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Homer: Sanctuary! Sanctuary!

Lovejoy: Oh, why did I teach him that word?
The Simpsons, "Missionary Impossible"

Scenario: You're The Hero, and you're being pursued by something -- something evil, dark, sinister, bloodthirsty, and demonic. Maybe it's The Heartless, or the Enemy Without or your Super-Powered Evil Side that wants to return to you. Maybe it's your universe's parallel of Satan, or at least something working for him. If you're lucky, the villagers just decided to break out the Torches and Pitchforks.

Where do you run? The sanctuary of the nearest Church.

Why? Because it's symbolic of a safe haven from demonic forces, who can't set foot on holy ground. Unfortunately, the symbolism usually stops there. The "What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic" factor in this move is inversely proportional to its probability of success.

When a character seeking sanctuary in a different sort of way, wanting to be alone to talk to God, that's Sanctuary of Solitude.

Examples of Seeking Sanctuary include:

Anime and Manga

  • Yu-Gi-Oh!: Bakura goes into a church while running from his Super-Powered Evil Side. Unfortunately, it's already inside him.
  • In Dennou Coil, the Satchii (anti-virus programs, the city is an augmented reality) can't follow people into Shinto shrines. It doesn't end there though, apparently you can trick them by drawing the basic shape of a shrine gate on the ground with chalk, then standing on it.
    • This is because they can't go to private spaces in general, and shrines are counted as such, however. Any private property will do - they can't attack anyone in their own home, for example - but shrines are the easiest place to go, since they're still open to general populace, but not to the peace-disrupting Satchiis.
    • The restriction on private spaces and shrines are unrelated, as Satchii are also barred from public spaces like parks. This sanctuary doesn't come from any higher morality, but just bureaucratic infighting - Satchii are run by the Ministry of Posts, but schools are run by the Ministry of Education while shrines and parks fall under the purview of the Ministry of Culture[1]. They're just keyed to recognize torii as shrine indicators, to the point where a solitary torii from a demolished shrine or a sketch of a torii can apparently suffice to trick them, and since Daikoku is an old town, there are a lot of old shrines nestled among the back streets.
  • Greenback Jane in Black Lagoon tries this when she runs afoul of some of Roanapur's criminal elements. Unfortunately, the only church found in the Wretched Hive is the Corrupt Church, and things rapidly go downhill for her.
  • This ironically happens in Claymore, where the main protagonists take refuge in a holy city that actively shunned them only seven years ago.

Comic Books

  • Played with in the Graphic Novel Hikateia, starring Wonder Woman. A young woman appears at the door of the Themiscyran embassy (WW's home), and uses the eponymous ritual to demand sanctuary and protection from the thing that chased her all the way from Gotham... Batman.
  • Subverted once in Hellblazer when John Constantine traps a group of demons inside an old church by having his accomplices pour holy water around the outside after the demons have entered to get at him. Then comes in the Aztec Death God that he had made a deal with earlier, who can walk past the holy water barrier that the demons cannot cross.
  • Subverted in The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers "A Mexican Oddysey" storyline. Fat Freddy, on the run from the police, spies a Catholic church and runs for it, saying to himself that it has been a tradition for centuries for the Catholic church to provide sanctuary for the hapless fugitive. He runs in the church, asks the priest for sanctuary...and the priest immediately runs outside and yells for the cops.


  • Spider-Man 3: After realizing things have gotten out of control, Peter goes to a church tower where he tries to free himself from the black symbiote. He later learns the ringing bells generate that loud noises are the symbiote's weakness, freeing him. This is actually more or less how it happened in the comics.
  • The film Sometimes They Come Back has the hero and his family hide from demonically resurrected hooligans in a church. When one of the punks tries to enter the church to attack them, his limbs begin to catch fire as they pass the threshold.
  • One of the Rules of Highlander: no Immortal can fight another on Holy Ground. Any holy ground of any religion seems to work, but churches and graveyards are the most common. Whether it's an honor system or an actual binding law seems to vary by show/movie. In one TV Movie, an attempt to fight in a Buddhist Temple causes omnious thunder and the swords to break, while in Highlander Endgame - a group of Immortals tired of the fight are slaughtered on presumably (it's the subject of much debate) Holy ground.
    • In one episode of Highlander the Series Joe tells Duncan that the last time an Immortal killed another on holy ground was in 79 AD, in a little town named Pompeii.
  • In Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow movie, the town residents are gathered in a church for a meeting when the Headless Horseman shows up outside. The Horseman's body and weapons dissolve upon contact with consecrated ground, and it would seem that his plan to kill the heroine's father is thwarted. So the Horseman ties a rope to a stake and launches it through a window impaling the father. The Horseman then pulls on the rope, yanking the father out of the window, then he pulls on him until the father gets stuck in the fence. (Unfortunately for the father, his head is now sticking beyond the border of the consecrated ground...)
  • In the opening of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, zealot Judge Frollo pursues a gypsy woman and kills her on the steps on the great cathedral, where she had been pleading for sanctuary. The archdeacon orders him to raise the woman's infant, the deformed Quasimodo, in penance.
    • Later on, Esmeralda seeks sanctuary to escape the guards, but Frollo simply bides his time, knowing that she will have to leave eventually - "Gypsies don't do well inside stone walls".
  • The cultists in the Silent Hill movie did this to escape the monsters and darkness that Alessa and the demon inflicted upon the town once nighttime rolled around.
  • Les Visiteurs: Godefroy, a temporally-displaced medieval knight, charges into a modern-day church on a horse bellowing "Sanctuary!" It takes a full squad of riot cops to get him out.

