New York's comic book alter-ego Gotham has its Dark Knight in Batman, but it turns out the real city has its own caped crusader. Lotharios everywhere, beware, because Terrifica, scarlet-costumed avenger and protector of women, is on the prowl on the city's party scene.
All was calm on a brisk 40-degree Saturday evening around Bar 4 in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. The only things stirring were the breeze-driven mocha-colored leaves skipping and scratching across the concrete and the light traffic along Seventh Avenue.
But skidding leaves soon gave way to the deliberate clacking of red heels. It was a little early for Terrifica to start patrolling; it was only 8:30, and the social scene was hours away from awakening. However, with her red cape, matching leotard and skirt with red boots, she managed to open the eyes of a few onlookers and elicit a whisper or two as she strode into Bar 4.
For the past seven years Terrifica has been patrolling New York's party and bar scene, looking out for women who have had a little too much to drink and are in danger of being taken advantage of by men. She says she has saved several women from both themselves and predators who would prey upon their weaknesses — both from alcohol and a misguided notion that they have to go out drinking to find a companion.
"I protect the single girl living in the big city," says Terrifica, sporting blond Brunhild wig with a golden mask and a matching Valkyrie bra. "I do this because women are weak. They are easily manipulated, and they need to be protected from themselves and most certainly from men and their ill intentions toward them."
Terrifica does not claim to have superhuman powers or to be from a planet like Krypton. By day, she is Sarah, a 30-year-old single woman who works for a computer consulting company. (Sarah prefers not to reveal her last name so that she can protect her anonymity and still lead some degree of a normal life.)
To some, Terrifica may not seem all that imposing — she does not have the bulging muscles of your typical superhero. But she has a superhuman sense of purpose and belief in herself. Terrifica unfailingly refers to her non-costumed alter-ego, Sarah, as if she were another person. The heroine refuses to answer any questions about Sarah while she is working as Terrifica, saying "You are talking to Terrifica, not Sarah."
Sipping a Shirley Temple, Terrifica's voice is strong and forceful. Her brown eyes pierce through Bar 4's red lights as she talks about her mission.
"My inspiration is the need people have in the city to be protected from themselves. That is my inspiration," the heroine says. "I have to act in the most extreme situations. I'm on the front lines, in the danger zone, in the wee hours of the night. There's nothing happening here right now; it's way early. But if I come back here at 2:30, 3 o'clock in the morning, there are people drunk, making out with other people, going home with other people. They don't know what they're doing. They're drunk.
"To feel like you have to go to a bar, to put yourself out there, feeling like you have worth only when you're married, engaged, or have a boyfriend, that's weakness," Terrifica says. "People are happiest when they're alone and living their solitary lives."
To Serve and Protect the Single Girl Living in the City
However, Terrifica's mission is really twofold: she seems driven by both a need to protect all women and her alter-ego, a single girl living in the city. According to Sarah, Terrifica was spawned by a combination of heartbreak and her need deal with her own feelings of vulnerability.
Before moving to New York from Pittsburgh seven years ago, Sarah was heartbroken when she and her boyfriend broke up. Terrifica, Sarah says, was created out of her need to deal with her own anxiety of being a single woman suddenly living in a new city.
"I was living in New York, 23, feeling sort of vulnerable. I created Terrifica I guess to deal with my feelings of vulnerability being young and single in New York City," Sarah says. "I had a couple of run-ins with men that really shocked me, left me feeling confused and really hurt. … To come from a small city where I knew everyone to a bigger city where I did not was quite overwhelming and scary."
However, at some point, Terrifica became more than Sarah's personal therapeutic tool. Her purpose grew to include the protection of all women from the men who would manipulate them — emotionally and sexually.
"The reason why Batman was dark was because he kept seeing his demon [the murder of his parents and his need to avenge them] every time he did what he did," Sarah says. "I guess that is essentially the same thing with me. I experience the same hurt and pain over and over again [as Terrifica]."
Patrolling a Potentially Dangerous World With No Superpowers
Terrifica did not want to reveal how often she patrols or how she decides where she is going to go out on duty. However, different nights have different party scenes.
"Thursday nights are good nights for college students," she says. "Thursdays and Friday night are good nights for the after-work crowd down in Wall Street. Saturdays are good nights for the East-West Village where you have people coming in from the other boroughs."
Despite her persistence and dedication, a costume can be a hindrance to a passionate crime fighter like Terrifica. After all, how many real-life Batmen and Spider-Men does the average person encounter every day? Terrifica's costume could attract gawkers, a degree of ridicule and distract from the seriousness of her task, but she says that's a tactical choice.
"I have undercover clothes that I wear so that I can blend in," says Terrifica. "I wear this costume to bring attention to myself. Imagine yourself the perpetrator, one of the evil men in the world, and then you see a woman in a leotard and she's beautiful. You're going to stop focusing attention on the woman you're trying to seduce and going to try to get Terrifica to pay attention to you. So, it's a diversion tactic."
Still, Terrifica acknowledges that her vigilantism puts herself at risk. She admits that she has found herself in situations that involved physical run-ins with people who did not appreciate her interference. Her sobriety and wits have remained her greatest assets in those situations.
"I really only have my utility belt. I'm not superstrong. I'm from this Earth," she says. "I know I have to be very cautious. But the difference is I'm sober. And drunk people who are hostile are still drunk people. I have a degree of control, and my mission and purpose can usually get me out of dangerous situations."
