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Misery's Annie Wilkes remains Stephen King's most terrifying (human) villain 30 years after her onscreen debut

By Jon O'Brien
Annie Wilkes in Misery

"I'm your number one fan." Annie Wilkes' first utterance to Paul Sheldon, the badly-injured, bed-ridden author she's single-handedly rescued from a snowbound car wreck, sounds like the kind of harmless stock phrase he'd no doubt heard repeatedly at every book signing. By the end of Stephen King's psychological thriller Misery, these five words have become the ultimate menacing threat. Forget the Eminem obsessive who drove off a bridge with a pregnant tied-up Dido in tow. Annie is the original stan.

King knew all about the perils of having a fandom that treads that thin line between love and hate. He'd been badly burned by the hostile response to 1984’s The Eyes of the Dragon, a medieval fantasy dismissed by the majority of his loyal readers as a lightweight children's story. He also firmly believes the persistent celebrity hunter who thrust a Polaroid camera into his face outside a New York studio back in 1979 was a certain Mark David Chapman.

Further inspired by a trans-Atlantic dream about being held hostage by an enraged fan, King channeled these experiences into an eerily prescient tale about idol worship taken to the extremes. Three years later, Rob Reiner — who'd previously adapted the horror maestro's novella The Body into coming-of-age classic Stand By Me — was tasked with transferring its wince-inducing chills to the big screen. And the result remains the only King film to pick up an Oscar (incredibly, seven-time nominee The Shawshank Redemption went home empty-handed).

Kathy Bates' mesmerizing Best Actress performance as Annie was responsible, leaving original choice Bette Midler to rue the day she turned the role down. It's now hard to imagine anyone else swinging that sledgehammer in such a terrifyingly nonchalant manner. Before 1990, however, Bates' considerable talents had been largely confined to the Broadway stage. It was only when screenwriter and long-time admirer William Goldman threw her name into the ring that the Annie we know and fear began to take shape.

Of course, it takes nearly 20 minutes for the iconic character's good Samaritan veneer to slip. Holed up in an isolated farmhouse just outside the remote town of Silver Creek with only a sow pig and the sounds of Liberace for company, Wilkes initially cuts a lonely, pitiable figure. Sure, her enthusiasm for Paul's Misery romance novels is a little on the excessive side, but you can also understand her desire to step into its corny Mills and Boon-esque world and the shoes of its titular Victorian-era heroine.

Annie's banal existence and ostensibly naive persona makes it all the more shocking when she first flies into an uncontrollable fit of fury. King's most effective human villains usually show their cards from the offset — think sadistic prison guard Percy Wetmore in The Green Mile and the stomach-carving bully Henry Bowers in It. Or, like manipulative religious fanatic Mrs. Carmody in The Mist and parasitic tyrant Big Jim Rennie in Under the Dome, their malevolence rises to the surface in the most apocalyptic of situations.

However, Annie isn't dealing with Lovecraftian beasts or giant invisible barricades when she finally snaps: she's simply perturbed by the profanities in the unreleased manuscript Paul's allowed her to read (a slightly hypocritical stance considering the filth she spews in the climactic showdown). Yet by immediately apologizing for her outburst, Annie is still able to keep the true monster inside her at bay. The following day she's back to being her awkward, sorry self, whether she's gushing over a hardback copy of Misery's Child or gazing at the window solemnly reflecting on her post-divorce depression. 

These moments suggest that Annie is still worthy of our sympathy. She obviously has some major issues — in a collector's edition DVD special feature, forensic psychologist Reid Meloy diagnoses the character with numerous disorders including severe borderline personality and bipolar. But her mood swings haven't yet escalated into full-blown psychopath, while her childlike vocab ("cockadoodle," "rootie-patooties") and occasional flashes of humor (an impersonation of her beloved pig Misery is a particular highlight) further lull us into a false sense of security.

The innocuous spinster shtick falls apart for good, though, when Annie wakes Paul up in the middle of the night maddened by the tragic fate that befalls Misery Chastain ("You murdered her!" she screams as the threat of violence looms for the first but certainly not the last time). It's here where her relationship with Paul officially turns from carer/patient to captor/hostage. ("And don't even think about anybody coming for you... 'Cause I never called them. Nobody knows you're here").

Annie resorts to mind games at first, forcing Paul to burn his masterpiece and using the extensive knowledge of his writing practices against him during a futile attempt to save it. His torment at seeing months of hard work go up in flames is almost as difficult to endure as the physical cruelty that lies ahead. Not only does he have to start from scratch, he also now has to cater to Annie’s every narrative whim. 

Even when she's not trying, Annie somehow always remains one step ahead. See the accidental spill that agonizingly ruins a painstaking mission to spike her wine. And a misplaced ornamental penguin is all it takes for her to suss out Paul's opportunistic bid for freedom. Annie appears to be an all-seeing, all-knowing entity disguised as a Cheetos-eating, middle-aged frump.

Paul's punishment for that tense, sweat-drenched trek around the house certainly suggests that Annie has lost all humanity. Remarkably, despite an aversion to violence, Bates was disappointed she didn't get to decapitate Paul's foot, as in the source material. Instead, she had to settle for simply breaking both his ankles. The fact she does so without batting an eyelid only makes her character even more sinister.

By this point, we've also learned, via a handily-placed scrapbook, that Annie has offed pretty much anyone she's come into close contact with and was only acquitted of multiple infant murders due to a lack of evidence. It's a startling revelation that confirms once and for all the nurse from hell would have no qualms about going from kidnapping to full-blown murder.

Sadly, it's the kindly sheriff Buster who feels the full force of this killer instinct after suspecting that the town's resident oddball may be something of a "dirty birdy" herself. His execution-by-shotgun is brutal, and instantly takes Annie's depravity to new unforgiving levels.

Now that any lingering trace of sympathy for the deranged super-fan has been literally blown away, we can fully cheer in her darkly comic demise. Like every great, seemingly undefeatable villain, Annie doesn't go easily. Even after having her eyes gouged, throat choked with the charred remains of Paul's rewritten novel, and head bashed against a typewriter, she's still baying for blood. In the end, she’s beaten, ironically, by the whack of a pig-shaped doorstop.

Annie would live on in a Broadway adaptation, DirecTV commercial and, of course, the recently-canceled anthology Castle Rock in which Lizzy Caplan proved the nurse was just as disturbed in her younger years. Yet in the on-screen pantheon of King's human villains, it's Bates' Annie that undoubtedly makes us feel the most "oogie."