Jack Ketchum tends to write a particular brand of horror that I don’t usually subscribe to. His novels fall into a category that has one foot in true crime and that stuff, usually the source martial for these BoaTS articles, mirrors reality in such a way that horror loses the fun factor and become just plain miserable. Reading a novel or watching a movie about the actual suffering of a human being that lived through it or worse, didn’t quite survive, can be a real ordeal and is not how I like to spend my time. It’s a thin line I and other horror fans walk, but we know where it begins and ends so if you don’t get it. Fuck off. But even though I seem to have a personal code of ethics in this matter, others don’t and many seem to revel in the extremes of the genre. Visually speaking, The Girl Next Door isn’t extremely explicit like, say, A Serbian Film, which lives way out on the fringes of the genre, a movie I weathered from start to finish and hated every second of, but its subject matter is so completely nasty that I can’t imagine who could possibly find a thrill in it. Ketchum’s story is pretty miserable but I’ll tell you what, no matter what you may think of that, the original story is even worse.
If Mad Men has taught us anything, it’s that the good old days weren’t really very good after all and the mainstream of America was miserable, repressed and most men were living double lives. There seems to be a conservative movement in this country that looks back on this time with wonder and longing, thinking that those good old days were like an episode of Leave It To Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show but they weren’t. Most small towns, as romanticized as they are today, weren’t as charming as these people would like you to think they are. Sure, most of these people are using this imagined ideal as some kind of argument against gay marriage or are mining the American fantasy for country music subject matter but most of small-town America was mired in poverty and never really recovered from the depression of the 30’s. When World War 2 and Korea flared up, these were the communities that were mined most for infantry and when those guys came home, they brought all their trauma and broken lives with them. It didn’t help matter in these whimsical fantasy lands of small town values. This kind of fractured narrative explains a lot. People like Charlie Starkweather make a lot of sense in this context and what’s unfortunate is that this idea lends a lot of understanding to the case of Sylvia Likens, a teenage girl who was dealt a seriously bad hand in life.
Sylvia Likens was 16 in 1965 when the lives of her carny parents took a turn for the worse. Her mother was sent up for shoplifting charges and her father opted to board her and her younger sister, Jenny, out to Gertrude Baniszewski, the poor single mother of seven children. Lester paid Gertrude $20 a week to keep an eye on the girls while he worked. Almost immediately, this awful wretch of a woman began abusing the two girls. Two more mouths to feed on top of bills and her own brood of nasty results of failed marriages put a strain on this fragile woman and rather than take it out on her own kids, she focused her attention on Sylvia. The girls were beaten with paddles, but it was Sylvia who got it the worst. She was often beaten and berated in front of Baniszewski’s own children, accused of being pregnant – when she was in fact a virgin, proven post-mortem – Baniszewski’s actual pregnant daughter joined in the abuse and as well as being physically violent toward Sylvia in the home, she spread rumors about her and her sister in the school they attended that the girls were whores. Actual prostitutes, mind you, not the casual insult that most girls seem to use these days about other girls. This engaged other kids in the community and things got worse for Sylvia.
Eventually, Sylvia, dealing with a tremendous amount of torment and trauma began to crack at the seams. She wet the bed, which enraged Baniszewski. Her punishment was to be locked in the basement. If you can believe it, things got even worse. Sylvia, still going to school at the time, was eventually caught by Gertrude when she stole a suit for school that was to be worn for gym class and once again she was tossed back in the basement and practically starved were it not for the shit and piss she was forced to eat and drink. Baniszewski, the head of a house full of feral children, was known for letting neighborhood kids come and go as they pleased and each of these kids knew about Sylvia in the basement. Some even participated in the torture, burning her and etching words into her skin while she lay restrained. With the implied consent of an adult, Baniszewski, the kids of the neighborhood committed some of the most unspeakable acts of torture before poor Sylvia’s body gave up and she died in that lonely hole in the earth.
Baniszewski had the local kids call the cops from a pay phone nearby and when they arrived she tried to pass off a letter that Sylvia had been forced to write that explained her torment away as the victim of a gang rape when she agreed to have sex with some local boys for money but Sylvia’s sister, mostly untouched, approached the cops before they left and offered the truth for an escape. See, back then they didn’t have a social department that was meant to look after the well being of children in homes like this. After finding this girl in a decaying home in rotten, rust-belt Indiana, these cops were ready to walk off and put it all behind them were it not for the courage of Sylvia’s horrified and understandably pissed off sister. Baniszewski was sent up on a life sentence after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity and when asked why she did it all she could offer in her own defense was, “The girls wouldn’t mind me.”
Her pregnant daughter, Paula, was also sent up on a life sentence and the children who also tortured Sylvia were sentence to two twenty one year sentences, of which they would serve two years before being released. Paula would eventually be retried and he charge dropped to manslaughter and was release a couple of years later but Baniszewski wouldn’t be so lucky and narrowly avoided the death penalty. She would eventually be paroled in 1985 and died in 1990. The house where all this misery stood empty from that time on, unable to find a new owner who could bear to live in the sort of place where this shit took place. It was eventually demolished. Nearly everyone involved in this rotten case is dead now.