Long, long ago, there existed a terrible evil. The people of the time managed to defeat the evil and seal it away never to return. There's just one problem: they may have sealed away the being itself, but they didn't manage to completely seal away its power.
To be clear, the evil in question has been sealed away, but in a way that allows it to still influence the mortal world, most often in destructive ways. In religious and mythological uses, the evil is usually not aware it has this ability. In fictional stories, especially in the Horror and Cosmic Horror Story genres, it is likely to be aware of its ability to affect the mortal world, and will probably use that influence to facilitate its release.
Is a Subtrope of Sealed Evil in a Can. If the evil is Sealed in a Person-Shaped Can it will usually become this trope. If the evil is sealed within a physical object, that object is likely to become an Artifact of Doom. Compare Might as Well Not Be in Prison at All, for when this applies to mundane criminals. See also Evil Is Not a Toy, Made of Evil and Villainous Legacy.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
The KishinAsura from Soul Eater was sealed in a bag made of his own skin. Even after this, his madness is strong enough to warp the statue of a god holding his container and make everyone who tries to approach it see horrible hallucinations. However, it is only when Asura is freed that his madness is able to spread all over the world.
Weaponized in Naruto with the Jinchuriki, humans with Pure Magic Beings sealed inside them. For the most part the seal allows a controllable amount of chakra to leak out, letting the Jinchuriki borrow their power, but Naruto's Nine-Tailed Fox in particular is quite malevolent and can take him over if he isn't careful. (The others may or may not be examples: for example, Eight-Tails is pretty friendly with its host Killer Bee, and Gaara's initial Ax Craziness seems to have been all him rather than a result of Shukaku* One-Tail.)
In Kyo Kara Maoh, the Forbidden Boxes become this when brought together, due to the seals weakening over time, especially time spent in human lands outside the influence of the Demon Kingdom's magic. This prompts the protagonists to attempt a renewal of the seals, which winds up releasing the evil entirely.
This is how Winnowill from ElfQuest ends up when Rayek traps Winnowill's soul inside his own. Winnowill is mostly contained but occasionally is able to either affect Rayek's actions or even lash out with her own magic powers.
Shadowpact reveals that the slumbering, highly powerful and very evil sorcerer Dr. Gotham has been sleeping beneath (wait for it) Gotham City for centuries. He inadvertently influenced the city into becoming a crime ridden cesspool with a penchant for attracting costumed lunatics.
In Time Bandits, Evil has been locked away in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness by The Supreme Being. He plots on acquiring the McGuffin map that would allow him to escape and wreak havoc upon all creation. Albeit he's locked away, he can still Mind Control the weak-willed bandit across time and space to lead the group into his lair with the coveted map.
Prince of Darkness. The Anti-Christ is trapped inside a glass cylinder inside a church. It sprays a liquid at one of the people researching it and takes control of them, then has that person spit the liquid at other people to possess them as well. It also uses Mind Control on street people who live near the church to surround it and trap the researchers inside.
In prologue to the Space Wolf novel Ragnar's Claw, set about a century after the rest of the book, a Chaos cultist tells Ragnar that "Botchulaz sends his regards." In the book proper the Inquisition and Ragnar's squad of Space Wolves end up having to repair the seals on an eldar construct keeping a Great Unclean One confined.
Discworld: In the very first book, the prison of the Soul Devourer is untouched by time, and avoided by most wildlife because of that.
In The Wheel of Time, the Dark One is sealed outside of reality. In the Age of Legends, a bore was made into its prison, and it wreaked havoc across the world until a seal was made. Throughout the series, the seal is weakening, and the crux of the plot is finding a way to restore it before the Dark One can escape and unravel the world.
This is a major staple of the Cthulhu Mythos, most famously appearing in the short story Call of Cthulhu. Despite being dead and trapped within the sunken city of R'lyeh, the eponymous Old One is still capable of influencing certain humans through their dreams, guiding them to release him when the stars are right.
In The Elenium, the Elder GodAzash was imprisoned by the rebelling Younger Gods inside a tiny clay idol of himself. However, even though he can't move around or use most of his powers directly anymore, Azash can still talk to people physically near his idol, vector magical power to his minions, and send his spirit into any copy of the idol that has been properly prepared.
Frequently seen in The Old Kingdom. Kerrigor's sarcophagus, when unearthed, is so riddled with Free Magic that it makes most people who approach it feel nauseated and weak. And the evil that is buried at the Red Lake has an ability to resist the Clayr's scrying, even when they focus their wills there. When unearthed, the hemispheres not only induce sickness, but they call down lightning — constant lightning.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 1, Big BadThe Master is trapped underground inside the Hellmouth but he has minions who work to free him, Darla being the one with the most character development. He almost gets out a couple of times, and during one episode where people's nightmares come true he's seen free and walking around Sunnydale in Buffy's nightmare.
