To sometimes turn around and see what's behind us is one of the most natural instincts in the world. And it goes for what you literally have behind you as well as what you have behind you in a more metaphorical sense. But sometimes, you just mustn't.
For this trope to come into effect, turning back must be forbidden and/or have very bad consequences.
In drama, this is primarily a symbolic metaphor involving issues of trust and angst. However, it can also be a matter of You Do NOT Want To Know.
To avoid the whole Faux Symbolism debate, purely practical examples (such as being chased by a Medusa) are not excluded from this trope. This extends to video games that use it as a particularly brutal way of enforcing Ratchet Scrolling: Turning back kills you instantly.
Can lead to Curiosity Killed the Cast. Has nothing to do with Don't Look Down: "Back" is where you are coming from, not merely a direction opposite to where your head is facing. Also unrelated to Unflinching Walk, where you Don't Look Back at the explosion happening behind you simply because it looks cooler. Contrast with Look Behind You and Watching Troy Burn, and compare to "I Can't Look" Gesture.
Sometimes also qualifies in fiction as an example of Schmuck Bait, as being told not to do something only increases the temptation to do so.
- In The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, like the myth it's based on, Hades tells Orpheus he can't look back at Eurydice during his escape. It turns out he can't look back at her at all, and doing so after they've escaped sends Eurydice back to Hades.
- Gohan does this in Dragon Ball Z just after Goku turns Super Saiyan for the first time during the battle with Frieza. While flying away, Gohan briefly turns to look back, but stops himself and keeps going, knowing he has to get Piccolo to safety.
- Bleach anime episode 168. While Division 3 is fleeing a Restrictive Current in the Precipice World, Lieutenant Izuru Kira tells his men "Don't look back". He doesn't want them to be distracted by the pursuing threat.
- At the end of Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki, Chihiro is forbidden to look back as she is journeying out of the spirit world. She nearly does, but conquers that temptation.
- Fullmetal Alchemist: Ed and Al burn down their house as a reminder to never turn back until they can get back to normal. Ed even keeps the date etched into his pocket watch. Hohenheim later challenges Ed on the symbolism, making him feel like a child. Generally not something you wanna do.
- In JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable, Rohan and Koichi discover an alleyway in Morioh that's connected to the Afterlife and seems to be the result of Morioh's resident Serial Killer. His first victim, Reimi Sugimoto, is stuck in the alley until her murder is avenged, and acts as a sort of guide to those who wander in. She shows the pair the way out, warning them that they absolutely cannot look back or they'll be Dragged Off to Hell, and that the spirits will try to trick them; they manage to trick Koichi into turning around, but Rohan uses his Stand, Heaven's Door, to save him. Later on Rohan exploits the alleyway in order to get rid of an enemy Stand that's clinging to his back and can't be removed without killing him or foisting it off on another person. And at the very end of the series, the serial killer Yoshikage Kira ends up in the alley after he's killed and subsequently gets torn to pieces by the spirit hands. The location is iconic enough that JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle uses it as the special finish animation for the Morioh map.
- Saint Seiya has the backstory of Silver Saint Lyra Orpheé, inspired by the myth of Orpheus: Orpheé traveled to Hell in order to save his beloved Eurydice, and played the lyre in front of Hades until, touched by his music, he allowed them to return back to the living world under the condition that he didn't look back until they were out of Hell. Unfortunately for him, Hades' caretaker/sister Pandora really liked his music, and so had one of the Spectre serving her trick him on his path out with a mirror that simulated the brightness of the Sun. Orpheé saw that and, thinking it was the Sun and they were back in the world of the living, looked back...and watched Eurydice's body became a solid rock, trapping her in Hell forever. Orpheé, out of guilt, decided to stay at her side in Hell eternally, and Pandora got him to play in Hades' court once a month.
- Invoked in Judge Dredd, during the "Apocalypse War" Story Arc, Mega-City One is ravaged by the Soviet city-state East-Meg One to the point where a massive throng of civilians (in the comic, said to be "an estimated 27 million people") are at one point seen making an exodus. One child being carried by his father looks back and says, "Bye-bye city," while his father responds, "Don't look back, boy! You might catch something!" Later, the freak weather conditions caused by the destruction of Weather Control creates hurricane conditions, which sweeps up the escaping refugees and "unceremoniously deposits them back in the city from which they fled."
- In I Can't Believe it's not the Justice League, the Superbuddies are in Hell and meet their long-deceased friend and teammate Ice. Eventually it comes to pass that the group is simply allowed to leave, and they can even take Ice with them - as long as none of them look back to make sure she's still there. Ice was Fire's best friend and the only person Guy Gardner ever truly loved - it was torture to not look. Ice says something just as they reach the end of the tunnel, and the two instinctively look back, causing her to disappear.
