The Dirty Bird and His Number One Fan: Misery at 30

In André Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, there’s a porcelain-white lady who smiles and loves hugs. One of the most terrifying scenes of the film has a teenage boy running an endless labyrinth of corridors only to become trapped with the Pale Lady. Once she has him, she envelops him in a hug that fully consumes him, suffocating him until his shape disappears into her figure entirely. It taps into a fear that’s accessible to everyone, but the idea of absorption pops up in so many horror stories written by so many men over so many decades that there is an obvious pinched thematic nerve to be explored. It’s more than men hating women, which isn’t the case here. It’s an identity issue that refuses to give up personhood within another. In Misery, Paul Sheldon has the same problem. 

There are many different types of horror stories that men write and respond to, but when it comes to femme villains, the fear that works its way into those stories is often bifurcated. One is penetrative –  a woman or female-coded creature that can tear into your flesh with a sharp instrument that acts as a phallic extension of her own body. Takashi Miike’s 1999 banger Audition delivers its fear with an iconic sequence showing its villainess Asami turning the object of her affections into a human pincushion. Asami also taps into the other big male fear: that of consumption. She must have her partner’s exclusive and unconditional love and when he also shows love for his son (like a normal person), out come the acupuncture needles. For these storytellers, obsession is violence.

There’s not much ambiguity about the themes at play in Stephen King’s original 1987 novel Misery. The genre demi-god told Rolling Stone that the book’s central baddie Annie Wilkes “is cocaine,” a beast he grappled with for nearly a decade during his bestselling career. Screenwriter William Goldman reveals in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? that he got the invite from director Rob Reiner to adapt King’s work, and it was off to the races. In 1990, Reiner’s Misery hit theaters to critical and box office success, with Kathy Bates receiving widespread acclaim as the highly unstable Wilkes. From page to screen, the tale of Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes plays right into that second fear of consumption. As her bubbly fandom gives way to toxicity and what she believes to be love, Paul doesn’t just fear death at the hands of the worst-dressed murderess of all time; he is horrified at the realization that he is being involuntarily absorbed into the womb of a monster.

Misery is the story of a man trying to move forward and a monster keeping him immobile. Gothic romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has penned a highly lucrative series of Victorian bodice-rippers featuring a popular character named Misery Chastain. Misery has bought his vacation home and paid his kid’s tuition, but Paul is ready to move onto more serious fare. The opening scene of the film shows his celebration routine as he types the final words on the manuscript for his latest novel: a champagne flute, a bottle of Dom Perignon, and a single cigarette with a match to light it. He checks out of the Silver Creek Lodge and, in the middle of a brutal blizzard, drives towards his home in New York City to deliver the manuscript to his agent. His car veers off the road and he is trapped, bloodied and unconscious in the snow until a figure pries open the door and pulls him out. He awakens in the home of Annie Wilkes (Bates), whose first words on screen are “I’m your number one fan. There’s nothing to worry about, you’ll be just fine. I’ll take good care of you. I’m your number one fan.”  In the days following, Paul learns that Annie is not just a fan –  she’s a pendulum of worship and rage, swinging constantly over his busted body. Things go poorly.

The first impression of former nurse Annie is that she is a helper: she gives him pain medication daily, pushes fluids, and splints his broken legs. She cooks lavish meals and even shaves him daily—there’s an innate desire to comfort that infuses every move she makes. On top of it, she praises his work and calls him brilliant, a genius, everything a writer loves to hear. All goes well until the seams start to show on the creature suit. She’s caught in (but quickly recovers from) a handful of lies about their accessibility to care and communication—the roads are clear, but only to part of town; the phone at the general store works, but not at her house. After she begins reading his new manuscript, she brings up a criticism about children swearing in the new story. Paul explains that he was a slum kid and “everybody talks like that,” and Annie Wilkes is having none of it. She quickly gets agitated, yells at Paul, and spills his soup on the bed. But the underlying instability and anger has begun to simmer at the plucky surface of her bedside manner. It all boils over when Annie gets a chance to read Paul’s manuscript. In the middle of the night, she barges into the guest room and berates her patient.

“You dirty bird. Misery Chastain can’t be dead. I don’t want her spirit, I want her! And you murdered her!” It’s true; Sheldon had to bury his heroine in order to move forward and pen the works that he felt he was truly destined to write. Annie disagrees. “I thought you were good but you’re not good. You’re just another dirty birdie. And I don’t think I should be around you for a while.” The mask comes off and she threatens his life, both immediately (with a plant stand) and on a macro level (“If I die, you die”). No one knows he’s there—like so many toxic fandoms that spew vitriol at directors on social media, she effectively owns him and he has no choice but to do as his number one fan pleases.