However, Terrifica does carry pepper spray in her utility belt, which also includes a cell phone, lipstick, a camera to take pictures of alleged male predators, a logging book, Terrifica fortune cards and — last but not least — Smarties candies.
"They taste good," Terrifica says. "I need energy. What I do is very difficult. I need to stay awake long hours, driving around. Sugar helps."
Struggling to Get a Message Across
For the most part, Terrifica says, the women she has saved have appreciated her help. But she hopes to never save the same woman twice.
"That would just be sad," she says. "I get to know some of the women I save and talk to them. … It would just be sad if I would run into some of them again. There is a message I'm trying to get across where I would hope to never need to see them again."
Not everyone is a fan of hers. Some bartenders may hate her heroics, she says, because she potentially drives away their business. However, she conceded that she has some power over bartenders.
"Bartenders tend to be men, and they tend to be attracted to me," she says. "Most men are. That's part of my power."
A ‘Fantastic’ Nemesis
Terrifica has also become somewhat of a nemesis to one alleged Casanova in particular: A man who likes to dress in velvet and prefers to be called "Fantastico." He says that over the years, Terrifica has thwarted his attempts on numerous occasions to get to know women a little better.
"Well, I guess I first met her about seven years ago ... most recently last week in Carroll Gardens [Brooklyn]," Fantastico says. "I was with this woman and she was very lonely, seemed very desperate for attention. We were having a very lovely time, sharing a drink and suddenly I turn around see her [Terrifica] in this ridiculous red cape. She practically drags the woman away."
Fantastico, who says he does not have a day job, says he likes to indulge in the finer, pleasurable things in life and that he likes to bring out the pleasure in people. He is convinced that Terrifica is a miserable, lonely woman who does not want anyone else to be happy.
"She seems to have an obsession with me," Fantastico says. "She seems to have it in for men. I'm convinced she is loveless and would love to have the rest of the city as loveless and miserable as she is."
Fantastico says that Terrifica has never really addressed him directly during their encounters. She has only lectured the alleged would-be female victims about being manipulated and taken advantage of.
"She's just been very cold, very distant," Fantastico says. "But I'm sure if she did address me — her being a pretty attractive woman in her leotard — if she did hear me out, maybe she would change her attitude."
But while Terrifica has never addressed Fantastico directly, her alter-ego Sarah has. Sarah says she was seduced by Fantastico years ago.
However, Fantastico does not even remember Sarah and has no idea that she is Terrifica. He does remember Terrifica, though.
"While I don't know a Sarah, I do know Terrifica. She does exist, and we have crossed paths from time to time," he says.
"What? You mean he doesn't remember me?" Sarah asks, stunned. "You see, that's why Terrifica exists, that's why she's needed."
Fantastico insisted Terrifica has only been an occasional annoyance to him and that he doesn't lose any sleep at night knowing she's out there. "Trust me," he says. "I have no problem doing what I do."
A Heroine’s Advice for Self-Protection
Terrifica knows she can't be everywhere. She prefers to work alone but would not mind if other people donned a costume to help protect others. However, she does have advice to help women help themselves.
"The most important thing is that you do not need another person to give you love," Terrifica says. "And you should not feel that someone who promises love actually loves you, ever. People throw around the term 'love' to manipulate, to get sexual satisfaction. And you should only exist to satisfy yourself, not sexually but holistically. Do not be meek enough to believe the myths society has imposed on us to basically control you.
"And don't get drunk in bars."
Terrifica says she ultimately would like to be able to set up a hotline to help women when they feel like they need advice. It would enable her to more easily spread her message of self-protection and empowerment.
She would also like to have someday have the equivalent of Batman's bat signal. Perhaps, it could be called the "Terrific signal."
"It is my dream to have a 'T' signal going up to the clouds so that I know when I would be needed," Terrifica says.
The End of the Road for Terrifica?
Terrifica says she will continue carrying on her mission as long as there are still women getting drunk in bars, going home with men they barely know and feeling badly in the morning, wondering whether the men will ever call.
However, there are signs that Sarah is wearying of donning the red leotard.
"I'm sure Terrifica would tell you that she is always successful," she says. "But that is not always the case. Dressing in a red leotard, hanging out at bars drinking Shirley Temples is not exciting. It can get pretty dull. … There are nights when not much happens.
"I would love to be able to be at the point psychologically where I don't feel like I have to dress like a superhero to feel safe and empowered in New York City," Sarah says. "It's hard to say under what circumstances [I would stop] with my not looking so hot in a leotard anymore. I had set [age] 30 as the magic number and I'm still doing it. And I'll be 31 soon."
Well, at least one person believes Terrifica/Sarah still looks good in a leotard. As Terrifica left Bar 4, a little girl in a knit white cap and matching jacket saw the heroine and immediately stopped, looked up and smiled.
"You look pretty," the child said with a toothy grin.
"Thank you," said Terrifica, as she allowed herself to smile. "Be safe now."
Terrifica's smile soon faded away as her thoughts turned to the night ahead. "I have to go home now … to my headquarters … to prepare. I have to make some calls and find out where some of the party scenes are tonight."
And with that, Terrifica turned away, red cape lazily flowing behind her. No one else on Seventh Avenue stopped to stare at her.