- In The Phantom Menace, Anakin's mother gives him the strength to leave Tatooine by telling him not to look back at her.
- In The Italian Job (1969), Charlie Croker fears that his girlfriend's involvement in the heist is putting her at unacceptable risk, so he buys her a plane ticket back to England. He tells her to walk straight to the plane, "Look neither to the right nor to the left," to avoid attracting attention. She, of course, turns around and shouts "Bye, Charlie!" the entire way to the plane. Nothing bad comes of this.
- Played for laughs in The Gumball Rally.
Franco: First rule of Italian driving: whats-a behind me [breaks off rear-view mirror and throws it away] is not important!
- Black Orpheus: The voice of Eurydice tells Orfeo not to look back. He does anyway, and Eurydice's voice, coming from the mouth of an old woman, tells him she must now go away forever.
- Orpheus: An even more extreme version than the norm when Orpheus is told that he can't ever look at Eurydice, even after they've both returned to the living world. Sure enough, he eventually catches a glance of her in a car mirror, and she disappears forever.
- Highway to Hell has Satan pull a Hades and tell Charlie that he and Rachel can leave as long as he doesn't look back at her. When Charlie does, hundreds of demons swarm them.
- Bambi: These are the last words Bambi's mother tells him as they try to evade a hunter's bullets.
"Don't look back! Keep running! KEEP RUNNING!"
- In Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot instructs the Hebrews not to look back toward Sodom as Jehovah's wrath rains down upon it; if they do, it will be taken as a sign that they regret leaving the city and its evil ways behind, and Jehovah will smite them. His wife, Ildith, remains unable to believe in Jehovah to the last, and can't resist a final look at the city as it is engulfed in a fiery explosion... and one flash of light later, there is an Ildith-shaped pillar of salt where she once stood.
- As in the myth, Orpheus in Shredder Orpheus is tasked with leading Eurydice out of the Underworld without turning back to look at her. In this case, he screws it up when one of his bandmates sees Eurydice and calls her name, leading him to turn, though Axel feels even if she hadn't he'd have looked back.
- In Parking (1985), Hades allows Orpheus to retrieve Eurydice so long as he doesn't look at her until they've both reached the living world; Orpheus temporarily solves the problem by using Eurydice's tourniquet as a blindfold. He takes it off to avoid falling, then turns too early to save Eurydice from a speeding car.
- Honey Baby has this as part of a dream sequence where Tom is implicitly told he can't look back for Natascha, but turns when he sees Karl's reflection in the mirror. Karl then shoots Natascha as punishment.
- Shok: One of the Serb soldiers expelling Oki, Petrit, and Petrit's family from the town says that they must go now, and they can't look back, and anyone who does look back will get shot. As the refugees are leaving, Oki sees a Serb boy riding the bike that was stolen from Oki. He turns around and looks, and is shot and killed. The next shot shows Petrit, looking straight ahead as he walks out of town, with Oki's blood spattered on his cheek.
- In The Elf Maiden, The fisherman and his elven wife visit her parents. On the way back home, the wife warned her husband to not look back until he set foot in their home, whatever he might see or hear. The man did his best to ignore the growing noises of cattle following them. When he was already touching the doorknob, he thought it would be safe to turn around. The half of a huge herd of cattle -sent by his father-in-law in acknowledgement that his daughter had proved to be smarter than him- vanished, but enough cattle were left to make both spouses rich.
- In Sennentuntschi, the herdsmen that may leave are instructed not to look back. There doesn't seem to be a reason for this other than to buy the doll time. Equally so, there aren't any consequences to the herdsmen when they do look back other than that they might wish they hadn't.
- One of the endings of the Choose Your Own Adventure book The Mystery of Chimney Rock has you leaving the haunted house after being told by a ghostly creature never to look back at the house. Of course, if you don't like that ending, you can choose to look back one last time anyway, the resulting page of which simply has a bloodcurdling scream down the page followed by a THUNK.
- In The Divine Comedy, an angel warns Dante that anyone who looks backwards towards the entrance to Purgatory will be banished from the mountain. In a subversion of the usual structure of this trope, Dante finds he has no interest in going back to the world of sin and death and begins his climb to Paradise.
"[I]f I'd turned toward it, how could my fault have found a fit excuse?"
