Cult Corner: The Dangers of Fandom: Misery (1990)

"I'm your number one fan. There's nothing to worry about. You're going to be just fine. I will take good care of you. I'm your number one fan."

Stephen King was inspired to write Misery after his so-called "Constant Readers" rejected Eyes of the Dragon his (well written) attempt at creating a pure fantasy novel. King felt shackled to writing horror books and expressed this artistic frustration in Misery, a story about Paul Sheldon, an author who shares similar feelings except with writing romance novels. Sheldon would like to move on to different styles, but he feels trapped because the romance material brings him so much fame and money.

Misery was made into a feature length film in 1990 by Rob Reiner who had previous success with Stand By Me (1986) which was based on a King short story called The Body. Reiner's film is an absolutely harrowing tale of fandom gone wrong and the damage that it can cause the artist. While this story is obviously taken to extremes, this type of stuff happens on a macro-level everyday, especially with the advent of social media giving fans easier access to their favorite artists.

The story follows writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) who has just finished the latest manuscript for his romance series featuring a character named Misery Chastain. He has grown tired of writing about her, so he ends the novel with her unfortunate death. While on his way back to his home in New York, Paul has a serious car accident due to snowy road conditions. He is pulled out of his car by a seemingly nice woman named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) who takes him back to her house to nurse him back to health. Paul soon finds out that while she proclaims to be "his number one fan" she has an unhealthy obsession with both him and the Misery character from his books.

Annie is an amalgamation of traits from all different kinds of fans and is symbolic of the toxic side of fandom. She uses the books as escapism, but develops an attachment to the fictional characters. Once she finds out that Misery dies at the end of Sheldon's latest novel (by reading his manuscript) she loses her mind and lashes out at him. Annie feels like she owns the story and the path it takes and when it doesn't match her head canon she blames the author instead of her own self entitlement. In a fit of rage she has Sheldon burn his manuscript and write a new one to her specifications. The artist has no control over his work any longer. Over the course of the film Annie sadistically abuses Sheldon as punishment for what she perceives as a crime against art.

Sheldon is trapped in the house and bedridden due to his legs being severely damaged in the crash. So not only is he metaphorically trapped into writing more Misery books he is literally physically confined as well. Artists can often be typecast into specific roles especially if they find success in doing a certain style. We have seen this time and time again with fans balking when a musician tries a new sound for an album or more recently with the fan outcry at the new direction The Last Jedi (2017) took the Star Wars franchise. People are afraid of change. They crave comfort and familiarity.

At last Sheldon, under duress, finishes his new Misery tale but the passion is gone. Annie grows increasingly unstable and in a climatic battle Sheldon burns the manuscript in front of her and violently shoves the burning paper into her mouth. Her need to have his art conform to her selfish wants ironically becomes the death of her. She chokes on the ashes of his creativity, the acrid taste of defeat and disappointment upon her tongue. What is the moral of this tale, you ask? You cannot force an artist to change their art for you. They owe you nothing. Even if they do, you will not be satisfied most likely and will be left with nothing but a bitter aftertaste.

--Michelle Kisner