Gaslighting, the Gothic and...

by Fiona Underhill

There has been a recent trend in film that has started to crop up more and more, featuring a theme that has become a buzzword of recent times: Gaslighting. Since the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Time’s Up’ movements have become such huge stories in the news and media, this term has been bandied about frequently. Another reason it is cropping up so much is that we are in an age of distrust, ‘fake news’, propaganda and the dissemination of lies to create a narrative – and this is being done by people who have power and control. This means that there have been more films which show multiple perspectives of the same event and which make us question versions of historical or true events which we have been fed. The term Gaslight comes from two films from the 1940s; one lesser-known (but perhaps better) version from 1940 directed by Thorold Dickinson and one which was more high-profile from 1944, starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton and Angela Lansbury and directed by George Cukor. Both feature husbands trying to conceal criminal activity from their wives and in doing so, make their wives believe they are mad so that their suspicions are doubted not only by others, but by the women themselves. Gaslighting is a well-known technique used by abusers to make victims question whether they are, in fact, being manipulated and controlled. It turns the focus and blame away from the abuser to the abused – it is their actions which are questioned - “look what you made me do” unfortunately being a classic example. This theme has started to reoccur in cinema today, preceding and perhaps foreshadowing the #MeToo movement and continuing through this new era we find ourselves in, because this time, it is the women who have the control.

The films under discussion here are Stoker (Park, 2013), Crimson Peak (Del Toro, 2015), Lady Macbeth (Oldroyd, 2016), My Cousin Rachel (Michell, 2017), The Beguiled (Coppola, 2017), and Phantom Thread (Anderson, 2017). They are all heavily influenced by the Gothic genre (particularly female authors such as the Brontës and Daphne Du Maurier) and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. All of these films deal with obsession (often in the form of a tragedy/fatal flaw in the classic mold of Wuthering Heights) and many are connected by features such as voyeurism (perhaps the Hitchcockian theme which looms largest of all), ghosts (certainly death, grief and the past continuing to haunt characters) and poison (as a means of control). All are visually striking and use colour in deliberate symbolic ways. The main theme that connects all of these films is unreliable narrators/protagonists which leads to the audience’s trust and sympathy constantly shifting (usually back-and-forth between a male and female character). All of these films examine power, control and status, with a constant push-pull between who has the upper hand at any one time. These themes are fascinating and extremely relevant to the society and culture we live in today.

Crimson Peak is the most overt Gothic horror of this group of films – it features two ghosts which haunt our protagonist Edith (Mia Wasikowska) – firstly her mother and secondly the former wife of her husband Thomas (Tom Hiddleston). This is of course a trope also used in Jane Eyre – the ‘mad woman in the attic’ - of which we had an excellent recent film version (directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Wasikowska again). The color red seeps through the entirety of Crimson Peak, particularly at Allerdale Hall, where it is literally coming through the floorboards and out of the taps. My Cousin Rachel also features a large unkempt house, where women have not been allowed (this the home of Philip played by Sam Claflin) and the titular Rachel (Rachel Weisz) arrives to disrupt the equilibrium, wearing the black of mourning throughout. The house has a proximity to cliffs which plummet down to sweeping beaches and crashing waves – settings also used in two other Du Maurier books (and later films) – Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. That most classic of Brontë Gothic settings – windswept moors in the North of England – is used in Lady Macbeth and they are very much used to represent Katherine’s (played by Florence Pugh) free and wild side (as they do with Cathy in Wuthering Heights). The Beguiled is an example of Southern Gothic, which was obviously an offshoot of the Gothic. The misty moors of England are transposed with the oppressive, humid mists and the trailing Southern cypress branches of Virginia. The Sharpes (Crimson Peak), Philip (My Cousin Rachel) and Miss Martha (The Beguiled) are all embarrassed by their crumbling piles – they desperately try to hide away their unsavory secrets in order to maintain the veneer of respectability. This was a trait of the Victorian Gothic era that was exposed in the horror fiction of the time – most notability in Jekyll and Hyde. Phantom Thread may seem on the surface to be the least obviously Gothic of the films being discussed but it does feature the ghost of Woodcock’s mother, still wearing the wedding dress he created for her. Stoker is set in the modern day with a mid-twentieth century aesthetic, but death hangs over our protagonist India (guess who?! Wasikowska, again!) from the very start, with her father’s funeral. The influence of female authors, from the pioneering women of the Gothic era; Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe and of course the Brontës, through to those who have had such a huge influence on mysteries, noir and Hitchcock – Daphne Du Maurier and Agatha Christie - is clear on all of these films and perhaps help explain why the female characters are so good – flawed, complex and nuanced.


