A subtrope of Fake Ultimate Hero
In a world with The Masquerade
, especially of the Urban Fantasy
genre, people can be divided mainly as follows: Those that know what's going on, those that don't know what's going on, and those that think they know what's going on. Now, add some power and some involvement to the latter two kinds of people and you may get several results.
One of them is the Not-So-Phony-Psychic. The Not-So-Phony-Psychic is a person that thinks they know what's going on and/or thinks they know what to do about it. They don't. And they somehow have the power to make the mistakes that ensue. Sometimes they make money off their "talents" - by screwing up, and badly, on national television, or at the very least by screwing up in private while thinking they're a great hero, or that they're cheating people (by screwing up for money).
Mind, the Not-So-Phony-Psychic isn't usually a quack (though sometimes he THINKS he is). He usually thinks he's doing it right, it's just that he doesn't know it better. Alternatively, the Not-So-Phony-Psychic may well think he's cheating people off their money when he actually does dabble in the occult (and screws up). The "Holy crap, it was REAL?" look on their faces is usually priceless.
The usual formula for a Not-So-Phony-Psychic intro episode is as follows: The heroes meet him due to his celebrity status or by coincidence. They find out he's doing it wrong on national T.V. or by accident when they see him "at work". They join him and fix his screw-ups, sometimes explaining how and why. And the Not-So-Phony-Psychic is enlightened - usually meaning he'll still make money, but won't screw up anymore. The Not-So-Phony-Psychic will sometimes remain in the show, sometimes aiding the heroes for what little it usually is worth. Sometimes it is worth way more, though, specifically when they use their fame or resources to help the heroes.
Compare Magicians Are Wizards
Manga and Anime
- Don Kan'Onji from Bleach has a show on TV where he "exorcises" ghosts. He really does have partial awareness of the supernatural and minor spiritual power, but is actually making things worse. Ichigo sets him straight, and he pops up from time to time throughout the rest of the series.
- The first arc of Ghost Hunt centers around a high-school girl who claims that she can see spirits and ghosts and the like... coinciding with some paranormal events in an old schoolhouse. Naru soon finds enough evidence to prove that she's just faking it in order to stand out and appear interesting - but then, with further investigation, realizes that she's a latent Psychic, and subconsciously CAUSING the paranormal events in order to prove her own stories. Later events uncover a Fridge Logic alternate explanation - Mai is later revealed to have a powerful psychic potential, and all the paranormal events coincided with her idly musing that it would be 'more fun' if there was actually something spooky going on. And the final test Naru used could point to Mai as easily as the other girl... if that's the case, then it doesn't actually fit the trope, but the show never address that possibility, so...
- Yakumo Saito in Psychic Detective Yakumo really can see and communicate with ghosts, but he also has a mirror conveniently placed above the door of the club room he's appropriated as an office in order to fake clairvoyance and scam his fellow students with cheap card tricks.
- In Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok, Mayura's dad is a man hired to exorcise things. He thinks he's just ripping off a bunch of superstitious people, but he does turn out to have genuine ESP, he's just completely ignorant of this.
- Robert James Lees in From Hell. "I made it all up, and it all came true anyway. That's the funny part."
- Oda Mae Brown in Ghost is a fake medium who comes from a line of real mediums on her mother's side, but always thought that she didn't have "the gift" herself... until Sam comes calling.
- Frank Bannister from The Frighteners can see dead people, and uses this ability to con people by hiring ghosts to haunt houses and then "exorcise" them for money.
- Bedknobs and Broomsticks has Emelius Browne, a street magician who discovered a tattered old book of spells and used it to found his "Correspondence College of Witchcraft." He is shocked when he meets the film's protagonist, Ms. Price, a witch who has actually learned magic from his lessons.
- In Team America: World Police, this is implied with Sarah—throughout the movie she "senses" things that are either obvious or turn out to be wrong, but later is able to influence Kim Jong-Il's "panthers" to spare them and attack the Film Actors Guild instead.
- Puppet Master features several different psychics with legitimate powers. One of them, Dana, nevertheless makes her living giving obviously phony fortunes to tourists that she just makes up as she goes along.
Live Action Television
- Dirk Gently. In the Back Story, he pretended to be a psychic but everything he predicted came true. He does it again at the start of the second novel, and when they continue to come true, he takes to standing on his roof yelling "Stop it!" at the sky. He desperately wants to be a fraud; it's so much simpler.
- Sybill Trelawney, from Harry Potter, on a good day. She actually can See into the future, but only when in a trance that she cannot remember, and it only happened to her twice all in her life. For most of the time she uses tarot cards and crystal balls, which are depicted as not working. (Though some fans have noted that they do foreshadow things uncannily often...)
- Fans also noted that anything Ron says as a joke tends to come true.
- A minor but recurring character in The Dresden Files, Mortimer Lindquist, is something like this. According to his backstory, has magical powers called "ectomancy" making him capable of Dead Person Conversations at will and similar abilities, but due to misuse those powers atrophied to nearly nothing by his first appearance in the series. He makes his living as a medium, but it's mostly by conning his clients rather than genuine medium work. Harry, though, persuades him to take the job seriously again.
- Ghost Story shows that he's been practicing - Mortimer is still only able to use ectomancy, but in that area, he has just as much power as a middle-ranking member of the White Council.
