Written by Rebecca McCallum
It is hard to believe that thirty years have passed since Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery was shared with the world. Once seen and never forgotten, the suspense-filled film gave us one of horror’s most memorable female villains who is notably, not supernatural, but completely grounded in the real world. Annie Wilkes terrified cinemagoers back in 1990 and subsequently everyone who has happened to Misery since. King’s cautionary tale is well known for exploring themes of reputation and the unpredictable relationship that a fanbase (Annie Wilkes) can have with its artist (Paul Sheldon). However, underneath the obvious metaphor exists a range of themes including that of obsession, routine, and the question of what lies beneath. Returning to the film in 2020 for the first time in too many years to count, I was totally transfixed and pleasantly surprised to find that it has barely aged at all. If anything, the film chimes deeply with 21st century sensibilities where our relationship with art and proximity to artists feels more intensely close and personal than ever before.
Filling An Empty Space: The Power and Loneliness of Obsession
The environment you live in can play a key role in allowing obsessions to develop, often creating a perfect foundation for any fixations to flourish and become all-encompassing. Annie lives alone in a house that is far too big for one person and is situated outside of town, away from any form of community. It is through her loneliness that a void emerges and she fills this empty space with the Misery novels and more specifically with a fondness for their heroine, Misery Chastain. Living unaccompanied and in a remote area means that there are no distractions from her attachments and no other people to serve as grounding forces who, if present, might question her behaviour. This literal loneliness of her habitat reflects her alienation from the rest of the world and furthermore, from reality. For Annie, the Misery novels symbolize and embody a fantasy world that is remarkably separate from her own which is precisely why she clings to them so desperately.
Part of Annie’s relationship with the novels involves creating a ritualistic habit of revisiting them and by doing so she is continually feeding the obsession as well as partaking in a cyclical pattern of dependency. In re-reading the novels, (with advance knowledge of the outcomes) Annie is re-entering a safe space (not unlike fans of horror) that is controlled and predictable. However, this self-constructed world where she has complete control is what holds Annie’s idea of reality in place and is what makes it so incredibly fragile. Therefore, any forces (or people) who attempt to challenge this will be met with opposition and anger.
Annie’s obsession forms as a result of constant rumination on the fictional and a rejection of reality. By engaging in this activity on a constant basis she in turn idealises the focus of her fixation and the novels become a precious and sacred but ultimately doomed entity. If we assess her many and varied outbursts the source of these instances can always be related back to Paul’s writing and composition of his novels, indicating that this is the one thing she values above all else. The first evidence of this is when she objects to the ‘sweariness’ in Paul’s new novel, claiming that it has ‘no nobility’. This dissatisfaction culminates when she reads his new work and discovers that her beloved Misery is dead, resulting in one of the most memorable and fear filled scenes. What becomes concerning for us and for Paul is that the extent of her aggression is clearly escalating, as with each outburst she becomes more of a physical threat to his life. We also see evidence of this behaviour when she becomes an unwanted collaborator and decides to create a new studio space for Paul. In an attempt to make everything perfect, just like her fantasy world, Annie unknowingly purchases the wrong typing paper prompting a further anger filled explosion of emotion. All in all, it is Annie’s obsession with the novels that is behind her displays of violent temper; unlike others she does not appear moved or motivated by human suffering, instead her sole focus is on her own desires.
With the novels assuming such a focal point in her life it becomes vital to Annie to keep this obsession (or as she sees it, Misery) alive. In order to do this, she acknowledges that she needs to keep Misery’s creator Paul Sheldon alive too, at least until his latest work meets her unrelenting and unqualified demands. However, unlike Annie, Paul does not need to co-exist with Misery in order to feel fulfilled. In fact, he is at the time of encountering his captor trying to cut a cord of dependency that he had reluctantly formed with the heroine of his novels. In this sense then, just as Paul is aiming to remove all associations of Misery from his life, Annie comes into his world and breathes life back (quite literally, through mouth to mouth) into the eponymous character. There is however still the shadow of a third dynamic of dependency hanging over Paul which (as Annie gloatingly reminds him) is his dependency upon his captor.