Folklore, Mythology, and Religion

  • One version of the Arthurian legends has Mordred's sons murdered by their rival at a church altar after they take sanctuary. This is basically the worst thing he could possibly have done by the standards of the time.
  • In Classical Mythology, this was a recurrant theme. Characters persued by somebody trying to rape or kill them could rush to the nearest temple and prostrate themselves as a supplicant before the image of the god. Violence of any kind (with the sole exception of ritual animal sacrifice) was strictly forbidden on temple grounds, so any gods-fearing pursuer would have to stop off their attack. In myths where an attacker kills somebody at the altar anyway, they usually suffer the vengeance of the god whose sanctuary they violated.
    • In one version of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason's mother tried to escape being raped by fleeing into the temple of Hera. She managed to pray three times before she was caught and raped in the temple, as a result, Hera helped Jason three times in his quest.


  • Subversion: The Zombie Survival Guide explicitly warns the reader not to go to a church when zombies attack. The reason? Everyone else who goes there will likely pray loudly for protection, and the sound of their prayers will draw the zombies straight to them.
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The original book and most adaptations, including Disney's.
  • Older Than Feudalism: In The Bible, one of Solomon's brothers runs to grab "the horns of the altar" after a coup, apparently under the belief that that will protect him.
    • The reason for this was the fact that the horns of the altar (actual bronze horns) were held by the person making a sacrifice so that they could be forgiven. Since they were sacred, the belief was pretty accurate, as long as Solomon respected the altar of God. Fortunately for the brother, he did.
  • Shannara: One of the signs that things are going to crap is that Feeders are running amock in a church.
  • Deconstructed in the novel version of I Am Legend, which provided scientific reasons for classic vampire weaknesses and behaviors.
  • In The Sanctuary Sparrow, a Brother Cadfael mystery by Ellis Peters, a young man accused of murder flees an angry mob and takes sanctuary in Cadfael's monastery. This means Cadfael only has a limited amount of time to solve the murder, before the law -- or the mob -- can get at the accused.
  • In Sandy Mitchell's Warhammer 40000 Ciaphas Cain novel Duty Calls, how Cain persuades the Sisters of Battle to stop blindly advancing: pointing that they would leave a gap in the battle line once they were slaughtered, and the tyranids would pour in, charge straight to the temple, and slaughter all the refugees praying there for the Emperor's protection -- and if they wanted to report before the Golden Throne having permitted that, he wouldn't stop them. Not only do they retreat, one later thanks him for reminding them of their duty.
  • In one of the Deverry novels, the wife and daughters of the slain lord of the Wolf clan seek sanctuary from their enemies in the Boar clan at a temple. The Boars respect the sanctuary of the temple, but leave a squad of men behind just outside of the temple's lands, ensuring that the women cannot leave without being captured.

Live-Action TV

  • Played very straight - to surprisingly good effect - in an episode of the New World Zorro series. While they're driving into town together, Don Diego's mentor is shot by government officials convinced he's a traitor. The only way for Diego to get him treatment is to duck into the nearby pueblo church and claim sanctuary...then try to figure out how he's going to either a] transform to Zorro without giving the secret away or b] get out of this as his meek alter ego.
  • In one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the reverse occurs, when a group of vampires decide to prove that they have enough courage to invade a church on a Sunday morning. This involves the symbolism of the church as a sanctuary--the vampires used to believe in such an idea, but their attitude toward it changes to mockery once they are inside the church. Possibly there are other kinds of religious symbolism, but an attempt to figure out what they are will, quite disappointingly, end in What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic.
  • Subverted with a vengeance in American Gothic: in the episode "Inhumanitas," Caleb believes he will be safe from Buck's evil influence by taking shelter in the church, but the sheriff not only has no issues whatsoever stepping into the sanctuary and relentlessly pursuing his attempts to corrupt the boy, but he is even able to exert Demonic Possession on him, proving how little the forces of holiness can touch him...until Merlyn lays a delicious smackdown on him. Of course, the fact that the parish priest had sold his soul and was attempting to break free of the deal may have had something to do with why Buck was first untouchable, then vulnerable.
  • Done completely straight in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
  • Subverted in Supernatural's "Salvation", where Meg makes it clear that only minor demons are forbidden from holy ground.
    • Invoked in "I Know What You Did Last Summer". Anna may not have been safe in the church, but at least it had a bleeding Virgin Mary early warning system.