As well as red being such a prominent feature of Crimson Peak, through the scarlet clay which Thomas desperately tries to mine, it is also juxtaposed with black and white. Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is most associated with red – in particular a sumptuous red dress which she wears to the party where Edith first meets her – this shows that Lucille cannot leave Allerdale Hall behind, she carries it with her. Edith’s mother’s ghost wears all black, including the black veil of mourning, but the ghost of Enola Sciotti is the same red as the clay, as if she has been born out of it. In the scene in the park where Lucille (wearing a black dress with a red rose) strokes Edith’s (wearing white) cheek with a butterfly, she tells her about the black moths at Allerdale Hall - “they thrive in the dark and the cold and they feed on butterflies”, which is clearly a metaphor for what the Sharpes will do to Edith there. The most visually striking scene is the finale [spoilers ahead] – it is snowing but the red clay is seeping up through the snow like pools of blood. Edith is also wearing all white and almost blends into the scene, perhaps showing that she finally belongs to Allerdale Hall and when Thomas becomes a ghost, he also becomes a translucent white, aligning him with Edith and this place. Lucille stands out, with her black hair and dark dress, in opposition to the two lovers.


Dark blues and rich gold yellows are prominent in both Stoker and Lady Macbeth. Katherine’s most famous dress is royal blue, connoting her seizing the power and control in her household. This is contrasted with an imperial yellow fainting couch – which features in many pivotal scenes, such as the most shocking one involving a child. The most iconic image from the film is Katherine sitting on this couch, almost staring down the barrel of the camera lens, daring the audience to challenge her. When Katherine looks happiest, she is on the moors wrapped in a shawl which is the color of heather, soil and grass – completely blending her into her surroundings. She is wild and free and absolutely belongs there. In Stoker, India mainly wears white and black, the same color as the shoes she is given once a year on her birthday, packaged in a white box with a yellow ribbon. In one of the few scenes in which India wears color, she wears a sweater in the same green as the walls of the piano room and this is a pivotal scene in which she becomes sexually aroused while playing a duet with her Uncle Charlie, which is perhaps why she is wearing something bright which ‘pops’ with color. In another crucial scene, Charlie wears a sweater in Indian yellow and India’s mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) wears dark blue (or indigo) – this perhaps represents that both of these characters are pulling on India’s loyalties. Evie is wearing this same regal color when she briefly gains the upper hand by snapping at India “I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart.”


White is a significant color in both The Beguiled and Phantom Thread. The girls and women of Miss Martha’s school wear white pretty much throughout the film, emphasizing their purity and innocence (which is subverted towards the end). In a scene which is a turning-point in the film (a dinner party), the girls wear a selection of beautiful pale pastel dresses; in tea rose, primrose, periwinkle and lavender – they look like macarons lined up in the window of a French patisserie or the flower-bed of an English country garden. This is the climax of the girls’ sweetness before bitterness and poison corrupts them. In Phantom Thread, wedding dresses cause superstition among the dressmakers and seamstresses. No one (including Woodcock’s sister Cyril) wants to make their mother’s wedding dress because it is believed that if you make one, you will never get married yourself. So, Woodcock makes the dress and this starts his life-long passion and obsession with clothes. When the ghost of his mother appears to him, she is young and wearing the wedding dress that he made for her. It is only after she appears in the dress that he makes the decision to propose to Alma. The wedding dress which Woodcock makes for a member of European royalty drives him almost to madness, but he still finds time to sew a hidden message; “never cursed” into the seams, which only he knows is there and is probably meant more for himself than the recipient.