A Creature of Habit
For many people, the idea of routine is a comforting and reassuring thing as it can often be a dependable constant in life. The notion of feeling drawn towards carrying out the same ritualistic practices can also be linked with a form of superstition and in turn, obsession. Our compulsion to repeat a series of seemingly mundane and small actions can be stronger than we think. In Misery, routine plays a significant role for Paul Sheldon and carries both potentially fatal and lifesaving consequences. After we have witnessed Paul’s car going off the snow-covered road, his agent Martia feels compelled to call Sheriff Buster precisely because the writer has a routine which he has broken. Despite admitting to feeling ridiculous, Martia tells Buster that: ‘he usually keeps in touch when he has a new book out’ and therefore it is the slippage of Paul’s routine that has caused her to raise the (much needed) alarm.
Paul himself is a creature of habit and within the context of the film this can be read correlatively as his greatest downfall and his saving grace. Like many of us, Paul is drawn to partaking in rituals and repetitive behaviours which makes him easily predictable. When writing and finishing a novel he has the same set of practices which through his fame have become common knowledge. As a result, these facts are: ‘no secret’ which enables Annie to stalk him. Not only does he like to keep to this routine but as a member of the hotel staff confirms during a conversation with Buster: ‘Mr Sheldon doesn’t like for things to be out of the ordinary’. The completion of one Misery novel after another has also become something of a routine for Paul and we get the impression through his early exchanges with Agent Martia that he has been churning out these works in the same manner for quite some time. While Paul’s habits have endangered him, they also act as a direct contribution towards saving his life; it is precisely because Paul always drives the same car that Buster knows what model he is searching for.
In one respect then, in his new untitled work, which is crucially not a Misery novel, Paul is indicating that he wishes to break away from this established routine. However, it is interesting to note that despite Paul’s new novel being a departure from his usual output he is not able to divorce himself from the routine that exists around this (such as staying at the same hotel and enjoying his ritualistic bottle of Don Perignon and one cigarette). Paul’s behaviours outside of this such as driving to the hotel in the same Mustang also suggest that although he might be trying to break away from his perceived identity, he is in fact fundamentally unchanged. The writer’s established routine also means that he never makes a copy of his work which enables Annie to know that when she asks him to burn the manuscript it is the only copy in existence.
The obsessive nature of Annie can also be closely linked with notions of routine (for example her cyclical revisiting of the novels as mentioned earlier) and in turn it transpires that her behaviour patterns can be quite revealing. Her desire to keep a record of all the press cuttings of her trial (for the murder of children in a hospital) is motivated by her obsession and the discovery of this provides Paul with insight into her past, thus arming him with knowledge he would otherwise not have had access to. On the other hand, her obsessiveness as manifested through attention to detail such as knowing that the penguin always faces due south also arms her with the intelligence that Paul has been outside of the confines of his room. Ultimately however, it is her attachment to the Misery novels that results in her undoing as she quotes directly from a Paul Sheldon book on the courthouse steps post-trial “There is a higher justice than that of man. I will be judged by him” It is this quote that Buster identifies whilst reading over the novels for research and which results in leading the Sheriff directly to her.
Fandom and Possession
One of the most fascinating elements of Misery is its commentary on the artist/audience relationship. Annie’s idolisation of the Misery novels leads to her developing an unhealthy belief that as Paul’s self-professed: ‘No 1 fan’ she is entitled to make demands on his work. Rather than acknowledging that the work belongs to the artist, Annie homes in and suffocates his creativity by enforcing her own ideology upon the contents of his work. In essence then, Annie feels a misplaced sense of ownership over the novel and this possession over his work is enhanced further by her taking literal possession over people in her speech: ‘My Misery, My Writer, My Genius’. In doing so, she strips away any authenticity until there is nothing left that belongs exclusively to Paul.
