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Illustrated cover of book, "Don't Look Behind You!"

The UW’s Science Hall inspired the spooky setting for a onetime professor’s book.

Almost 75 years ago, the preoccupations of World War II left UW professor Samuel Rogers with an acute case of writer’s block.

Creepy inspiration struck when this leading scholar of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac — and a respected writer — got to thinking “what a lugubrious place Science Hall was.” The result was Don’t Look Behind You!, a novel that came to a terrifying end with “someone being chased by a homicidal maniac up through the stairs of Science Hall,” Rogers explained in a UW Archives oral history about his years in Madison.

Anyone who’s opened the heavy oak doors of the Romanesque Revival building, climbed the winding staircase — past the exposed brick walls bearing the ghostly signatures of students from long ago — to a tiny landing on the top floor where a pair of locked doors seem to lead nowhere, can appreciate his impulse.

In the 1920s, when Rogers began teaching at the UW, Science Hall housed the university’s anatomy department. First-year medical students and the cadavers they worked on jointly occupied a series of windowless rooms on the fourth and fifth floors — a fact that no doubt further inflamed his imagination.

In the summer of 1943, he crafted a Hitchcock-style psychological thriller set in a fictional Midwestern university town with lakes and many twisting paths through the woods. For a would-be victim, he fashioned a fetching nursing student named Daphne.

As possible suspects for the psychotic killer, he stocked a faculty lounge with maladjusted characters, including a professor way too immersed in his studies of abnormal psychology. After a series of frightful walks through dark woods, the ending comes as promised: Daphne is chased up the stairs to the upper reaches of Science Hall.

The tale caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock himself, and the director bought the rights to turn it into a television script for his eponymous NBC drama. The 1962 episode starred a Hitchcock favorite, Vera Miles (who played Janet Leigh’s sister in Psycho), and remained quite faithful to the book. As for Rogers, Don’t Look Behind You! sold well enough to encourage him to write two more mysteries while continuing to serve on the UW faculty until his retirement in 1960.

Published in the Fall 2018 issue

Tags: books, Campus history, television

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