The influence of Hitchcock on this series of films is clear – starting with the black and white early films; Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and the Du Maurier adaptations - Jamaica Inn and Rebecca. All of these contain characters who the audience starts to suspect and mistrust and many contain characters gaslighting one another. In Christie’s The Lady Vanishes, Iris is gaslit through a blow to the head, meaning that everyone thinks her subsequent suspicions (as to whether a person even exists) are the result of a concussion. Shadow of a Doubt was a direct influence on Stoker – both contain Uncles named Charlie who arrive in a household, forming an unhealthy attachment to their niece and end up not being who they first appear. In Notorious, Alicia is gaslit through the use of tea which makes her ill and too weak to resist – which also occurs in both Crimson Peak and My Cousin Rachel. The themes of obsession, control, manipulation and voyeurism which are prevalent in Hitch’s later works, particularly Vertigo and Marnie, are also big influences here. Voyeurism is a major theme of Stoker – Charlie (Matthew Goode) orchestrates situations (particularly sexual or violent ones) in the deliberate hope that his niece India (Wasikowska) will be watching. In Phantom Thread, Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) spies on Alma (Vicky Krieps) during her first time modeling his creations for a large audience – his obsession is the clothes (not her) and he wants to control every last detail. In The Beguiled, there are multiple instances of the girls and women spying on McBurney (Colin Farrell) – it is an unusual example of an examination of the female gaze on a man, no doubt at least partly because of Sofia Coppola’s direction.


Tea is not the only device used to poison and control characters in these films. Mushrooms crop up in three of the films – Lady Macbeth, The Beguiled, and Phantom Thread. Their use in Phantom Thread is the most fascinating of all – they are not used to kill, but to weaken and subdue (in the same way the tea is used in the other films). After Woodcock and Alma have a raging argument over asparagus (food is a major motif in the film), this is the moment Alma chooses to deploy the mushrooms. After Alma tends to Woodcock while he is sick and defends him from a doctor and his Miss Danvers-like sister Cyril (the glorious Lesley Manville), Woodcock tells her he loves her for the first time and proposes. At the end [spoilers], she makes Woodcock mushrooms again and he willingly eats them, knowing what they will do; “I want you flat on your back - helpless, tender, open - with only me to help.” She also says; “you need to settle down a little.” In nearly all of these recent films, it is women who are poisoning men; Alma in Phantom Thread, Katherine in Lady Macbeth, Miss Martha in The Beguiled, and Rachel in My Cousin Rachel. In Crimson Peak, it is a woman poisoning a woman. This is a brilliant subversion of the 1940s films, which nearly all feature women being gaslit by men. The use of the tea in Crimson Peak and My Cousin Rachel is particularly cruel, as it is framed as if it is doing good and has healing properties, when actually it is driving the victims to illness and madness. However, the nature of My Cousin Rachel is so ambiguous that even right at the end, we are unsure as to whether it is actually the tea that makes Philip ill.

Ambiguity is a major feature that runs throughout these films and is the main reason why they’re so fascinating. All of them feature unreliable narrators or protagonists (perhaps with the exception of Crimson Peak) which make the audience question the narratives they are being shown. Audience loyalties are constantly pushed and pulled between characters as new information is revealed and we realize that the situation is often not as black-and-white as perhaps we first thought. India in Stoker allows herself to be corrupted by her Uncle, but we are left wondering if it was part of her nature all along and that she has somehow ‘inherited’ her Uncle’s sociopathy. Charlie certainly believes that his niece is the same as him - he becomes obsessed with her and attempts to groom her before even meeting her. Katherine in Lady Macbeth is both the protagonist and antagonist – we start with sympathy for her and end up utterly horrified and repelled by her. The Beguiled does not have one protagonist, but it is ostensibly the women vs McBurney. However, our sympathies shift back and forth between these two opposing forces, as even the seemingly sweet and innocent Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) makes questionable choices. Crimson Peak has a protagonist, Edith, who remains sympathetic throughout and an antagonist in Lucille who also stays fairly consistently evil. It is Thomas who is torn between these two sides of his character, he has love and loyalty for his sister, but Edith offers hope for a new way of life. Both My Cousin Rachel and Phantom Thread feature two sets of lovers at loggerheads with one another. Phantom Thread shows a battle of wills – a constant wrestling for who has power, control and status, who has the upper hand – however, audience sympathies remain on the side of Alma. My Cousin Rachel ingeniously toys with the audience – from one moment to the next, they question the truth, as Philip does (and is driven mad by it). Audience sympathies fluctuate between Rachel and Philip throughout and even right at the end, it is unclear whether a character has got their comeuppance – their ‘just desserts’ or if they were in fact the victim of a paranoid brute.


