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  • Katie Gough

Stephen King’s Misery and the Feminine Monster

(Still from the 1990 film adaptation of Misery) Via Talk Film Society 

If the traditional dynamic of scary man versus pretty girl doesn’t outright describe the plot of a classic slasher film, it’s typically the opening scene, climax, or at least one of the most iconic parts of the story. Sex, gender, and ideas about masculinity and femininity permeate nearly all media in the horror genre. While Stephen King is no stranger to exploring themes of gender roles and sexuality in his works, Misery is unique to his novels like Carrie and Gerald’s Game in that its depiction of gender is not an outright factor contributing to its horror, but a subtle way to add depth to the power dynamics between the two main characters. In doing so, it’s a complete subversion of the typical gender roles seen in traditional horror movies. 

Misery by Stephen King presents a unique but digestible evil: the idea of the psycho fan. When author Paul Sheldon wakes up from a coma and finds himself paralyzed from the waist down and strapped to a makeshift hospital bed in Annie Wilkes’ bedroom, he knows exactly who she is. He had spent the last few years reading scores of fan-mail from Annie and women like her about his popular book series Misery: how much they liked it, what they wanted out of the characters, and scorn whenever the latest installment didn’t match their expectations for the story. Annie Wilkes is Misery’s greatest fan, and she was about to become Paul Sheldon’s worst nightmare. 

Misery was not just the name of Paul’s novels, however, but their main character, Misery Chastain, a young woman in Victorian-era England who finds herself at the center of a love triangle with two best friends who are wildly infatuated with her. Paul Sheldon detests Misery Chastain, as well as all the women who read his book series because in his eyes, Misery is nothing but trashy escapism for middle aged women. He hates that he is known for his Misery series but relies on the profits of those novels. 

So, when Annie abducts him from his crashed car on the side of the highway and starts pumping him with addictive opiates, Paul finds himself in a terrifyingly literal demonstration of what he hates most: being reliant on a woman. Except Annie Wilkes is not the typical female Misery readers Paul hates so much; her power over him is physical and threatening and real. 

Much like an overbearing mother, Annie controls every aspect of Paul’s physical being: the drugs he’s on, the food he eats, when he sleeps, and everything about his schedule. Annie, in many ways, is a distinctly feminine evil. Before the events of Misery, Annie had been a nurse for nearly two decades, during which she had abused her power and killed many of her patients, one of whom was a young child. Women, who are traditionally assumed to take on the role of caretaker, have dominated the nursing industry for over a century. Like she abused her power as a nurse, she abuses her power as Paul’s “caretaker.”

Nearly every power Annie exacts over Paul comes from a place of femininity. She makes him drink dishwater as a punishment much like a mother would rinse her child’s mouth out with soap. She frequently scolds him for profanity and dishonesty. She begins to love him romantically like a wife. She only kidnaps him because of her obsession with trashy romance novels. She wears makeup and dresses and runs errands and puts herself down in front of Paul because she believes her own intellect to be far beneath his. 

In fact, Annie’s shaky self-esteem is immediately apparent to Paul in the book, and he uses it to gain power over her, consistently pointing out when her ideas are childish or naive, and often gaslighting her. He can do that because she already believes he is so much smarter than her, and exists in constant paranoia that Paul is unhappy with her and wants to escape. 

The horror Paul finds himself in nods to the Freudian concept of the heimlich versus the unheimlich, or the idea that  some of the most terrifying situations are ones that lead us back to something very familiar, usually from childhood, that we had long since repressed. Paul is forced to return to the complete lack of control that comes with being a child, and the fear of and desire to understand the omniscient mother. Thus, King uses Annie’s traditional womanhood as a way to not only characterize her specific brand of evil, but to make her even scarier. 

Paul, throughout the novel, absolutely resents Annie. While he hates her primarily for being his deranged kidnapper, he also hates her for being a woman, and so much of his criticism towards Annie points out just how much of a bad woman she is. Paul calls Annie fat numerous times throughout the novel, disgusted by her complete lack of feminine curves. He thinks she is a terrible cook, he detests her complaining about her day, and thinks it is disgusting that she works with farm animals, as he sees dirty work like that as a man’s job.  

And he’s right, Annie can never be a good woman. She has too much power. Anne Wilkes will never be Misery Chastain. She will never be the beautiful young love interest of her favorite novels, desired by men and constantly being rescued. She will never be the character that Annie believes is Paul’s perfect, loveable woman. When Annie meets Paul she is reading his last installment of the Misery series, and when she learns of Misery Chastain’s death from childbirth, she can’t handle it, and acts as though Paul had murdered a real person. She forces Paul to write another Misery book and bring the character back to life because to Annie, Misery is perfect and deserves to be at the center of Paul’s universe, just like she wishes she could be. 

An Artist’s Imagining of one of Sheldon’s Book Covers Via Stephen King Wiki

Annie is obsessed with the idea of femininity that Paul constructed in his books. In her constant struggle to accommodate Paul and desperate wish to be loved by him, she strives to reach a man’s standard for what a woman should be. The suspense and intrigue of Stephen King’s Misery comes from its complex web of power dynamics at play. It explores the two way relationship between author and reader, abuser and victim, man and woman, and addict and supplier. It presents a terrifying, warped look at traditional domestic gender roles. 

Annie Wilkes is a classic example of a feminine monster. Every part of Annie can be measured by how much it aligns with or divulges from traditional womanhood. In that sense, Annie is a manifestation of gender essentialism in America, which is propagated by the media, including, of course, romance novels. 

There aren’t many villains like Annie. Annie is absolutely terrifying, and she’s all woman. 


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