The Girl Next Door’s true story is more disturbing than the film

the girl next door

The Girl Next Door, a 2007 film directed by Gregory M. Wilson, is a pretty good horror flick. Released when the obsession with torture in horror films was at its height, The Girl Next Door was a commercial and critical success. No wonder Netflix pushed to add the movie to its catalog. 

“Inspired by true events, this thriller follows the story of two girls who, upon losing their parents, are sent to live with their sadistic aunt,” the movie’s description on Netflix readsThe Girl Next Door is based on a sad true story as chronicled by Jack Ketchum’s 1989 novel with a similar name. 

Gertrude started abusing Sylvia after her father’s payment failed to arrive on time

In The Girl Next Door, Ruth subjects Meg, her niece, to brutal torture and invites others to abuse Meg. In real life, Sylvia Likens underwent unimaginable torture at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski, a family friend. 

Sylvia Likens was born to parents who spent a lot of time on the road working on a carnival. Likens’ parents barely earned enough to support their five children, including Sylvia and her sister Jenny. 

Sylvia and Jenny Likens

Jenny and Sylvia were polar opposites: Sylvia was pretty, confident, and outgoing; Jenny was shy and withdrawn, perhaps due to a limp from polio. In mid-1965, the girls’ father, Lester Likens, returned to the carnival following his wife’s incarceration for shoplifting. 

He distributed his children among friends and relatives – Sylvia and Jenny ended up with Gertrude. Baniszewski was also poor, with seven of her own children to take care of. Therefore, Lester promised to send money regularly to cater to his daughters. 

The first two weeks of the sisters’ stay with Gertrude went swimmingly, though Sylvia and Paula, Gertrude’s oldest daughter, often clashed. Things changed for Sylvia and Jenny after Lester’s payment failed to arrive. 

“I took care of you two bitches for two weeks for nothing,” Gertrude scoffed. Gertrude locked Sylvia in a room and punished her, leaving Jenny outside to listen as her sister wailed in pain. The payment arrived a day later, but the abuse would only intensify from that day onwards. 

Gertrude got other kids to participate in Sylvia’s torture

As time passed, Gertrude got increasingly brazen with her attacks on the girls, not bothering to hide her depravity from the children. She used a heavy paddle and a leather belt to abuse the sisters. Paula heartily took over when Gertrude had no energy to punish the girls. 

Gertrude Baniszewski’s police photo, taken on Oct. 28, 1965.
Gertrude Baniszewski’s police photo, taken on Oct. 28, 1965.

Gradually, Sylvia became the sole focus of the abuse; Gertrude threatened Jenny with similar punishment if she refused to participate in Sylvia’s maltreatment.

Gertrude’s wickedness was boundless: she burned Sylvia’s fingers after the teenager allegedly stole from her; Gertrude pressurized Sylvia to eat till she threw up and then forced her to eat the vomit; she encouraged her children to participate in Sylvia’s torture. 

The children practiced martial arts on Sylvia, slammed her into walls, poured salt on her open wounds, and used her skin as an ashtray. Gertrude stomped on Sylvia’s vagina as she gave a sermon on the pitfalls of sexual immorality. 

Paula, then pregnant, accused Sylvia of having a baby and mutilated the poor girl’s genitals. John Jr., Gertrude’s 12-year-old son, enjoyed forcing Sylvia to lick his sibling’s dirty diapers clean. 

Gertrude forced Sylvia to insert a Coca-Cola bottle in her vagina as the family watched. Consequently, Sylvia lost bladder control. Gertrude punished her by locking her away in the basement without food or access to a bathroom. 

Baniszewski defamed Sylvia in the neighborhood, portraying her as abusive and ungrateful. By spreading falsehoods, Gertrude got neighborhood children to inflict beatings on Sylvia. Gertrude told her children that Sylvia was a prostitute. 

Sylvia’s abdomen

She got Ricky Hobbs and her daughter Marie to carve ‘I’m a prostitute and proud of it’ into Sylvia’s abdomen. Gertrude blocked people from seeing Sylvia, including a public health nurse concerned about her wellbeing. 

Neighbors saw the abuse but refused to report it, fearing for their lives. Jenny was threatened and beaten into silence. 

Baniszewski served 20 years in prison and died 5 years after her release

Three days before Sylvia passed away, she predicted her end was near. Gertrude could see it, too, so she forced Sylvia to write a letter stating she’d run away with a group of boys and offered them sexual favors. The boys then beat her up and mutilated her body. 

Sylvia attempted to escape but was too weak to get far. Gertrude beat Sylvia unconscious with a curtain rod and stomped on her head when she woke. Sylvia died on 26th October 1965 due to malnutrition, shock, and a brain hemorrhage. 

Gertrude gave police her cover story, blaming unidentified boys for Sylvia’s death. With the police at her home, Jenny saw the chance to speak up. The police arrested Gertrude, her children, and neighborhood children for the murder and torture. 

The jury spared Gertrude the death penalty despite her attorney saying, “In my opinion, she ought to go to the electric chair.” She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Paula was sentenced to life imprisonment after the jury found her guilty of second-degree murder. 

Gertrude secured parole in December 1985 after spending 20 years in prison. Jenny protested her release, but she couldn’t stop it. 

Gertrude secured parole in December 1985

Baniszewski enjoyed five years of freedom before dying of lung cancer. “Some good news,” Jenny wrote to her mother. “Damn old Gertrude died! I am happy about that.” Jenny said that her parents’ sole mistake was trusting Gertrude. 

The true story behind The Girl Next Door is perhaps more harrowing than the film.