All of these films feature characters who are obsessed and have fatal flaws which prove their undoing in the classic vein of all tragedies. Despite not meeting his niece, Charlie is obsessed with India from birth and is tormented by the fact they have been kept apart. For nearly twenty years, his obsession grows – it is never made explicit that it is of an incestuous nature, but sex and violence are certainly conflated throughout Stoker. Incest is far more explicit in Crimson Peak – Lucille is obsessed with her brother Thomas and wants to completely own and control him. The thought that he might fall in love with another and escape Allerdale Hall is what leads to her downfall. Philip is doomed to repeat the same tragic arc as his cousin Ambrose, by becoming obsessed with My Cousin Rachel, despite being determined to detest her. We are left with the refrain at the end: “Rachel – My Torment.” Katherine in Lady Macbeth initially appears to be obsessed with her lover Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that she values her freedom, no matter the cost to those around her. In Phantom Thread, ultimately Woodcock’s obsession is not with Alma, his sister Cyril or even his mother, but will always be his work above all and this will inevitably lead to resentment and being unsettled. The girls and women of The Beguiled have two obsessions; their safety in the midst of war and also a sexual awakening (particularly in the case of Edwina and Alicia, played by Elle Fanning). These two opposing forces lead to lapses of judgment, which bring violence and death to their door. The influence of one of the greatest creations of literature – Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff and his obsession with Cathy is strong, most notably in Lady Macbeth. We have had an excellent film adaptation of Wuthering Heights fairly recently in 2011 (the same year as Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre) directed by Andrea Arnold. Both Lady Macbeth and this version of Wuthering Heights feature black actors (Solomon Glave, James Howson, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie and Golda Rosheuvel) in prominent roles, which is unusual in period films which are not directly dealing with slavery. It makes them refreshing and perhaps even more relevant to today (Katherine has been seen as a symbol of white feminism – she gains power and freedom at the cost of the black people around her).

And what of 2018 and beyond? There have been films from this year dealing with these themes; at the Hitchcockian noir end of the scale, there has been Thoroughbreds (which certainly seems influenced by Stoker) and Gemini and in the Gothic vein there has been The Little Stranger (which certainly has a unreliable narrator). Two further fascinating films have been Beast – which plays around with suspicion and trust and On Chesil Beach, which shows the separate points-of-view of a young man and woman on a pivotal day for them – their wedding night. Another trend which is so interesting and which we will probably see even more of in this era of ‘fake news’ is a real-life person or event being examined from different perspectives, demonstrating that there is no one version – it is all about who is framing and telling the story. Recent examples of this have been I, Tonya, American Animals, and Wild Nights with Emily – all of these films examine the unreliable narrator and leave the audience to draw their own conclusions. This is a return to the 1960s era of New Journalism, which lead to masterworks such as In Cold Blood and it is telling that this age is producing similar work to that of another era of major disruption and unrest. But that is for another essay.

Unfortunately of the six main films under discussion in this essay, only one has a female director (The Beguiled) and one other (Lady Macbeth) has a female writer. Hopefully, if the theme of gaslighting is going to continue to be tackled, more women will be given the opportunity to take it on.