naughty or nice between the holidsays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. While most parents may just place the figuring in their child's room, some will move the elf during the night, making the child think the elf isn't just a mere toy.

    Visual Novels 
  • In the tie-in manga to Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, it's shown that Kristoph did this to his little brother, Klavier.
  • Zouken Matou tries this on Sakura in Fate/stay night. He thinks he succeeded. He's wrong, it was a coincidence.
  • It was done unintentionally in one arc of Higurashi: When They Cry, when Houjou Teppei's body, recently done in by Keiichi, was moved by Mion, trying to prevent a repeat of the aftermath of 1982's murders, and he couldn't be sure if he'd ever killed him making him even more paranoid. This is not helped at all by the fact that Satoko genuinely has lost her sanity, and insists Teppei is still alive, making it even more complicated.
    • Takano does this, on purpose or not, with Rena and Shion when she lends them her notebook which only causes them to fuel their paranoia.

    Web Original 
  • Clickhole: "I Keep My Grandfather’s Mind Active By Calling Him Every Day And Telling Him World War II Never Happened" is a bizarre inversion, where the mind games are meant to keep the victim sane.
  • Frogdad: The Ultimate in Parental Trolling. In a nutshell: because the original poster used a Precision F-Strike while underage, the poster's dad set up a scheme to make him paranoid with the use of Beanie Babies, all to prevent him from swearing again.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A blog piece titled A Message To Women From A Man: You Are Not "Crazy" strips the elements of intentionality and mental illness from the term to use it to refer to subtle emotional abuse.
  • The guys at Rooster Teeth have been prone to do this to each other for kicks. Two known instances were when Burnie, Gavin, and Jordan 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 inside Gavin's desk (under the computer monitor).
    • In Ten Little Roosters, Barbara, the killer, reveals that she planted dolls of Michael and Gavin, the first two victims, in Ryan's room, making him think that he was suffering from a split personality and making him the killer.
  • This occurs in The Stinger of Season 1 Episode 8 of Tales From the SMP, "The Pit". After Karl finds the secret room he found one trip earlier completely covered in blood, the Inbetween tries to convince him he's just hallucinating, and that his deteriorating mind can't be trusted. Fortunately, Karl manages to make his escape at the end of the episode to the Other Side, a mirror version of the Inbetween which, as far as we know, is far more honest about its intentions.
  • This memetic story tells the tale of someone who drove a bully insane by memorizing his schedule and habits and then leaving pineapples in increasingly intimate places for him to find, including in his own room. The story ends with finding out that the victim had a panic attack because someone left a pineapple on a shelf at a grocery store, which spooked the victim. And even then, the original poster had nothing to do with that; it was just a coincidence.

    Web Video 
  • Kitboga is a scambaiter popular on YouTube and Twitch.
    • Since a huge part of scams is making certain that the victim doesn't speak to anyone who would recognize the situation for the sham that it is and warn them about it, scammers will often go to great lengths to convince victims that literally everyone around them is out to trick them or screw them out of their money, except, of course, for the scammer themselves. While sometimes this involves actually chasing off other scammers, they will also push victims to avoid or ignore legitimate employees of shops or banks, and on a few occasions even their own families.
    • Many of the most successful scambaits ultimately involve Kitboga himself doing this to the scammer(s). He spins a whole scenario for them, complete with crazy characters and the most oddball situations, such that by the time they're done, many of the scammers no longer know which way is up. They're no longer certain if they're even running a scam, if somebody is trying to scam Kitboga, or in some cases end up completely off the mark from whatever scam it was they were originally trying to run in the first place. Either way, they find themselves completely in Kitboga's alternate reality and Kitboga is only all to happy to eventually end the call with them believing that they just wasted hours of their time with nothing to show for it.
  • The LoadingReadyRun Crapshot #443, "The Gaslight," shows both sides of gaslighting. Presenting itself as an ad for "Dave's Gaslight-o-torium," it repeatedly insists that the viewer wouldn't really be interested at shopping at a warehouse for messing with someone else's perception of reality 'cause that ain't them, while at the same time subtly changing the accessories Dave is wearing. By the end, the video has turned into an ad for "Ernest's Furnace Warehouse, the most trusted name in gas lighting."
  • The Weather: Discussed; Cricket says she'll "break up with 'her'", and her caller encourages her to do so because her partner was apparently gaslighting her this whole time. It's never elaborated upon, but Cricket admits he's right and that she just needs to be brave and get out of the relationship.
  • The trope gets discussed in one of LilyPichu's Minecraft videos. Toast asks Sykkuno if he knows what gaslighting means, and Lily promptly demonstrates its meaning by trying to gaslight Sykkuno and Valkyrae into thinking she told them what it meant already.

    Real Life 
  • 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 believed was overwhelming evidence made it "feel like they're trying to Gaslight me".
  • A British mental health organisation managed to do this by accident when they 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.
  • One of the 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.
  • 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 in using Zersetzung against political undesirables.
  • It has been alleged that this tactic is still used to discredit people who get too vocal about causes and irritate agents of the grouping or nation they are active against. Of course people alleging this can then be dismissed, without hard proof, as paranoid, flaky, or mentally deranged — which also discredits the cause they are campaigning for, by association. The Asghar Bukhari case is interesting.
  • Gaslighting is a tactic often used by crafty domestic abusers to tie partners down to their relationship. By re-arranging things, getting items "lost", and saying events happened differently than remembered, they create the sense that the victim has no idea how to handle their own life and needs to depend on the abuser to help them survive because they doubt that they could survive on their own.
    • Abusers don't even have to be that crafty. One of the reasons partners have trouble leaving abusers is that they have been gaslit to believe that the abuse they are suffering is actually their fault, the cliched line "Why did you make me do that to you?" sums up the situation in a nutshell.
  • A mild humorous example. Critic Alexander Woollcott had a portrait of himself he was very fond of. A couple fellow Algonquin Round Table members had a series of near-duplicates made with details just a tiny bit askew. For months they would periodically swap in a new duplicate and query, "Alex, whatever is happening to that painting?"
  • Some party games involve a mild (and benevolent) form of gaslighting. One example is that a player (usually a child) is blindfolded, stands on a chair with their hands on the shoulders of somebody in front of them. The chair is lifted up a couple of inches, and the person on whose shoulders the child's hands are crouches. This can make the child feel as if they are flying up into the air; if a book is gently lowered on to their head, they might believe they have floated up to the ceiling. If they take their blindfold off, they might be astonished to find they are still near the ground.

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Alternative Title(s): Insanity Ploy

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Vera gaslights Elliot

After spending the entire episode psychologically abusing Elliot, Vera finally breaks him and claims that he did this because he cares for him.

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