The Dark Side of Fame and the Terror of Toxic Relationships: We go beyond the surface scares and explore the deeper meaning behind “Misery”.
In Inspecting the Horror, we look beyond the details of the set and focus more heavily on the story and the messages the story is trying to tell the audience. Dig deeper into the film and discover more meaning, more significance, and perhaps a different opinion.
SUMMARY: After years of being a successful romance novelist, writer Paul Sheldon has finally put an end to the series that made him a household name. On his way home and eager for the future, he is involved in a car accident that nearly kills him. However, as luck may or may not have it, a woman claiming to be his biggest fan rescues him and nurtures him back to health- but only by her twisted conditions.
SIDE NOTE: Actress Kathy Bates won the 1991 Academy Award for her performance as Annie Wilkes. She beat both Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in the Best Performance for a Leading Actress category. Here is her speech:
What Makes ‘Misery’ Scary?
Isolation: Snowed in? No phonelines? That’s enough to make anyone feel uneasy, kidnapped or not. Even though Paul is within reach of the town, the snow covers his car and it takes the local police weeks to even spot it.
Captivity: Not only is Paul injured and unable to ambulate, but he’s locked in his room and locked in a stranger’s house.
Cruel Intentions: Misery’s most famous scene involves a sledgehammer and ankles. Enough said. (Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) does everything she can to keep her beloved Paul dependent on her.)
Dissecting the Messages
Like any type of creative, there are expectations and styles to uphold for the sake of their fanbase. In Paul Sheldon’s case, his fans latched onto the Misery character and demanded more of her. The relationship between creative/creator/famous person and fan is an uncomfortable one oftentimes. It’s an odd feeling to be on the receiving end of unsolicited adoration, and stranger still that it’s given so willingly. Being inspired and moved is one thing, but to profess love and devotion to a stranger? It’s disturbing in the right light. With Annie Wilkes, it’s utterly dangerous.
Our villain is charming and sweet as apple pie. She doesn’t swear and dresses very modestly. She also has a hair trigger temper, hates being wrong, and is self-deprecating to contrast her lavish praise of Paul. She’s a classic psychopath but is so well hidden behind her guise as avid fan. Her behaviors of obsession, personifying, and criticizing a fictional world are all very similar to how real fans are, which may be the most off-putting aspect of Misery. That, and the whole hobbling bit.
Paul’s main objective is seeking creative freedom.
The fact that he feels a sense of relief after killing off the Misery character and starting a new project is ironic because authors are free to write whatever they wish. In this case, Paul was a prisoner of his own creation and a literal prisoner of a fan who couldn’t bear to let it die. He yearns for his own identity away from the Misery series, which could very well be a juxtaposition to Stephen King’s own career.
The burning of his manuscript was a representation of his identity loss. He’s a captive to the demands of fans, of his agent, of the publishers. He’s a slave to the money and what it’ll provide him. Annie caring for Paul is a literal representation of a creative’s dependence on their fanbase. They give him an income and fame, and in return he must give them the characters and stories they crave. If he goes too far out of field, they’ll turn on him and risk mussing his career.
As far as warped relationships go, the dynamic between Paul and Annie is a plainly abusive one. The toxicity of their relationship is extremely easy to see but in an abusive, romantic relationship between two normal individuals is sometimes harder to see. Annie’s constant proclamations of love for Paul and threats of self-harm are sadly normal practices by abusers. She blames Paul when she becomes irate and breaks things, and it is Paul’s fault she isn’t meeting his needs/requests well enough.
Bates’ performance is steadily controlled and unhinged at a second’s notice — just like that of a true mental case. Yet, this kind of behavior is now a commonplace in society. You can see it on any social media platform — people anonymously threatening and praising others as if their lives depended on it.
It happens at home; a man will tell a woman he loves her right after hitting her. A mother won’t flinch after telling her child that he isn’t good enough. No matter the placement on the scale, this type of behavior goes on and on without repercussion, and those on the receiving end are conditioned without respite until there’s a sickly codependency, something also represented by Paul and Annie after one of their many bouts.
Paul Sheldon’s life was threatened because he risked change. He was drugged, tortured, and crippled because of this. Not because of what he was doing was wrong, but because he encountered the wrong individual. Despite the hell he went through, he managed to stick by his choice and write his new book. He had to survive terrible amounts of pain, lie, and wait countless hours in order to do so, but he came out on top.
Annie Wilkes lived in a world of her choice, a coping mechanism for her own unachieved dreams and faults.
She attached herself to an individual and their creation to deter her from the lack of control and conviction she had to create her own ideal life. Her fondness for a fiction series spiraled into lunacy because of this. If she couldn’t control her divorce, she could certainly control Paul from leaving her house by physical force. If he didn’t leave her, that meant he loved her.
In its simplest expression, Misery is the representation of any person who must fight for their individualism, with or without the support of those around them. Whether you’re an author looking to branch out, a sports star who wants to pursue academia, or a man or woman seeking salvation from a toxic relationship, the fight will be there in some shape or form.
Oppression can appear as false flattery, threats, and self-deprecation, all of which obstructs a person’s own growth and advancement within themselves. If the tyranny is mental, physical, or both, sheer perseverance will set you apart from all others and set you much higher above those attempting to claw you down.
To me, Misery was King’s clapback at the tribulations of being famous in America’s excessive celebrity culture.
By bringing to life one of the most disturbing and highly accepted relationships between creators and fans in a highly uncomfortable way, director Rob Reiner thrusts a lot of questions at viewers. Where is the line between admiration and obsession? Are fans really devoted if they turn on you? And most importantly, where is the line between reality and fantasy?