 Sam: "If you were religious, scared, and had demons on your tail, where would you go to feel safe?"

  • There was an X Files episode where Scully and a bunch of kids hide from Satan inside a church; in fact the chaser is revealed to be Satan after it turns out that he can't cross the threshold.
    • Are you shure that's X Files? I'm having trouble remembering that episode.
  • In the Kolchak the Night Stalker episode "Firefall", Kolchak takes refuge from a pyromaniac poltergeist in a church (due to its being on holy ground). He later sees the ghost looking into the church through a window.
    • He sees a poltergeist? The word refers to an invisible ghost.
  • On an episode of M*A*S*H, an AWOL soldier takes refuge in the mess tent while Father Mulcahy is using it for a church service. Mulchahy takes up the boy's cause, and many calls are made to find out if a mess tent qualifies as an actual place of sanctuary. The answer comes back no, and the MPs are sent in to get the soldier, who wards them off at gunpoint. Incensed, Father Mulcahy upbraids the kid for defiling what he previously considered a house of the Lord by pointing a deadly weapon at someone. After Mulcahy disarms him despite being at point black range, the kid feels bad and gives himself up.


  • In the Fairport Convention song "John of Ditchford", the title character claims sanctuary at Wooten Church after killing Henry Felip. The church coroner tells him he must accept exile, and so he takes a heavy cross (indicating he's still under sanctuary) and heads for the coast. He gets a mile before being killed, presumably by Henry's son, who's already killed the other members of the gang.

Tabletop Games

  • In the tabletop system Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye) every Temple consecrated to the Twelve Gods (which may more or less just be a bush in the case of the God of Hunting) provides protection against demons.


  • Grimly subverted in Shakespeare's Richard III (as in Real Life) when Richard, Duke of York, taken to sanctuary by his mother, Queen Elizabeth (no, not that one), is haled out of sanctuary on the arguments of the Duke of Buckingham and subsequently murdered in the Tower.

Web Comics

  • The Phoenix Requiem subverts and plays it straight at the same time. The people think that they are safe from the shades in the church, but it is heavily implied that they are wrong. On the other hand, they can't enter Hyde Asylum.
  • Selinda's Haven in At Arms Length is a shelter on Earth for all (reasonably decent) beings, including magical or alien beings seeking asylum from evil regimes or Blood Knights that are seeking them, and mortal victims of magic, usually of the Baleful Polymorph variety.

Western Animation

  • Teen Titans: Raven and Robin hide from Slade, now Trigon's messenger, in a Church. Slade follows them in, Robin passes out, and Raven runs for it.
  • Played for laughs in The Simpsons, in which Homer is being chased by members of PBS who are out for blood. He eventually makes his way to the church and runs in screaming "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" Reverend Lovejoy irritatedly questions why he bothered to even teach him the word.

Real Life

  • Historically, most western governments have respected Church's right to offer sanctuary. This was not true in Aparthied South Africa, however. During the student protest movement, a rally at a university turned ugly, and the riot police chased the students into a church. The students figured the police would respect the church, but they just barricaded the door and tossed in a tear gas grenade, forcing those inside to jump out the windows.
    • Incidentally, the historical rule (at least in England) was that a person could claim sanctuary in a church under specific circumstances, and often had to leave the Kingdom within a fixed time. But hey, better than getting killed by an angry mob.
  • In Ancient Hebrew law cities of refuge were scattered across Israel where people guilty of accidental manslaughter could go and be safe from the Avenger of Blood (presumably meaning the representative of the aggrieved family). Someone could move to a city of refuge where they would live until the High Priest died, after which he could leave and not be killed. However if the person was found to have purposely murdered the person they would be handed over to the avenger for punishment.
  • In ancient Sparta, Spartans slaughtered helots who had taken refuge in a shrine of Poseidon. Then an earthquake struck. The Spartans concluded they were being punished.
  • In Rome, a man was killed after having been promised free passage from a temple. He could not be killed while on temple grounds.


  1. In the actual government, the Ministry of Posts was absorbed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in 2001, while the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Culture are the same
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