Among the most disturbing elements of the film is the way in which Annie moves in to take ownership over the creator and in doing so a relationship forms that is recollective of Frankenstein and his monster. In Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, burgeoning Scientist Victor Frankenstein believes he can succeed at greatness by constructing a man out of the body parts of the deceased. However, far from being able to enjoy his eureka moment, Frankenstein is forced to come to terms with the fact that he has created a killing machine. Thus, he is forced to concede that his ambition for infamy is now lost and he has unleashed a monster. King’s novel (and Reiner’s film) could be read as an updated version of the themes and characters present in Shelly’s text with Paul Sheldon as the master creator and Annie Wilkes as the unstoppable creature.
As highlighted earlier, Annie has attached an almost holy status to the novels which is evidenced by her likening the work to the Sistine Chapel, calling it: ‘a perfect, perfect thing’. This demonstrates her idealized version of the world where everything is perfect. However, this view is wildly overblown and unrealistic. The depth of her obsession means that she is unable to separate reality from fiction, such as when she labels Paul a killer: ‘You murdered my Misery’. In doing so she creates a dangerously narrow view of the world which can never be matched in reality. This black and white style thinking can be seen elsewhere in her discourse with Paul where Annie’s speech often assumes a distinctly childlike quality: ‘Did I do good?’ and ‘I thought you were good, Paul’. With Annie, there are no shades of grey and the subtleties of life are made to make way for definitives.
Effectively (although be it indirectly) Paul has created his number one fan and now he is facing the physical torment and moral complications that come alongside this. In the excruciating scene when Annie asks him to burn his new book, she warns him that his mind ‘will never be clean’. By phrasing her words in this way, she confirms that for Paul, his mind is no longer his own and she is now in full control. Similarly, when she declares that she will: ‘play my records to inspire you’ Annie is imposing her perceived inspirations onto the writer whose inspirations are no longer even his own. In forcing him to destroy his work and rewrite it as she sees it, her fandom becomes an oppressive force not an empowering one. Her idealism and obsession come together to create the ultimate fan fantasy; a book written in her honour. Even when he agrees (with little choice) to rewrite his own work in a way that exclusively serves her vision he remains subject to constant criticism and scrutiny. The one thing she is not adverse to is any reference to herself (even though it may be in unkind and deeply ironic terms) as can be seen when she tells him to retain the character of the gravedigger which he has dryly and aptly named after her.
As time passes and the weather changes, Annie becomes noticeably down, a mood she attributes to the rain. This lowness in mood, however, has more to do with her loss of control. Perhaps in a display of prophetic fallacy, it is in fact the weather outside reflecting her mood and the state of things to come, rather than the reverse. With the book nearly finished and Paul on the road to recovery, Annie knows that her period of control is almost over. This is brought to her attention through her discovery that Paul has been outside of the room. In response to this realisation, the approach she takes to her diminishing power is to effectively restart the narrative by disabling Paul once more and returning him to his original state of invalidity. No longer content with holding him captive, she goes a step further this time and physically ties him down so he is unable to move. When she confesses to loving him whilst holding the hammer above his feet what she is really declaring is a love for is the reinvigoration of her power and a return to being in total control once more.
What Lies Beneath
Horror is a perfect vehicle for dealing with the notion of what lies beneath, both physically and metaphorically. Misery explores the idea of nature as hidden, both on a human level and in the wider, environmental sense. In the snowstorm, Paul is initially hidden before being recovered by Annie. Following this, he is then taken to a remote location where he will remain (at least for almost all of the film), hidden from rescue while his car also sits concealed in the snow waiting for the Sheriff to find it. Captive in Annie’s front room, Paul wakes up and tries to take in what is happening following his accident. Until now, the horror of his injuries have been kept from him but in a heart stopping moment Annie pulls back the covers to reveal the bruised and immobile state of his legs which has thus far been kept hidden from him. The scrapbook which Annie keeps also acts as a hidden object and in the film’s final act we see her hide Paul in the basement in a scene that pays homage to the finale of Hitchcock’s Psycho. In addition to hidden objects, the film also depicts how human nature can be concealed through the reveal that Annie is not what she first seems to be. When Paul first wakes up, she seems a little overbearing but not dangerous. However, this is built up through a series of outbursts that lead to a heart stopping scene where Annie tells Paul that no one is coming for him.
