When you first came here, I only loved the writer part of Paul Sheldon…now I know I love the rest of him too.” It was 25 years today that the Rob Reiner-directed adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Misery was released — but its chilling, claustrophobic story about consumer/celebrity dynamics gives it a relevance that helps it run (or rather, hobble) laps around almost every stalker movie made before or after. Because as much as it’s a parable about horrific obsession, it’s also a story about how fans relate to people who live their lives in public — a phenomenon that is increasingly more commonplace for everyday people.
Based on the 1987 Stephen King novel of the same name, Misery tells the story of Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a writer famous for his Harlequin-esque romance novels starring the main character Misery Chastain. Tired of writing the series and wanting to explore other genres, he pens the final installment of the series — only to get into a snowy car crash in Colorado before filing his last book. Enter chipper nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who conveniently saves him from the wreckage and tends to him in her cabin. Then her po-dunk hospitality turns violent as the roots of her obsession with the creator of her favorite literary heroine become clearer.
The story was partly inspired by King’s own professional life, mirroring his history of writing pulpy horror novels and his sudden, ill-received turn to fantasy with his novel The Eyes of the Dragon, as well as his struggle with drug addiction — using Wilkes as a metaphor for that nagging dependency.
When the movie was released in 1990, it came in the middle of a popular time for Hollywood potboilers about stalkers, mostly female. Fatal Attraction had become a huge hit after it’d been released in 1987; post-Misery, we’d get the husband-stealing, baby-snatching paranoia of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and the copycat roommate drama of Single White Female (both 1992). Mädchen Amick, Alicia Silverstone, and Drew Barrymore would each play proto-Catfish conniving dream girls in Dream Lover, The Crush, and Poison Ivy, respectively, all in 1993. Each of these women thrived on “too good to be true” attributes, and used the idea of a pretty seductress wielding a knife in the final act as proof all along that her beauty distracted psychopathic tendencies.
But while all these films dressed their threats up as sexy, Misery‘s tactic was something slightly more under-the-radar menacing: camp small-town Americana sweetness. And though moviegoers might be immediately off-put by Annie Wilkes cloying, goofball tone, her obsession is made clear right out the gate. “I’m your number one fan,” she tells Sheldon as he wakes up woozily from his car accident. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” While Wilkes’ love for Sheldon is tinged with romanticism, she’s largely prudish. That her obsession in the film is largely devoid of sex, of lust, makes her drive even more unique.
What we see in Annie Wilkes is exactly what she is: a mega fan who doesn’t understand boundaries. She’s someone too invested in the romance series storylines, who can quote dialogue word for word, who knows mundane facts about Sheldon’s life down to what grades he got in school. This isn’t exactly outlandish fan behavior — until Misery pushes it farther. What makes the movie so relevant today is the ways in which it manipulates a relationship that so many viewers have in their own lives. Movies like Fatal Attraction (allegedly set to be rebooted as an event-TV series) and this year’s The Boy Next Door base their stalker relationships in face-to-face obsession, spawned by a first meeting in person before an all-out escalation into danger. But Misery highlights the sort of relationship that festers in private, attached not to a real person but a public persona of a person. What happens is arguably a writer’s worst nightmare — and inarguably a nightmare for anyone who leads a public life online.
Even when she meets the real Paul Sheldon, Wilkes demands him to be more like the man that was fed to her through book jackets and interviews: a fixed personality, never to be changed. And while she apparently grows to “love” him, Wilkes does so with the celebrity author placed in her petri dish in which he fills her demands. In 1990, Misery represented a complete imbalance: super fan and celebrity, with access limited to signings and media. Today, the connection is far closer, perhaps an email or Twitter mention away, and definitions of celebrity are blurred. In Wilkes, we may relate to the feverish excitement of meeting an idol or realizing they’re not who you thought they were. In Sheldon, social media-happy viewers may relate to the expectations his fans put on him.
And in 2015, the fears it incites have only grown more potent as celebrity access for the adoring, always-on(line) masses becomes more readily available. Make Paul Sheldon a Vine star set to retire his account and the story pretty much carries the same weight. Misery is a stalker thriller, a horror film about obsession, but it’s also a worst-case-scenario cautionary tale that highlights the discrepancies between a person’s public and private life in a universal way — whether you’re an avid Instagrammer, a Twitter superstar with four million followers or simply a famous novelist with a rabid Number One Fan.