The Master: I am free because you fear it. Because you fear it, the world is crumbling. Your nightmares are made flesh.
In season four of Supernatural we find out that Lucifer is this trope. Azazel first finds "the crack in his cage" in order to communicate with him; it's implied that Lucifer also made a backup plan that Lilith and Ruby carried out in order to get Sam Winchester to release him.
Doctor Who uses this one from time to time. In The Satan Pit, the devil himself is imprisoned inside a planet, trying to free himself by possessing members of a space station on the surface, and their friendly, if creepy alien servants.
In Pyramids of Mars despite being paralyzed in an Egyptian Tomb Sutekh is able to control the archaeologist Marcus Scarman who entered the Tomb and Mummies even when they are working in England. Finally he focuses his power through Marcus to destroy the Eye of Horus keeping him imprisoned even though Marcus has to travel to Mars to achieve this.
Fenric in The Curse of Fenric despite being sealed in a Flask has been manipulating events for the past two seasons to free himself and destroy Earth, even transporting people through time.
Religion and Mythology
The titan Typhon from Greek Mythology was sealed away along with most of the other titans, but his roars were capable of causing volcanic eruptions across the world.
Loki from Norse Mythology was sealed away in an underground vault, with a snake drooling venom onto his face. His beloved wife is usually there with a bowl to catch the poison, but when she has to empty the bowl Loki's agonized thrashing causes earthquakes.
In the Forgotten Realms setting, after Cyric, god of murder and lies, murdered Mystra, goddess of magic, in 1385 DR and caused the Spellplague, several other gods worked together to imprison Cyric in his home plane. He can still grant spells to his worshipers but he can't affect the Prime Material directly and is slowly going (more?) insane. Strangely his co-conspirator Shar seems to gave gotten away scot free.
Module WG4 The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. Though the evil deity Tharizdun has been sealed away, his power can still affect creatures that enter the title temple if they touch certain places or objects.
Module OA6 Ronin Challenge, Episode 6 "Keluh Valley". The powerful being known as the Earth Spider is trapped in the Realm of Mirrors, but it can still communicate with its worshippers in the Keluh Valley. It orders them to look for a woman of the Wood Spirit people so it can marry her and be freed from its prison.
Module B3 "Palace of the Silver Princess". Arik of the Hundred Eyes is an ancient, evil being of great power. He was banished to a special dimension centuries ago to be imprisoned for all eternity. However, he has managed to send one of his eyes into the campaign world, where it works to open the dimensional barriers and free him from his imprisonment.
The Eberron setting's main cans for sealed evils are varying degrees of leaky:
The prisons of the Overlords are pretty sturdy, with most of the Overlords having no power to affect the world at all (though they do have cultists/minions willing to work on their behalf). A few are able to affect the world very subtly, mostly by manipulating people, most notably Bel Shalor, the Shadow in the Flame.
The nightmare spirits called quori can't leave their home plane. They can, however, project their minds into mortal dreams, and from there possess people. As the quori have been able to use this method to create an empire and religion in the mortal world, this can is very leaky.
The daelkyr may not be able to leave Khyber, but they can move around freely within it and talk to their servants on the surface, and drive the odd mortal mad.
Call of Cthulhu. In his tomb on the sunken isle of R'lyeh dead Cthulhu lies dreaming. True to the source material Cthulhu is capable of communicating with his followers through their dreams. In the Cthulhu Now supplement adventure "Dreams Dark and Deadly", Cthulhu was able to contact the minds of dreaming people and tried to use their magic points to create an avatar of himself that didn't need the stars to be right to exist.
A specialty of daemonically-possessed weapons in Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. Using them gradually brings you under the daemon's control (or just makes you go insane, which is often the same thing). The 40k video game Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising has an entire game mechanic based on this, to determine which member of your squad becomes the traitor.
Organization Book 3 The Blood and Dr. McQuark. Inhuman creatures who are virtually immortal, immensely powerful and hideously evil are trapped inside the Earth. They can contact humans and corrupt them to gain followers, but can't escape on their own.
Adventure 4 The Great Super Villain Contest. The Crimson Claw's secret masters once ruled the Earth, but the power that banished them set up barriers to keep them out. The only way they can return is to be summoned by a creature on this side. They have sent the Crimson Claw to provide three devices - the Emerald Eyes of Azog - to the most powerful supervillains. In addition to being able to see through the Eyes, the secret masters can cause them to act as gates to allow powerful demons to enter our reality.