The sprawling shots of trees, fields and mountains depict landscapes that have the capacity to be both beautiful and brutal and serve as a reminder that Paul is at the mercy of both human and elemental nature. It is nature (in the form of the broken tree branch) that first directs the Sheriff towards a clue as to Paul’s whereabouts. As the landscape shots fill the frame this illustrates that nature is all powerful and is doing a thorough job of keeping both Paul and his car from view. These exterior shots also stand in contrast to the indoor, claustrophobia that Paul experiences and in getting ever closer to the outside world (from bed, to wheelchair, to window-side table) this encourages Paul towards believing that not only is there hope for being saved but that there are also a world of fulfilling possibilities for his writing career.
It is in the nature of many human beings to develop obsessions about things that stimulate and excite us. For Paul, the object of his obsession is not the Misery novels but his writing as a whole. When Annie is feeding him soup in the early stages of his captivity, he pushes away the sustenance when he needs it most in favour of hearing her criticisms of his work. In this scene, it is clear that he is turned on by his obsession with work which manifests itself so strongly that restoring himself with nourishment takes second place. As Paul comes to terms with the reality of his situation however, his obsession is redirected towards escaping. While Annie uses her knowledge of Paul and the Misery novels to her advantage, confined with his captor the writer takes to studying Annie’s behaviour. In doing so he arms himself with insights into what provokes her and the ways in which she can be manipulated to ensure he emerges as a survivor.
Chief amongst the tactics that Paul uses to soften Annie is charm. When she informs him that the typewriter she has purchased is missing a ‘N’ he tells her that it is: ‘two of the letters in my favourite nurse’s name’ which provokes a blush from Annie. Seeing the success of this strategy, Paul cleverly manages to make his captor believe that he is inviting her to a romantic dinner despite Annie being able to have engineered this at any time. In effect, he has made dinner in her own home sound like an absolute honour. This invitation sends Annie gushing and not only does this get him outside of the confines of his room but it also provides him with a key opportunity (albeit unsuccessfully) to drug her. Paul also capitalises on Annie’s desire for control by telling her that where the book is concerned: ‘I want you to be in on everything’ which plays directly into her obsession. Even during the most dangerous of moments he knows through experience that he can divert Annie by bringing the focus back to Misery such as when she wishes to carry out a suicide pact and he buys more time by reassuring her: ‘we will give Misery back to the world’.
We all have the potential to develop obsessions and form strong attachments (whether we are conscious of it or not) to the element of routine in our lives. When it feels as though everything happening around us is chaotic and predictable, a routine can be strangely comforting. Furthermore, there is a definite connecting line to be drawn between the two, with obsession becoming routine and routine becoming an obsession. That Annie’s behaviour is a result of a strong attachment to and obsession with the Misery novels is without doubt. This is what fuels her, what makes her giddily euphoric but also frighteningly aggressive. Writer Paul Sheldon on the other hand is, from the outset, pitted as a creature of habit who has set routines and practices that whilst putting him in life threatening situations, also help to save him from torture and certain death. It is no secret that what we see on the surface is often not what lies beneath. In our daily lives we might be encouraged to ignore the hidden and to repress the darker side of both nature at large and humanity as a whole. However, art, in particular, the horror film, is ideally positioned not only to explore these issues but to exploit our relationship with them. If the thirty intervening years since Misery’s release have taught us anything, it is that it’s themes speak as closely and as uncomfortably now as they did in 1990 to our deepest fears around self, nature and human behaviour. It’s impossible to predict just how the film will be read in another thirty years’ time but I am quietly confident in speculating that it will remain a work that is as unsettling and stirring as ever before.