“Don’t go to the house down the street. The lady will lock you in the basement.”
When I was about six or seven, a few of the other kids on my block would take me aside and whisper this rumor to me. They never pointed out the exact house or the exact lady in question.
Years later, I sat at the kitchen table with my college roommate. We were talking about methods of self-pleasure, when she said, “There was a girl who used a Coke bottle to masturbate.” She looked disgusted and wrinkled her nose.
It was only when I got older that I realized my roommate and my grade-school classmates were unknowingly referring to the Sylvia Likens case. One of the most infamous true crime cases of the 20th Century, the torture murder was the basis for the film An American Crime and the best-seller The Girl Next Door.
How did these rumors get started? There wasn’t as much media coverage back then, just a little when the crime was first committed, maybe a newspaper or magazine article here and there after the trial and initial shock ended.
Somehow the facts got twisted just enough that, eventually, rumors made their way to our older brothers and sisters and then got watered down for grade school kids.
Without the internet or cable TV, we only had broadcast news and newspapers to inform us about crime, and even then the news didn’t report much. Some outlets hid news of arrests, burglaries, drug addiction, and assault, even murder, especially in the suburbs or small towns. Rich and upper-middle class families, police, and local newspapers could hide details in those days. In the late 1980s and 1990s, it became harder to hide or omit details with the advent of the non-stop news cycle
The rumors I heard as a kid made me wonder if hearing about heinous crimes affected people differently in the 1960s and 1970s than now. With the constant bombardment on the internet about every bizarre crime in the world, a lot of people have become blase about even the weirdest crimes.
What We Can Learn from True Crime Books and Documentaries
Our podcast focuses on true crimes of the 20th Century. Most of the episodes will involve murder cases, although a few will be about other crimes. We’ll also have book and movie reviews and interviews with true crime experts and psychologists. True crime is one of the most popular documentary and non-fiction genres, and there are many reasons we’re so intrigued by it.
The Ted Bundy documentary on Netflix was riveting because it begged the question: are are serial killers evil, or were their actions the results of extreme mental illness? (The mental illness advocate appeared near the end of the documentary.) I have read social media posts where people say there’s no such thing as evil, just extreme mental illness. I disagree, but the subject does merit more discussion.
Lonely, socially awkward boys from all socioeconomic groups become obsessed with pornography, have strange upbringings, may be adopted or not know their birth father – but most of them don’t became serial killers. Murderers have siblings who are absolutely normal and sweet. What makes one sibling homicidal while others are normal, despite being brought up in the same household and with similar genes?
So what is the reason some people became serial killers? Do they decide not to fight homicidal urges even though they are sane or does a genetic code override their sanity?
Will today’s advanced prescription drugs for mental illness be able to control people with a predisposition toward depression, suicide and violent acts? The track record for these drugs isn’t promising, according to some lesser-known websites and researchers, as many young school shooters took psychotropic drugs. Mainstream outlets and magazines insist the drugs have nothing to do with school shootings.
Understanding the psychological underpinnings of such crimes may or may not stop them from happening, but it can make people more aware of potential criminals and dangerous situations.