The creator of Phyrexia, Yawgmoth, was the big bad of the storyline of Magic: The Gathering until the Invasion block, where it was defeated by Jerrard Capashen and his crew with the activation of the Legacy Weapon. In the Time Spiral block we learn that Urborg, the land where Yawgmoth was defeated is still tainted by the blood, oil and pieces of phyrexian corpses more than three hundred years later. (Urborg was an evil swamp to begin with, but it turned out even worse.) When Lord Windgrace sacrificed himself to close the rift over Urborg he infused part of his essence in the land to keep it in check and prevent an ulterior spreading of the phyrexian infection.
Rovagug in Pathfinder, a god of destruction so dangerous that all the other deities came to seal him within the earth. His struggles cause earthquakes and volcanoes to this day, and there is a 20 mile wide chasm called the Pit of Gormuz that leads to him, and every few centuries some new Spawn Of Rovagug escapes it to wreak havoc.
Ganon was sealed away into the Dark World by the seven sages in the backstory of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but used his evil influence to recruit Agahnim. The mage infiltrates Hyrule Castle and sets into motion Ganon's plans to capture the seven maidens and break the seal made by the seven sages.
In the Mass Effect franchise, the central antagonists, The Reapers, sealed themselves away 50,000 years ago to wait for the right time to return. However, they left one of their own behind to observe and report. Even after that one is killed by the central protagonist, however, The Reapers still have thousands (if not millions) of Slave Mooks that they control, as well as the ability to make more almost any time they want. They can even Assume Direct Control of these mooks to directly speak to, and deal with, tougher threats.
Mantarok the "Corpse God" is in its death throes for more than seven centuries. However, it had already set a chain of events in motion by this time that manipulate several pawns and allow them to defeat the other Eldritch Abominations that bound him.
The other Ancients qualify as well. They're sealed in the great Darkness with only Mantarok to keep them in check. The events of the game involve one of them (actually all of them) using their various pawns, artifacts, and minions to simultaneously get themselves free as well as completely screw over the others.
City of Heroes. The demon Bat'Zul, which was sealed under Cap Au Diable in the Rogue Isles. He was sealed properly, until a Mad Scientist realize he could drain electrical energy from the demon to provide cheap and efficient power to the city... with the small side effect of lightning demons occasionally jumping out of the power lines.
In The Secret World, most of the cans are a bit leaky to begin with, with The Filth, a tarry ooze that causes nasty tentacled growths and even nastier insanity, being the most obvious sign. Some of the sealed evils can influence the world in other ways, too (Aten was able to keep its cult going despite being imprisoned, for example).
The Phantom Blot from Epic Mickey is a being of paint and thinner who spilled over Wasteland and spread destruction all over it. They managed to seal it back into its jar, but little blotling enemies keep leaking out of it.
In Dante's InfernoSatan was able to send his essence out from Hell and corrupt others to do as he wishes. He escapes his secondary prison (a giant Eldritch Abomination body) to fight Dante, but in the end, Dante uses the souls he absolved in Hell to defeat Lucifer and seal him back in the 9th Pit of Hell (with a stronger seal this time). However, he somehow manages to escape as the ending reveals he transforms into a snake.
Corypheus, the ancient sentient Darkspawn in the Dragon Age series, has been sealed away by the Grey Wardens since the First Blight, but is still able to telepathically enthrall individuals in the general vicinity of his prison, who then devote their lives to finding a way to break him out (which involves trying to kill the Player Character and his/her sibling in the Dragon Age II DLC Legacy). Corypheus is only doing so subconsciously; upon being freed, he seems totally unaware of his darkspawn nature or even the fact he has been locked away for centuries.
In Final Fantasy V, Exdeath spends the first half of the game sealed away by the crystals, but he is still able to command monsters and to mind control some people in order to bring about his release.
In Fatal Frame 3, when the ritual to seal away the Rift failed, the head of the shrine attempted to seal it into a dream world (the Manor of Sleep) to prevent it from spreading. This still doesn't work however, as it draws people suffering from Survivor Guilt into it, allowing it to spread.
Dhaos from Tales of Phantasia is capable of brainwashing people even when sealed in mausoleum. In particular, he ordered Mars this way to find pendants that will unseal him.
Many of the Old Gods in the Warcraft universe were sealed away by the Titans, but their influence remains, affecting events on Azeroth through the centuries. During their imprisonment they have still managed to build insectoid empires, weaken the mortal races, corrupt one of the great Dragon Aspects, and warp the minds of countless cultists.