In The Science of Women in Horror, authors Meg Hafdahl and Kelly Florence point out that Annie Wilkes is a funhouse mirror reflection of the vulnerabilities of femininity, “subverting what we have come to believe should be a selfless woman who waits on the vulnerable.” She certainly starts out that way, but quickly descends from caretaking to obsession to fanaticism over the 107 minute runtime. 

In horror, your story is only as good as its baddie, and Annie Wilkes is a first-ballot Hall of Fame-level sociopath. Kathy Bates nabbed an Oscar that year (a year in which Julia Roberts was also nominated for glo-up gold standard Pretty Woman) for good reason; her face changes with eerie precision. Nineties cinema staple Barry Sonnenfield does some of the heavy lifting with uncanny lighting and stark cinematography that keeps half of her face hidden in shadow during the aforementioned “dirty bird” scene, but the daylight sequences showcase Bates’ phenomenal physicality. With all of the grotesquery of biddy horror goddess Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Bates commands the entire frame with a piercing yet impenetrable stare that could bring salvation or suffering, depending on the weather that day. It’s worth noting that the same year, Dr. Jack Kevorkian committed his first public suicide assistance on Janet Adkins, and the following year, Anthony Hopkins would grab a golden statuette for another sociopathic horror role in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of The Lambs. Killer medical personnel were all the rage.

In a move that is depressingly relevant in today’s landscape of Sn*der cuts and YouTube rants against women characters of St*r W*rs, Annie weaponizes her own knowledge and fandom against “her” art’s  creator. She knows that Paul’s superstition prevents him from making a copy of his manuscripts, just as it demands that he write at the Silver Pine Lodge every year. She brings the manuscript into the guest room on a portable grill, encouraging him to burn the only copy of the manuscript in existence. When he refuses, she doesn’t scream, she doesn’t explicitly threaten; she implies that he will not survive without her and that she will bring him down without blinking twice. “Please help me help you” she says with a smile– as she’s tossing lighter fluid onto his bedding. Again, Paul has no choice; he burns the manuscript and, with Annie’s “encouragement,” begins on a new revision that brings Misery back to life on the page. The choice is not his own, it is made on his behalf. For Stephen King, this is a clear picture of what drug addiction will do to your creativity. On another level (no better, no worse) there is a wariness of the line between caretaking and predatory control. Who better to personify that than the healer archetype assigned to women throughout the ages?

Annie is a lonely woman, watching Love Connection in the evenings and praising the romance in Paul’s revised story. But her sense of love is as warped as Paul’s fractured legs. At one point, he sneaks out of his room and pokes around for escape routes—she notices. The scene that follows is one of the most iconic scary movie moments of all time, an operation known as “hobbling.” The book is far more vicious, handing Annie an ax and a blowtorch to disable Paul, but that does nothing to de-fang the bite of the final big-screen product. Placing a block of wood between Paul’s legs (which are still healing from fractures so he can only watch in horror), the nurse swings a sledgehammer to each of his feet, causing his ankles to swing like weather vanes in a strong headwind. 

But the most terrifying moment comes just after the procedure. Looking upon her guest with post-orgasmic bliss, Wilkes breathlessly croons, “God, I love you.” In fact every time she harms him—injects him with sedatives, ties him to the bed, tosses him into the basement without his wheelchair—she punctuates the abuse with a declaration of love. For Annie Wilkes, violence is love, pain is devotion, and murder is a holy communion. When Paul (and the doomed Sheriff) discovers that Annie is a baby-killing Angel of Death who lives alone for many sinister reasons, the “pain for you = love for me” realization comes to him, as well. She knows that she is not the greatest gal to be around; staring out the window during one of her dead-eyed mood swings, she sighs, “You’ll never know the fear of losing someone like you if you’re someone like me.” So, while her fear of abandonment drives her to keep her favorite novelist captive, his fear of permanent attachment to her drives him to get the hell out of Dodge. 

These anxieties are both equally pressing to their beholders, and so when Paul executes a final plan to escape, an unstoppable force meets an immovable object in the film’s climax. While Misery and her biggest fan succumb to Sheldon’s rabid drive to survive, Annie doesn’t worry about divine punishment, nor does she ever regret her maniacal warped manifestations of “love.” As both Annie Wilkes and Misery justify, “There is a justice higher than that of man, and I will be judged by Him.”

Anya Stanley is a film critic, author, and a columnist at 'Fangoria' Magazine. Her chapter on the irreligious work of H.P. Lovecraft was published last year in 'Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion, and Worship in the Horror Film' by House of Leaves Publishing. Further work can be found at her website and @BookishPlinko on Twitter.

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