The following article contains accounts of both real and fictitious violence, including sexual assault, against minors. It may be difficult for some to read and is not considered appropriate for all audiences. Discretion is advised.
In 1989, famed horror novelist Jack Ketchum inked out a novel titled The Girl Next Door. Between its covers unfolds a story of innocence lost—stolen—set against the backdrop of an otherwise idyllic summer for neighborhood youths. Bike rides, fishing for crawdads, and midsummer’s night carnivals are interspersed with moments of degradation weaved into a plot that is as heartbreaking as it is revolting.
As readers flip through the pages, what appears to have all the hallmarks of a pre-teen tale of puppy love soon takes a hard left into the unimaginable. Baseball fields and games of hide-and-go-seek fade away—replaced with acts of humiliation, torture, and sexual assault against a minor.
The Girl Next Door would prove to be a hit for Ketchum, and almost 20 years later would spawn a movie as disturbing as its literary counterpart. The crimes depicted within are stomach-turning and infuriating. It was then, as it is now, a difficult read for even the most hardboiled of horror fans.
Even more so when you consider that the story is rooted in reality.
By all accounts, Sylvia Likens loved life. Not unlike the central character of Meg Laughlin in Ketchum’s book for which she served the basis, Likens enjoyed the things other children of the period did. Born the middle child of five that was bookended by sets of twins, her parents were carnival workers that often had difficulties making ends meet. After their mother was arrested for shoplifting, their father struck up an arrangement for Sylvia and younger sister Jenny to move in with Gertrude Baniszewski, whose children the Likens’ girls had become friends with in school. Although Gertrude already had seven children of her own, she was willing to open her home up to Sylvia and Jenny, in exchange for a promissory boarding fee of $20 per week.
It all began innocently enough. New faces meant more chores, and Sylvia did her part to help out with the increase in housework. Her friendship with Gertrude’s second-oldest daughter, Stephanie, continued to grow, understandable as both girls were close in age. Things would carry on without incident until the weekly payments stopped arriving on time.
The girls’ punishment for the sins of their father was egregious. Spankings and verbal abuse became commonplace for the sisters, but eventually, Sylvia found herself the primary recipient of Gertrude’s savagery. This would include moments of sexual abuse, humiliation, and torture at the hands of not only Gertrude and her children, but also other neighborhood kids.
Over the ensuing months, she’d be force-fed excrement from a baby’s diaper, starved to near-death for days on end, and denied essentials that even the most hardened of criminals are afforded; water, fresh air, clean sleeping quarters. A heated needle was used for branding a libelous phrase across her abdomen, and at times, she’d have her arms strung up overhead and bound to wooden railings in the basement.
Sylvia would never again enjoy the privilege of being a child. A thwarted escape attempt would enrage Gertrude to the point of bludgeoning the girl with a curtain rod. Then, on October 26th, 1965, in a final moment of uninhibited rage, Gertrude Baniszewski would end Sylvia Likens’ life beneath the heel of her boot.
All in less than four months.
Sylvia Likens was only 16 years old.
To fans of controversial, envelope-pushing horror fiction, Jack Ketchum is a master of the craft. Titles like Red, The Lost, and Offspring have all resonated with reader and author alike by challenging perceptions and shattering sensibilities. The act of reading a Ketchum novel is not a passive one, marked by page flipping and drifting through prose while floating from one plot device to another. Thumbing through his books makes one an accomplice to atrocities sometimes so depraved that the mind would prefer to deny us their very existence.
It’s easy to understand why bad things happen when there’s a definite source of insult. But when the why is withheld, it adds a layer of mystery to the madness.
Meg Laughlin ponders the why. Why a cold, dark, makeshift bomb shelter and a cruddy, filthy mattress instead of the comforts of a warm bed? Why dry toast and barely enough water to choke it down with? Why the humiliation, torment, and rape?
Why doesn’t Ruth like me?
When Meg Laughlin and younger sister Susan are sent to live with their Aunt Ruth and her three sons after the death of their parents, she immediately strikes up a friendship with neighbor boy David Moran. However, it doesn’t take long before Ruth Chandler begins to resent Meg and subject her to many of the same cruel and inhuman acts that Gertrude Baniszewski had inflicted upon Sylvia Likens, alongside a few of her own design. By the time young Davey can discern what’s happening and intervene, it’s already too late.
Ketchum was always very forthcoming about how the incidents in 1965, Indiana influenced his book. And never does he let us in on the why. Ruth’s façade may crack and splinter, allowing a few minor glimpses into the psyche of a woman slipping away, but they seem relatively inconsequential when compared to the treatment that Meg endures. As if there ever could be sufficient justification for such acts of inhumanity.
The passages in a book are open to interpretation by each and all that read them. But when translated to film, viewers are subjected to whatever imagery the directors decide upon to move along the narrative.
All in living color, for any who wish to see.
In 2007, Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door was released on DVD. Starring Emmy Award-winning actress Blanche Baker (Sixteen Candles) as Ruth Chandler, Blythe Auffarth (Veronica Mars) as Meg, and narrated by William Atherton (Die Hard) as an adult David, the film replicates much of what Ketchum wrote about in his book. Stephen King once called it “The first authentically shocking American film I’ve seen since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.”
It is, unmistakably, very difficult to watch. Even though the cinematic version of Meg is portrayed as being a few years older than her literary counterpart, it makes the atrocities she suffered no less disturbing. A few minor elements have also been altered for the sake of the movie, but make no doubt about it, this film can anger and repulse, yet also captivate those interested in it. And it’s not a film that one easily, or perhaps really ever forgets about.
Aftermath and Legacy
The murder of Sylvia Likens stands as one of the most extreme, depraved acts of violence towards a child ever committed. Gertrude Baniszewski would serve prison time for her role in the abuse and murder, as would most of the other participants. A parole hearing would spark outrage throughout the state of Indiana, but it was not enough to prevent her release. In 1985, she would once again be a free woman. Gertrude would live the remainder of her years in Iowa, eventually succumbing to cancer in 1990. Many of the other individuals involved have either passed away or live in obscurity.
Jack Ketchum passed away on January 24, 2018, but his legacy lives on through his extensive body of work. Several of his books, including The Lost and The Woman, have been turned into motion pictures. The Girl Next Door novel is available for purchase in digital and physical formats, with some versions containing an interview with Ketchum about the story and the movie.
The film Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door pops up occasionally on the major streaming services and finding a physical copy of the disc usually isn’t too difficult. As mentioned before, it isn’t for everyone, and it serves the notion that the scariest monsters aren’t always in our closets. Sometimes they live right next door.
The house where Sylvia Likens was brutalized no longer stands, having been demolished and replaced with a parking lot. A memorial was erected in her name, serving to remind the public that even though her life was unjustly cut short, her legacy will continue to warn against the injustices of child abuse.