- Ardneh's last message to Prince Duncan and his army at the end of The Empire of the East is not to look back as they retreat, leaving Ardneh to die. This was probably the most practical version of this advice ever given in fiction, in that the reason Ardneh did not want them looking back was that he planned for there to be a very bright light at the moment of his death, and he didn't want them to hurt their eyes.
- Ghost Roads: In the second book, Rose is brought back to life through an Unwanted Revival, so she and her allies devise a plan where she will descend to the Greek underworld with a companion, ask Persephone and Hades to let her leave, and then have her companion deliberately look back at the last moment, returning her to her ghostly existence. When they meet the gods of the dead, Rose and Laura are instructed to recreate Orpheus and Eurydice's journey, with Laura unable to look back until she's out, but Rose is still in the underworld. She almost betrays Rose to Bobby by not turning around and continuing to walk, forcing Rose to follow her out. Eventually she does look back.
- The novel Hell Phone by William Sleator involves the protagonist buying a used cell phone that allows him to communicate with damned souls in Hell. His subsequent actions ultimately result in him dying and being damned to Hell himself. He is able to use the phone to give himself and his companions a chance to escape, but they have to run for the exit without looking back even once, despite overwhelming temptation to do so. He makes it, the others don't.
- In The Jungle Book: Rikki Tikki Tavi the mongoose has a close call when a friend tells him to look out behind him. Rikki knows better than to waste time looking and just moves and thus barely avoid being struck by the cobra, Nagina.
- The Last Unicorn: When running from a freed harpy in Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival, the Unicorn instructs Schmendrick not to run (you should never run from anything immortal, as it attracts their attention) and not to look back as it tears Mommy's thug to shreds.
- In the opening chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut discusses the story of Lot's wife, saying that he loves her for the very human gesture of looking back. He then compares himself with her, turning into a pillar of salt as he struggled with translating into words his own traumatic experience surviving the firebombing of Dresden.
People aren't supposed to look back. I'm certainly not going to do it anymore.
I've finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.
This one is a failure, and had to be, because it was written by a pillar of salt.
- In the Warrior Cats books, a group called The Sisters makes their young males leave at the age of six moons. They hold a ceremony, and after that the young tom is ordered to walk through the night without looking back or stopping. It's part of them leaving their kithood behind and becoming an adult by their standards.
- In Hotel del Luna, Chan-sung unknowingly enters a guest room of a ghost who despises humans and would drive them mad if they look at her. Man-wol manages to get Chan-sung's attention before the ghost could fully exit the closet, telling him to not look behind. Chan-sung is still compelled by the ghost to look at her, so Man-wol has to resort to kissing him in order to snap him out of it and to stop him from turning around.
- "Don't Look Back" by She & Him namechecks Orpheus, and the chorus cheerfully urges the listener against this trope, as "all you'll ever get is the dust from the steps before".
- Don Henley, "Boys of Summer"
a voice inside my head said don't look backyou can never look backI thought I knew what love waswhat did I knowthose days are gone for everI should just let them go and...
- The song at the end of Shadow the Hedgehog.
- The song "Don't Look Back" by the Savannah, Georgia sludge-metal band Kylesa.
- The songs that shares their titles with this trope:
- "Right" from David Bowie's album Young Americans also has the message that it's better not to look back on your life.
Never no turning backNever, never, never
- The Book of Genesis's account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah includes God's warning to Lot, his wife and daughters to not look back as they flee the cities prior to the cities' imminent destruction ("Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed" (Genesis 19:15-17)). Yet, Lot's wife does, and upon seeing the flaming ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, is turned into a pillar of salt.
- In the gospel of Luke, Jesus Himself says those who put their hands to the plow, and then look back, are not fit for the Kingdom of God.
- The Izanagi and Izanami myth from Japanese lore. They created Japan and lots of stuff happened, but then Izanami died, and went to Yomi-tsu Kuni. Izanagi decided to go there and bring his beloved back from the land of darkness and death. Izanami greeted Izanagi from the shadows as he approached the entrance to Yomi. She warned him not to look at her and said that she would try to arrange for her release from the gods of Yomi. Full of desire for his wife, Izanagi lit a torch and looked into Yomi. Horrified to see that Izanami was a rotting corpse, Izanagi fled. Angry that Izanagi had not respected her wishes, Izanami sent hideous female spirits, eight thunder gods, and an army of fierce warriors to chase him. Izanagi managed to escape and blocked the pass between Yomi and the land of the living with a huge boulder. Izanami met him there, and they broke off their marriage.
