Fictional heroes "live because they are idealizations and projections of ourselves," says Ray B. Browne, chairman of the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University. "They are what weak and fallible people would like to be -- strong and infallible."

And yet when real people break through their limits and accomplish feats of unimaginable strength and endurance, they are often outlived in notoriety by our fictional heroes.

Remember Lenny Skutnik? Possibly not, but you do remember the Lone Ranger. And that's just the point Roger B. Rollin, William James Lemon professor of Literature at Clemson University, makes in his essay: "The Lone Ranger and Lenny Skutnik: The Hero as Popular Culture."

Skutnik was the government clerk who braved the icy Potomac River to rescue an injured and drowning victim of the January 1982 Air Florida jet crash.

Most people have forgotten Skutnik because "one of the things we use heroes for is to piece out, or to shore up, our identities," Rollin says. "As much as you might admire what Lenny Skutnik did, it's hard to hold him out as kind of role model and say, 'Boy, I'd like to be this guy,' because {you} probably make more money than he does and {you're} probably at least as good-looking as he is."

Unlike their fictional counterparts, real-life heroes also run the risk of basking in the spotlight, only to burn under its intensity.

"The media give such close scrutiny to real-life heroes that pretty soon we find out they cheated on their exam at Harvard or they plagiarized a law school paper and -- boom! -- it hits the fan and the hero loses stature," says Rollin.

While sociologists, folklorists and mythologists maintain fictional characters are needed "for people to grow on," Browne finds them unnecessary -- and somewhat dangerous.

"It's not because they're make-believe," Browne says. "The danger, and the terror, comes from the fact that as long as we project our own desires and our own weaknesses into these people, we remain weak ... As long as we live in projected characters, we refuse to live fully in ourselves."

M. Thomas Inge, Blackwell professor of the Humanities at Randolph-Macon College, agrees that adulation of make-believe characters is dangerous -- but only if they embody a dangerous political stance ... and "are representatives of a kind of fascist attitude toward solving problems and taking the law into your own hands."

"But most mainstream heroes," Inge adds, "are not politically oriented. That enables them to be more open-minded to issues, more flexible in their attitudes and better representative of the virtues worth admiring."

Susan Stamberg, host of National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition," finds it hard to see anything but good in the fantasy world of fictional heroes.

"Growing up is hard and thorny to a child; being mature is difficult for adults. And so that realm of escape, where anything is possible ... will always be powerful for us," says Stamberg who, along with Browne, Rollin, Inge and others, will be a panelist at this weekend's "The Superhero in America" symposium.

As it is, she adds, "There's very little room for the spirit to flourish. You get too bogged down in computers and data banks and processing and getting the laundry done. It keeps us healthy to have lively fantasy lives, and superheroes help us to do that."