In August of 2008, a friend of mine sent me a pair of movie trailers via MySpace. He and I share common tastes in film, and we are in particular devotees of the thriller/suspense/horror genre. When I watched the trailers, I expected them to fall into that category. They did…but what made these two movies outstanding—and unforgettable—was the real-life murder case which had inspired them. The case has haunted me to this day.
An American Crime (Tommy O’Haver, 2007) was intended for theatrical release, but ultimately aired on Showtime. The film dramatized the tragic true story of sixteen-year-old Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page) and her polio-afflicted younger sister, Jennifer (Hayley McFarland), when they were left in the care of Indianapolis divorcee Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener, in a chilling, deservedly Emmy-nominated performance) in the summer of 1965 by their parents, who traveled the carnival circuit as concession stand workers. In return for twenty dollars a week, Gertrude agreed to look after the two girls along with her own seven children until the end of the summer. It soon became apparent to the increasingly terrified sisters that not only was the Baniszewski household short on both funds and food, but that Gertrude was an unstable, abusive sociopath, who ultimately focused her frustration and rage against the world on the attractive and lively Sylvia, with fatal consequences. Portions of the film’s dialogue are taken directly from the transcripts of the subsequent murder trial of Gertrude, The State of Indiana vs. Baniszewski.
I will not elaborate here on the actual details of this infamous case, which are grisly and disturbing to say the least. All I will say is that it is still on record as the worst crime ever committed in the state of Indiana, and one of the worst in American history. For the better part of three months, Sylvia Likens was starved, beaten, burned, and brutalized by Gertrude and her children and their neighborhood friends, resulting in injuries which reportedly left even the forensics examiner speechless after the autopsy. Most chilling of all were the words found carved on Sylvia’s abdomen: “I’m a prostitute and proud of it!”
As I sat watching the trailer for this gripping and heartbreaking film, I knew no details of the Likens case; I had never even heard of it. All I can remember thinking at the time was My God…who are these people? The only thing I had ever seen that approached the story in terms of sheer darkness and violence against children was Wes Craven’s 1991 horror film The People Under the Stairs.
My friend had made a comment in his message along with the links for the trailers to the effect that his heart felt as though it had been ripped out and stamped into pieces whenever he thought about what had happened to Sylvia. I was well on my way to feeling the same.
Against my better judgment, I found myself pressing the play button on the second trailer, for the film The Girl Next Door (Gregory Wilson, 2008). This movie is based on horror author Jack Ketchum’s novel of the same name, itself loosely inspired by the ordeal of Sylvia Likens. Set in 1958, its plot is similar to that of An American Crime, but here the two teenage sisters, Meg (Blythe Auffarth) and Susan (Madeline Taylor), have survived a car accident which killed their parents, and are now living with their Aunt Ruth (Blanche Baker) and her three boys. Ruth, who was abandoned by her husband, has had a twisted antipathy toward the girls, Meg in particular, from the very beginning, due to what she sees as their corrupting influence on her sons. In time, Ruth and her family and their young friends launch a horrific vendetta of violence against Meg, which a neighborhood boy, David (Daniel Manche), who has feelings for her, is helpless to stop as a result of his own growing fear and confusion…Ruth is an adult and an authority figure; therefore, she must be right to do as she does…but is it ever really right to hit a girl?
I don’t read true crime stories as a rule; I don’t even watch or read news reports. As I am an imaginative person who is prone to depression, it’s just better that way. Nevertheless, over the next several months, I felt compelled to learn all I could about the story of Sylvia Likens. I read every online article devoted to her that I could find (and there were a lot of them, as well as tribute sites created by people whose reverence and sympathy for Sylvia seemed to be matched only by their hatred for Gertrude). I sought out photos of the people involved in the crime, the crime scene itself, the police photographs of the Baniszewski house and those taken during Gertrude’s 1966 trial. I visited the interactive forum on the Internet Movie Database for An American Crime every day, to read new posts by those who had seen the film and were as shocked, horrified, and outraged as I was. I began to post my own comments and observations, and had some insightful discussions with other members of the forum. I had not yet worked up the courage to watch the movie at that point, except for a few clips on YouTube, but I knew that I eventually would. I was drawn inexorably to the true crime section in my local bookstore, to peruse the work by John Dean, a reporter who had covered the case and trial in the sixties, titled House of Evil—The Indiana Torture Slaying. (This book was originally published the year after Sylvia’s death, and had been out of print for decades until the release of An American Crime, which undoubtedly—and rightfully—sparked renewed interest in the case.) The more I learned about this gruesome and senseless act, the more questions I had, and the same seemed to be true for everyone else who was as struck by it as I was. Foremost among these questions was “Why?” Why did the Baniszewski family turn on Sylvia as they did, rallying even the local neighborhood children to take part in the torture of this innocent girl? Why did Sylvia and Jennie never breathe a word of what they were undergoing to anyone outside the house? And why did no one—including the adults who lived nearby and could hear Sylvia’s screams—take action to stop it?