- Orpheus of Greek Mythology wanted his dead wife back, so he visited Hades (after moving Charon and making Cerberus fall asleep with his incredible music playing). Hades agreed on the condition that Orpheus not look back until the couple were back in the living world. Sadly, Orpheus turned to look just as they were almost out of the Underworld, because he wanted to be sure that his wife was really behind him. Worse than that, some versions say he looked back after he was out of Hades, but before she was, as she was behind him after all.
- Eurydice has a twist where Eurydice is unsure about leaving when Orpheus comes to rescue her and is told he can't turn. She ultimately calls to him to make him turn around, choosing to stay in the Underworld with her father.
- In Orfeo ed Euridice, not only can Orpheus not look back as in the myth, he can't speak to Eurydice to tell her why, which brings much anguish to them both until he eventually turns around.
- L'Orfeo has Orpheus charged with leaving the Underworld without turning to see if Eurydice is behind him, just like in the myth. In this version, he turns due to hearing a sound behind him and worrying it's the Furies come to take Eurydice away.
- In Hadestown, Hades' test to Orpheus is to see if he can walk out of the Underworld without looking behind him to see if Eurydice is following; since Hades himself doubted Persephone's love, he's seeing just how far the similarities run. As in the myth, Orpheus looks back out of doubt.
- Orpheus: A Poetic Drama has Hades give the usual conditions for Orpheus to not look back after Persephone pleads for leniency, but he sends a spy to ensure Orpheus fails and turns around.
- Orpheus in the Underworld plays with the trope in that while Orpheus doesn't really want to rescue his wife, he obeys instructions to the point where Zeus has to scare him into looking back with a lightning bolt.
- The Boyfriend's Death. When the girl is told to get out of the car by the police they tell her to not look back. She does, and sees either (a) the body of her boyfriend hanging down from a tree limb and scraping the roof with its fingers or (b) the madman who killed her boyfriend sitting on top of the roof and tapping it with her boyfriend's head.
- In Corpse Party (PC-98), even if you manage to escape Heavenly Host, you still have to traverse a corridor of light between worlds. Turning around or looking back leads to a very quick demise, and the evil spirits infesting the school will try and trick you into doing so.
- In Doodle Jump, the platforms stop existing as soon as they fall out of view. Thus, if you try to jump down to get a power-up you missed then there is nothing to land on - you will fall to your death.
- The game Don't Look Back (Let's Played by Deceased Crab here) is a retelling of the Orpheus myth and, in the return trip, has that as a gameplay mechanic: facing the wrong way will cause Eurydice to dissolve and necessitate the player to replay that screen from the beginning.
- Self-Checkout Unlimited: The female PA announcer begs you to run without looking back in Circuit 7, because any doubt will prevent you from evolving further. It simply resets the running segment if you do.
- In The Walking Dead: Season Two, in the ending where Clementine ends up staying in Wellington at Kenny's request, the two share a tearful goodbye as the latter tells her that once he leaves, he's not looking back but not because he wants to. He pauses momentarily while walking away, but resists the urge.
- In Sunless Skies, this is the first rule of Piranesi. Breaking the rule results in you being imprisoned.
- Waxworks (1992): if you turn your back on Jack the Ripper during your boss fight with him, he will instantly slash your throat.
- In Sluggy Freelance, Gwynn spent a long time possessed by the demon K'z'k. There would be occasional scenes during this period set in Gwynn's "inner universe" where she could be seen trudging determinedly along a road with K'z'k's avatar badgering and cajoling and trying to trick her into looking at what was following her. Gwynn steadfastly refused until K'z'k started using her body to kill her friends, showing her the events as they were unfolding and taunting her with her powerlessness to stop them. Finally, in desperation and with no other ideas, Gwynn turned around.
- The Simpsons: In "Trash of the Titans", Homer becomes head of Sanitation and ruins the environment. After the town packs up and moves away, we see a Crying Indian. Another Native American then comes up to the one who cried at the single piece of litter and says "Do yourself a favor. Don't turn around." The camera pans out over the landfill where Springfield used to be, to the sound of screaming, followed by "I told you not to turn around."
- "Abraham" in Testament: The Bible in Animation plays the story of Sodom and Gomorahh straight, complete with Lot's wife looking back at the city as the family flee and being turned to salt for it.
- In the event of a nuclear detonation, you really don't want to look at the initial flash, which is intense enough to cause severe burns, and yes, that includes to your eyes. That said, it takes surprisingly little cover to protect from such a thing, so while you should at least cover your eyes or look away, you're much better off getting behind something to shield yourself with.
- Really, even with more mundane explosions, you're probably better off not looking straight at it if there is a risk of fragmentation or shrapnel. Just, in general, try not to stand out in the open near things that are exploding if that is the sort of situation you might find yourself in.