Next time you hit the movie theaters for a superhero flick, take a look around you. Imagine the real people slurping soft drinks have their own secret lives, donning spandex and fighting evil by night. Seem crazy? It might not be. The Real Life Superhero (RLSH) community is a growing social phenomenon.

Chances are, there’s a real life superhero peering over your city with watchful eyes as you read this.

The real-life superhero is exactly what it sounds like: a determined citizen focused on justice but who lacks super powers. (In fact, some purists reject the superhero label for that very reason). Regardless, all around the world, real people are taking up alternate identities, usually with a superhero-inspired costume, to fight crime, protect the environment, help the homeless, or perform countless other community-service activities.

The growing RLSH community is very heterogeneous; the registry comprises individual origin stories, personal creeds, and motivations; while many superheroes share generally altruistic goals which overlap with community service and volunteering, others employ unique, specific agendas.

One that caught our eye was the UK-based hero Angle-Grinder Man, who has a very particular axe to angle-grind with parking authorities. On the other hand, the Atlanta-based Crimson Fist engages in general community service, especially with the homeless, out of altruism and a quest for personal redemption.

While RLSH have been the subject of internet curiosity and the occasional news piece since the early 2000s, the subculture has only recently come under formal study by a team of psychologists at the University of Sydney. Their initial analysis gives us some insight into the demographics.

Of the participants surveyed, the average age was 33 and the majority of participants were male (researchers have already pinpointed disproportionate response by gender as a weakness of the study, as plenty of female RLSH do exist). They also found that “the average participant had been active for approximately 7 years…[and] the average member spent over 19 hours per week in RLSH activities.”

We spoke to Dr. Daniel White, the lead researcher on the project about extreme altruism. He became interested in the RLSH as part of larger study on Extreme Altruism, which he calls, “the capacity for some individuals to pursue prosocial goals to a level that violates social norms and/or the law.”

Now, we can easily see how RLSH heroes violate social norms. Most of us don’t wear costumes in public, and would look askance at someone who does. But do any RSLH break the law?

Dr. White found that the majority of RLSH activities fell under the umbrellas of either social activism or crime fighting. The World Super Hero Registry advises in their FAQ that all would-be superheroes educate themselves on citizens’ arrest statutes and other state laws to ensure compliance. White found that “the description by participants of the category crime fighter included that they operate within the confines of the law (emphasis added) while a vigilante was breaking the law to disperse justice (emphasis added). Generally, those who fight crime were respected; however, lawbreakers were viewed negatively.”

In short, these may be caped crusaders but don’t call them vigilantes. (Actually, most eschew capes for practical reasons).

But what about Supervillains? Turns out, they exist, but not like the comic versions. Instead, they operate quite similarly to Superheroes and just prefer the villain title or motif. White found that many of them use the label “to either ‘troll’ (such as Rex Velvet to Phoenix Jones) or act as Watchmen to the community making sure the RLSH keep in line.”

One thing that seems to unite the community is a dedication to taking independent action. Although you will find many superheroes networking on Myspace, White found a strong aversion to “slacktivism”. (As an internet writer and academic, few things have tickled my fancy as much as the phrase “the label Fakers and derivatives have strong negative connotations.”) Heroes universally value action over talk.

When it comes to crime fighting and prevention, most heroes do not have any specific training. Instead they take on more of a Neighborhood Watch role, generally patrolling the streets to disrupt possible muggings or assaults. Some, like the New York-based Terrifica focus specifically on protecting women from sexual assault.

Crime prevention often overlaps with community service, as RLSHs may engage with at-risk communities. Many work with the homeless, such as the Crimson Fist and these two Chicago heroes profiled by *The Columbia Chronicle.

Masked heroes, Crusader Prime and The Variable.

There are several news clips available online which feature Crimson Fist as he passes water bottles and granola bars to the homeless. Watching them, one wonders about a particular person who’d become a RLSH rather than a plain old volunteer. Why not work within the framework of an existing charity with better resources and organization?

Ultimately, we did not find an answer, but rather an incredible diversity of individual motivations. Even though many RLSH have rallied under the title and into loose organizations such as the World Superhero Registry, there are still those who operate independent of the identity. It is very much a grass-roots movements, made up of many individuals who came independently to a similar identity. Naturally, some rallied together and some rejected the title.

Dr. White faced this difficulty when many participants dropped out of his survey “due to a perceived focus on the RLSH subculture”. Many, he said, “started doing RLSH style activities independently of the community (with or without costumes/uniforms) and had already adopted or incorporated an different term to describe themselves and are reluctant to lose it.”

Furthermore, he said, “These individuals are highly passionate about what they do. Whenever individuals are that passionate about something, there is going to be friction, disagreements on how they should conduct their activities such as where should the line be drawn in terms of crime fighting, or even what the focus of their group should be. At times, this will result in a subculture becoming split (sometimes amicably, sometimes not) with at least one group taking on a new title to distance themselves from the rest of the community.” Many would rather tell their own story than be reduced to a demographic survey, which is logical, considering many RLSHs value individuality.

As for Dr. White, he will be keeping his eye on the RLSH community. He recently completed a more in-depth personality profile study, and he sees great value in continued study as the subculture is still new and ever-growing. The passion of these individuals is certainly what shines through in their interviews and internet presences. Call them weirdos if you will, but they are weirdos with hearts of gold.