As I am a writer and artist, I eventually began to consider what kind of creative project I might do, in honor of Sylvia Likens. I struggled a lot with my motives for this. Was my obsession with the case rooted in nothing but morbid fascination? Did I merely view the story, ghastly as it was, as something of a real-life melodramatic thriller with all the components of the classic fairy tale…damsel in distress, wicked stepmother figure, abusive step-siblings, dilapidated house…everything, in fact, except a dashing prince character to rescue the hapless heroine? In the wake of the two recent films and the re-release of House of Evil, was there even any point in creating another work based on the facts of Sylvia’s fate?
I wrestled with these doubts and misgivings for more than a year as I continued to research the events which occurred in the Baniszewski house during the summer and fall of 1965. I ordered and read a semi-fictional novelization and analysis of the murder, feminist Kate Millett’s The Basement—Meditations on a Human Sacrifice (1979). I found it so intense, recreating the abuse inflicted on Sylvia in a minute-by-minute fashion, that I could only read it in short passages at a time. I was interested to find that the author, who is also an artist, had created two sculpture exhibits around the story prior to writing the book.
Last summer, I finally bought a copy of House of Evil, and the DVD of An American Crime. The book is a straightforward, “just the facts” recounting of the case which focuses mainly on the subsequent trial, but it is a very worthwhile read. Knowing the details of the tragedy as I did by then, I found the movie less disturbing than I might have otherwise, but still riveting for all that. My only qualms with it (shared by many other viewers) were that the characters of Gertrude and her oldest daughter, Paula, were made semi-sympathetic, when in reality they were utterly lacking in humanity and remorse. I also skimmed through Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door—definitely not for the fainthearted—and, with some trepidation, obtained the film version through NetFlix. While well-done in all its aspects (Blanche Baker is utterly terrifying as Ruth), I found An American Crime to be the more thoughtful and compassionate—and therefore, the more recommendable, despite its dramatic liberties—of the two films.
By the fall of 2009, I had made the decision to write a graphic novel inspired by the case, titled Echo Forest, to be published online as part of a blog devoted to Sylvia Likens. I was determined to approach it at an angle different from any of the related books or films…in essence, I did not want to merely dramatize the real case, or to retell its facts by relating them under the guise of a fictional narrative, but to present Sylvia’s story—with my own characters and setting—as a cautionary tale of apathy in the face of evil, bookended by the present-day plight of a fictional girl, Kit MacGuire, who is being abused and is, like Sylvia’s counterpart, Susan Linwood, unable to bring herself to seek help.
I wrote the first draft of a script for Echo Forest and shared it with the members of a new online forum devoted to Sylvia Likens that I had joined. The reaction was very positive and encouraging, and so I revised the script through two more drafts and began working on the imagery that would (sympathetically and tastefully) tell the story. I chose to use a mixed-media approach, combining sketches and photographed miniatures with stock photography; this format is one that I refer to as a “Film in Print”. I was inspired by Lars Von Trier’s film Dogville, with its minimalist concept, and I sought to emulate that in my vision. I was also intrigued by the idea of evoking the atmosphere of silent horror films like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with their expressionistic sets and lighting. I was pleased with the initial results, and the rest of the “shooting” proceeded smoothly, although the grim subject matter was definitely getting to me toward the end, and I was relieved when it was completed.
Again, even while working on the project, I continued to question my motives for undertaking it. The last thing I wanted was for my audience to revile me as “sick” or “obsessed”; after all, just reading a bare narrative of the novel’s plot would be harrowing enough without the illustrations. I am prepared, however, to face these type of accusations in favor of readers who might find the story as moving and thought-provoking as I and many others have found that of the real human being on which it is based. I admit that I have altered many of the facts (and left out details which are too lurid to discuss here and which were already dealt with in the other, aforementioned works related to Sylvia Likens), but the central thrust and theme of the story remain the same. The main difference between Echo Forest and its “blood relations”, if you will, is that this treatment seeks to offer a measure of hope, of optimism, and of wisdom gained from Sylvia’s tragedy. After all, the value of studying history, even in its darkest hours, lies in learning from our mistakes. It only stands to reason, then, that we should study Sylvia’s history in the aim that it will teach us to see and respond to the signs of severe child abuse, and by doing so, prevent similar tragedies before it’s too late.
Craig R. May