- In The Haunted Air, Phony Psychic Lyle Kenton has a run-in with a genuine ghost, and ends up developing real powers of foresight and acquiring a genuine spirit-guide in his brother Charlie.
- Marjorie Potts, AKA Madame Tracy, in Good Omens. Interestingly, her "phoniness" seems somewhat intentional—she holds séances, but has long realized that people don't really want too much of the supernatural in their sessions, just some reassurance that their loved ones are someplace nice. One of her fake sessions is nevertheless interrupted when she's possessed by a disembodied angel.
- Played With in the Land of Oz books: the Wizard, of course, turns out to be a fraud at first, but in later volumes is actually taught magic by Glinda.
- In M.C.A. Hogarth's short story Fire in the Void Keshul is a fortune teller who does not believe a bit of it, but then the stones thrown by one of his clients turn out to be shockingly accurate. More of these prophecies occur in the novel Pearl in the Void and at one point he is stabbed and left in the waste for dead, only to mysteriously recover with bleached white skin and hair making him believe that he's the avatar of the god whose existence he previously denied.
- In Dead Eye: Pennies For The Ferryman, the main character gets a cornea transplant from one of these. The person has the main host of a bad YouTube Ghost Hunters knock off that would claim to see ghosts at each place.... However one time he actually does start to see ghosts, and is killed as he would be a wild card in the Gambit Pileup that is the book's Ghost World.
- In Robert A. Heinlein's Time For The Stars, the high-school twins think they are fooling the people testing them for mental communication, by secretly talking in a barely audible whisper. Turns out they really were communicating mentally; their code whisper was incomprehensible.
- The X-Files, episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose": The Stupendous Yappi. Celebrity status? Check. Ripping people off? Check. Mulder and Scully meeting him at work? Check. Yappi is so over the top that even Mulder doesn't believe in his abilities. Other agents and detectives do, however, and they follow his super vague leads. What makes him fit this trope is that some of his visions actually bore similarities with Mr Bruckman's statements, and he was the real deal psychic. He also appears to pick up on an incredibly rude insult that Mulder is thinking very hard at him:
Yappi: Skeptics like you make me sick! Mulder:
Mr. Yappi. Can you pick up on this
thought? [Mulder's bland expression doesn't change, but Yappi suddenly jolts like he's been stung] Yappi:
So's your old man! [Storms off]
- The Twilight Zone (1959) episode Mr. Garrity and the Graves, a traveling conman came to a town with a violent past and through various cons convinced the people there that he can raise all of the dead on boot hill, while eventually tricking the entire townsfolk, who each had certain people in mind that they did not want to come back, to pay him to not raise anybody. While he was riding away with his partner in crime and laughing at the town for believing that he can actually do the things he claimed, the dead started coming out of their graves with one commenting that the peddler underestimates his own ability.
- On Third-Doctor era Doctor Who episode features a mentalist stage performer who starts having genuine physic flashes.
- On Charmed, Phoebe is a witch who can get visions of the past or future. In one episode, she's a juror in the trial of a man accused of murdering his ex-wife, since he was able to lead police to her body—which he claims to have known through a magical vision. Phoebe, in an odd case of Arbitrary Skepticism, assumes this is malarkey until she has a vision of the actual murder, realizes the guy is innocent and has to convince the other jurors that no, the suspect really is psychic.
- Melinda Gordon once had her town visited by a famous tv psychic, who she tried to contact to warn him off from making things worse and/or maybe team up, before she noticed he was a fake. For his part, he thought she was just trying to run him off "her turf". Later, circumnstances force her to reveal the truth to him, and he just can't understand how she keeps it secret. Paraphrased:
I mean, if I could do what you do, I'd let the whole world know it...
Hell, I can't do what you do and I still let the whole world know it!
- Invoked in the Evil Overlord List: "All crones with the ability to prophecise will be given free facelifts, permanents, manicures, and Donna Karan wardrobes. That should pretty much destroy their credibility."
- On Gravity Falls supposed psychic Li'l Gideon uses obvious tricks in his shows, but actually does have telekinetic powers thanks to his magic amulet, and more occult knowledge from the second journal.
- One episode of South Park has Kyle figure out the identity of a Serial Killer through real detective work, but the idiot police won't believe him while Cartman is obviously faking psychic powers and they're hanging on his every word. So Kyle makes them listen by imitating Cartman, giving himself a semi-serious head injury and claiming to have developed psychic powers when he wakes up at the hospital, except the visions Kyle makes up point to the culprit he identified with the evidence he found earlier. He tries to end the episode with An Aesop that psychics are fake, but all the other Phony Psychics leave him so frustrated that he screams at them—just as the lights suddenly flicker and things fall off of shelves. After a Beat Kyle insists there must be a logical explanation for that, and the episode ends.
- Fillmore! has a character who claims he used to have the gift, but lost it and let someone who knew future goings-on be his informant to keep up the charade. He later seemingly uses his talents to find the school's missing lobster mascot, focusing his powers whenever he reaches a potential crossroads. However, careful watching shows that most of his choices on where to go are in fact also common sense picks if thought about, such as the lobster being his under the wet dock instead of the dry dock, calling to question whether or not it was precognition or just his subconscious picking up the details.