Justified in Neverwinter Nights 2 because the Sealed Evil built the Can itself for its own protection. After Illefarn's final attempt to destroy the King of Shadows nearly succeeded the King hid in another dimension while it recuperated. Both times it started to leave (once via the Astral Plane, where it ran afoul of the githyanki, and once in the game proper where the Player Character defeats it), it first used various types of minions (undead, Shadow Priests, and an avatar called the Nightwalker) to prepare the way.
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia: Dracula was defeated and sealed some time ago. The Order of Ecclesia has found a spell that will finally destroy Dracula once and for all. Which is good, because his evil monsters are still about. Dracula can also still corrupt minds within his seal, which is why the Treacherous Advisor will use the spell to destroy Dracula's seal.
It could be said that Dracula is in an almost constant state of this, being "killed" and sealed away over and over again, while his dark power influences others to revive him so the process can start all over again. It isn't until 1999 that he's somehow finally killed for good.
The Soulstones from the Diablo series turned out to be this as a result of Izual filling the Prime Evils in on how to corrupt them. Mephisto's soulstone in particular resulted in the Zakarum high priesthood becoming corrupted and turning into demons.
Phantasy Star IV reveals that the solar system it takes place in is actually an enormous seal on a can that holds a dreadful Bigger Bad called The Profound Darkness. The seal is not intact and every millennium it leaks Dark Force, the Big Bad of the previous three games. And because Dark Force manages to destroy one of the planets in Phantasy Star II, the leak has become even bigger...
Several decades before the start of Quest for Glory IV, a Dark One, Avoozl, attempted to break through into the world, assisted by a cult who worshiped it. After a tremendously bloody battle, the archmage Erana sealed it away at the cost of her own life. Unfortunately, her seal was not perfect, and Avoozl has had a lingering effect on Mordavia as its power leeches into the surrounding woods. In particular, certain types of magic (particularly teleportation and scrying) don't work properly in the vicinity of the Cave of the Dark One, the woods are increasingly filled with undead monsters, and by the time of the game itself the road into and out of Mordavia has been blocked by a swamp which drowns anyone who attempts to pass it.
Diablo: Due to the work of the Archangel Tyrael and a group of humans he trained named the Horadrim, several of the Prime Evils were locked away into soulstones designed to contain their essences and stop them from pursuing the Eternal Conflict onto Sanctuary. Unfortunately, these soulstones don't prevent the Evils from corrupting mortals who have the misfortune to be near their resting places, and all of them end up manipulating said mortals into releasing them. In Diablo III, they all get locked into the Black Soulstone, a super-jar for demons. Despite this, their power is such that spells must constantly be cast to prevent their demonic rage from leaking out.
In MeatShield the ancient half-dragon demon Disparoxus is imprisoned in a magic seal inside a cave, but if somebody actually comes into the cave and finds the seal he can talk to them, and he gives one guy a medallion the lets him talk and cast spells through it (although he only uses the latter when his dupe outlives his usefulness).
The Snarl from The Order of the Stick was sealed by the gods in a jail that used the entire planet for the lock. However, five rifts have formed in said jail, one of which allowed it to reach through and kill Soon Kim's wife, Mijung. Soon's party locked the rifts with impassable gates, but now four of the five gates have been destroyed, and the rifts they covered have grown huge. (Although, oddly, nothing of the Snarl has yet reached through.) Until strip 945.
anti-HEROES has the demigod Arderas, who was imprisoned in a special demiplane by a fiend who used to be his colleague. However, he managed to kill said fiend halfway through, leaving enough gaps in the prison for him to talk to mortals. At the time of the story, that ability had earned him his own city and army.
Skullmaster spends the first season sealed up inside the Earth's core, but still manages to command his various minions on the surface.
In the episode "Souls of Talon" the titular Talon, a soul-devouring monster from the astral plane, throws itself against the gateway to the physical world in an attempt to escape. Unbeknownst to Talon, its attack causes natural disasters in the human world, which draws the attention of Max, Norman, and Virgil.
In Danny Phantom, Sidney Poindexter's spirit is trapped in an alternate spirit dimension version of 1954 Casper High. The mirror he left behind in his old locker, 724, serves as a portal between the worlds. Poindexter can't normally cross through the mirror portal, but as he witnesses several bullying attempts on the present-day real world side, he is able to use his ghostly power to reverse the bullying and turn it back onto the bullies.
Shendu the demon sorcerer from Jackie Chan Adventures was sealed into the form of a statue when the magical talismans that control his power were removed from his body. When in this form he retains the ability to speak and apparently to breathe fire.