This article is part of our Villains Week series.
From a monster-clown-spider hybrid that specializes in terrorizing children to a blood-thirsty zombie cat, Stephen King’s stories have no shortage of terrifying characters. But King’s most haunting villain doesn’t live in a gutter or come back from the dead. In fact, she’s just like the rest of us. She’s a loving fan.
Director Rob Reiner brought King’s novel Misery to the screen in 1990 with a chilling adaptation that follows Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a famous serial author who suffers traumatic injuries in a car accident. Luckily — or, spoiler alert, very unluckily — for him, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) rescues him and offers to nurse him back to health. The first thing Annie says to Paul when he awakens from his two-day coma is “I’m your number one fan,” which are five words that turn out to be scarier than the gooey gutter-monsters or haunted sewage systems of Pennywise’s wildest dreams.
Every writer strives for a loyal readership. And someone who reads every word you write, anxiously awaits the release of your next work, feels unquestionably moved by your stories, and proudly crowns themselves your number one fan? Well, that’s a writer’s dream-come-true. So what makes Annie, as the ideal fan, a villain? And why does this ubiquitous dream so quickly become a nightmare?
At first, the relationship between Paul and Annie is pleasant enough. Annie is a nurse, and therefore it seems to be the best-case scenario that she is the one who recovers his unconscious body. She showers Paul with compliments about his writing, which appears to make him as happy as you can be with multiple shattered bones. Annie looks up to Paul, so it should stand to reason that he holds power over her. But this isn’t quite how things play out.
Despite the pleasantries they exchange, it is evident from their first interaction that Annie is in complete control. Not only is Paul trapped within her house due to the massive snowstorm outside, but he is also bound to the bed because of his shattered legs. The relationship begins as a harmless patient and caretaker dynamic. That is until Paul’s work becomes involved. Because he is physically dependent on her, Annie subtly allows Paul’s writing to be the condition upon which she takes care of him. Once Paul’s work becomes a feature of their dynamic, the film takes a violent turn deep into the heart of the horror genre and remains there until the credits roll.
Paul’s work becomes part of the narrative in a significant way when Annie asks to read the unpublished manuscript of the next segment of his book series. In a gesture of appreciation toward Annie, Paul agrees, unwittingly handing off his artistic autonomy. Due to her powerful position as Paul’s lone caretaker, Annie has him precisely where she wants him. Not only does Paul feel inherently like he owes something to Annie, but he has reason to suspect that displeasing his biggest fan might come with some grave consequences.
That night, Annie hovers over Paul’s bed and awakens him in a fury. “How could you?” she asks, angry that Paul killed Misery, the protagonist of his serial. Paul has done away with Misery in an action symbolic of his hope to move on from the character and branch out as an author. Annie insists that he rewrite the ending, stunting his growth as an artist and trapping him within a piece he wants to put to rest. Later in the film, it is revealed that Paul has named the gravedigger in the new version of the manuscript after Annie. Yes, he fears she will be responsible for his actual death, but he also feels as though she is digging his grave by burying him in a career he no longer finds fulfilling.
In Annie’s pursuit of creative control over Paul’s work, she becomes increasingly physically violent. This begins relatively benignly. In a scene near the beginning, she “accidentally” spills hot soup on him. As the film goes on, however, these actions become progressively barbaric. At one point, she punishes what she perceives as dissatisfactory writing by breaking both of his feet with a hammer in an infamous and shockingly gruesome scene.
This horrific act of violence speaks to something that is sinister beyond its surface-level gore: fans, in their demand for the perfect piece of entertainment, will often deny humanity to creators and forget they are imperfect. Of course, Misery takes this to an extreme, but it is not uncommon for celebrities to be harassed in public settings, or for their privacy to be invaded by the paparazzi and the likes. Even in the comfort of their home, with public social media platforms and the dreaded comments section, someone producing popular work never seems to be quite safe.
It is observations like this that make Misery hit close to home. Artists want fan support; in fact, they require it to have a successful career. Fans, too, hope to one day have the opportunity to express the love for the artists that inspire them. As the old proverb goes: be careful what you wish for. And isn’t a nightmare even scarier when it’s something you once wanted?
Ultimately, this film has horror for everyone. Whether you’re a zealous fan who is guilty of getting a little too upset over that ending, an artist who prays for adoration when it comes to your work, or both, one thing is guaranteed: Misery will keep you up all night.