Over and over again, we have asked ourselves if women are really being terrorised or if it might just all be in our heads. From any and every interpretation of The Turn Of The Screw to The Babadook, The Others, The Ring, Rosemary’s Baby and Black Swan, the story appears, ostensibly, the same: are we watching a woman being haunted – or is she merely descending into madness? The ambiguity is what makes it chilling, because however outlandish the monsters, the jump scares or the blood and the guts, the most terrifying thing of all is the sliver of humanity at the heart of the horror – the uneasy feeling that we might not have a grip on reality, that it is our minds playing tricks on us.
For women, that uncertainty is familiar. We are told every day – sometimes overtly, often insidiously – that we are mad or crazy or psycho or hysterical or overreacting. Charlotte Perkins Gilmour was told this by her doctor in the 19th century, leading her to write the seminal feminist text The Yellow Wallpaper. Christine Blasey Ford was told this in front of the entire world. Rebecca Humphries was told this, more recently, by Seann Walsh.
Our realities have long been distorted, rewritten and denied – so regularly, in fact, that we now have a word for the act of it: gaslighting.
So, with this in mind, consider that you are alone at home and woken up in the middle of the night by sudden blaring music, flickering lights and the television switching on and off. How might you react? Perhaps you’d just go back to sleep, assuming that a stressful day or half a bottle of wine had caught up with your subconscious. Maybe you’d fear a supernatural presence or, more likely, assume you’re just imagining things.
This is exactly what happened to Ferial Nijem, after her partner moved out of the home they shared. "It's almost as if the house is haunted,” she said.
Instead of a poltergeist or disturbed spirit, the only thing haunting Nijem’s home was her abusive ex-boyfriend, using modern technology to terrorise her. Having previously used the connectivity of their “smart home” to monitor his partner, by observing her with security cameras and taking control of the main system that operated their lights, heating, blinds and sound system, he went on to use the same tools simply to frighten her.
Even if coercive control is being employed remotely, it makes it no less effective and no less destructive for the person on the receiving end
Charities and activists have been making noise for a while now, about the misuse of technology, ostensibly designed for security yet increasingly being used to enable domestic abuse and coercive control within intimate partner relationships.
Almost exactly a year ago, women’s charity Refuge teamed up with Google to announce a partnership aiming to tackle the issue of everyday tech devices – like banking apps on phones or cheap and discreet surveillance cameras – being used to monitor and isolate women by abusive partners. Women are advised to be aware of their privacy settings online, of switching off their location on phones and ensuring that passwords are protected.
When it comes to the so-called Internet of Things, the latest technology extends beyond a jumped-up Bluetooth speaker failing to understand the words, “OK, Google, play Waterfalls by TLC.” Rather, it covers remotely controlled gadgets in every room of the home. There are smart doorbells and kettles and toothbrushes and fridges, all of which have the capacity to be controlled by someone who might be many miles away. And, while we are concerned about tech giants listening in on our conversations and collecting our data, or super-hackers stealing our identities (or, worse, selecting Christmas albums to blare out before Halloween is even over), we should also be conscious of the potential for these snazzy new pieces of kit to be abused, not only to keep tabs on victims of abuse but also to toy with them emotionally and psychologically, which can be just as frightening.
Nijem explained: “If anybody would walk into this situation, they would think they were walking into a horror movie.” And she is right.
Gaslighting is difficult to identify and even harder to prove, especially without the benefit of hindsight – but it is corrosive and pernicious. And as Nijem’s account shows, alarmingly, technology can be co-opted to betray someone’s trust in their physical environment, just as manipulative language is used to defraud them psychologically. Even if coercive control is being employed remotely, it makes it no less effective and no less destructive for the person on the receiving end.
Abusers who get kicks from pulling the strings around their victims tighter and tighter will forever find new and more insidious ways to undermine the people they are preying on. When the lights flicker in a horror movie, our hearts beat a little faster, our mouths get dry and our stomachs tense for what might be to come, even though we know it isn’t real. We might not fall asleep so easily that night.
At the cinema, feeling out of control is a thrill, but in real life, in our own homes, it is terrifying how easily we might convince ourselves that we are in the wrong, that we are imagining things, when really, someone has simply said, “Alexa, please gaslight my girlfriend.”