How I relate to Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ as someone with SMA

Exploring disability themes in the classic psychological thriller

Kevin Schaefer avatar

by Kevin Schaefer |

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Note: Spoilers ahead for the novel and play.

My dad and I recently saw a play adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery,” perfect viewing for the spooky season. Anyone familiar with King’s novel or the iconic 1990 film starring Kathy Bates and James Caan knows the story. When novelist Paul Sheldon survives a horrific car accident, the person who takes him in is his No. 1 fan, Annie Wilkes. Though she initially appears sincere and caring, she has a dark and possessive side that forces Paul to fight for his life.

“Misery” is a classic psychological thriller, and seeing it on stage put me right in front of the action. The more terrifying and overbearing Annie becomes, the more the audience desperately wants Paul to escape her clutches. Even more tense and gripping is the fact that Paul is newly disabled. His body is severely damaged from the accident, and even once he realizes that Annie is holding him captive, he needs her as his caregiver until he’s capable of moving independently.

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What I find most fascinating about this tale is that the horror aspect doesn’t stem from the protagonist suddenly becoming disabled. Paul adapts to using a wheelchair, relying on a caregiver, and using a bedpan to go to the bathroom. The late playwright William Goldman, who adapted the script, depicts these elements naturally and without any ableist undertones.

Instead, the horror revolves around Annie’s characterization. On one hand, she’s a symbol of toxic fandom, what can happen when an admirer of someone’s work takes it to an obsessive and uncontrollable level. Yet she’s also a representation of systemic ableism and caregiver abuse. At one point in the play, she berates Paul for asking her for additional writing supplies. She says that all she does is care for and nurse him back to health and that he responds with petty requests.

Granted, not everyone with SMA or a similar disability has faced a scenario as horrific as Paul’s, but this scene in particular hits on something that we’ve all felt at some point. It’s the idea that we’re too demanding when we need assistance in every area of our lives. We feel burdensome for needing help with even the most mundane tasks. In these moments, there’s nothing quite like the frustration of feeling like we’re just taking up unnecessary space in the world.

As such, “Misery” becomes an empowering story for disabled people as the narrative progresses. Even after Annie breaks Paul’s legs in a harrowing scene and murders the sheriff who tries to rescue him, the hero refuses to become a victim of Annie’s wrath. He uses his wits and resources to overpower her, eventually emerging victorious.

I’m not saying that “Misery” is first and foremost a disability story, but its themes and characters resonate with me as a disabled person. Thankfully, I have great caregivers and hope never to encounter an Annie Wilkes. Yet great horror makes people think about the real terrors that exist around us. The creepiest component of “Misery” is that it presents an entirely plausible situation, no matter how terrifying. And that’s something that will linger in my mind.

Happy Halloween!

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


Anne Smith avatar

Anne Smith

I so relate to what Kevin is saying in his article. As a 74-year-old widow, now for 7 years, and having no real support system, I get so overwhelmed with all the responsibilities of life alone. Facing the daily challenges of making all the decisions of household, financial, medical and just daily living activities. I still live at home and do have a caregiver (who is caring) 20 hours a week. It is expensive and I do get some help from the government for that. I can't afford to move into assisted living facility and the alternatives are not good. Keeping up with an older home isn't cheap either. It is no wonder feeling a burden to society is how I feel as I get older and don't have anyone who can help, or cares. It's how the world is.


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