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Not-So-Phony Psychic

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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 they THINK that they are). They usually think that they're doing it right, but don't know it better. Alternatively, the Not-So-Phony-Psychic may well think they're cheating people of their money when they actually do dabble in the occult (and screw up). The "Holy crap, it was REAL?" look on the clients' faces is usually priceless.

The usual formula for a Not-So-Phony-Psychic intro episode is as follows: The heroes meet them due to their celebrity status or by coincidence. They find out that the psychic is doing it wrong on national T.V. or by accident when they see them "at work". The crew joins them and fixes their screw-ups, sometimes explaining how and why. And the Not-So-Phony-Psychic is enlightened — usually meaning they'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, or Phony Psychic.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • 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.
  • Dandadan: Hoshiko uses her psychic powers to guess that an idol is 27, is married with children, and that his favorite food is curry. He tells her that he's 20, single, and his favorite food is ramen and everyone in the studio laughs at her. Come the end of the chapter and we see that she was right all along.
  • Ghost Hunt:
    • The first arc 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 addresses that possibility.
    • Ayako is another case, a Miko who never shows any sign of significant powers and whose efforts to exorcise or turn spirits are never effective, leading to her being The Load (although secondary in that status to Mai) for most of the series. However, a later arc reveals her power depends on the presence of tree spirits, and all of the cases the team had taken thus far were in urban areas. When the protagonists are attacked by zombies in a grove, Ayako curb stomps them.
  • 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 until the first time he meets Loki and gets a glimpse of his true form.
  • 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.
  • Nobuko Saeki of Shugo Chara! is a famous TV show psychic who first introduces the topic of guardian spirits to Amu. In the second volume of the manga, she states that she just made up her talk about guardian spirits and it became popular with people. However, she presumably doesn't believe it's all nonsense because she is able to see Guardian Characters, who can only be seen by people who believe in them.
    Nobuko: I do see and hear things sometimes. But there are days when I don't see anything at all. I just made up some nonsense about guardian angels and it became a big hit. (distressed) I actually hate the occult! It's all in my imagination! It's not real!

    Comic Books 
  • Robert James Lees in From Hell. "I made it all up, and it all came true anyway. That's the funny part."
  • Played With by Doctor Strange. Strange certainly knows what he's doing, but most of the world at large assumes he's a phony, and he's fine with that since it gives him privacy that makes his job easier.

  • While Bruno in where the dandylions play actually can see the future, he avoids actually using his gift and uses more "conventional" forms of divination (Tarot Cards, Crystal Balls, etc.) to make his living. This is explained that Bruno is able to charm his audience with drama and people prefer familiar ideas of what a Fortune Teller does rather than the very real implications of his power.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Oda Mae Brown in Ghost (1990) is a fake medium that 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.
  • In Malevolent (2018), Angela has been pretending to be a medium for the scam that she and her brother are perpetuating. Unfortunately for her, she starts seeing real ghosts, and they start noticing her.
  • Eye of the Needle. The German spy played by Donald Sutherland is told that Hitler's astrologer has predicted the Allies will land at Normandy instead of Calais, so Der Fuhrer wants him to investigate. He scoffs at the idea, but finds the Calais invasion army is made of mock-ups, setting off the plot as he races to relay this information to Berlin.

    Films — Animation 
  • The Princess and the Frog: Lawrence initially dismisses Dr. Facilier as a con-man and a scam artist, but, while Facilier definitely is both those things, his magical abilities are very far from fake.

  • Dirk Gently. In the Back Story, he pretended to be a psychic but everything he predicted came true. He was so accurate he was branded as a fake because psychics are never that accurate, and had to be smuggled out of town. He's at it again at the start of the second novel, deliberately making up nonsense. 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.
  • Harry Potter:
    • Sybill Trelawney, on a good day. She actually can produce full and true prophesies, but only when in a trance that she cannot remember, and so far as we know it only happened to her twice in her life. Most of the time she relies on tarot cards, crystal balls, and omens, and her readings of them are always wrong and treated as a joke. Except that, in fact, fans have noticed that these tend to be accurate foreshadowing and it's her interpretation that's completely off... except the one tragic time she was completely correct, was taking it seriously, and was trying to warn others. She was ignored because of her awful track record and drinking habit.
    • Fans also noted that anything Ron says as a joke tends to come true.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • Harry Dresden himself at least used to advertise himself in the paper as a wizard for hire. Despite being a violation of the Masquerade, most straights thinks he's either a PI with a gimmick, a stage magician, or a Phony Psychic trying to distinguish himself, especially since he hires himself out for magical consultations and his chief client is Chicago PD. Even the head of the the Chicago Outfit spent several books unsuccessfully trying to hire Harry full-time, until he just gave up and hired a valkyrie as his magical security advisor instead. This was a Downplayed angle, however, since the books really do focus on the magical threats Harry faces.
    • A stronger case in minor but recurring character Mortimer Lindquist. Mortimer is a minor magical talent and naturally only has access to the "ectomancy" discipline of magic. As a magic talent, it's narrow, but he's amazingly adept within his field of expertise. As an ectomancer, he makes for a good necromancer in the classical sense of the term, making him a good medium and being able to conjure, communicate with, and manipulate the dead in limited capacities. (More traditional necromancers reanimate and enslave the dead, whereas ectomancers like Mortimer can be seen as custodians and caretakers of the dead, particularly their spirits.) When Mortimer first appeared, due to misuse of his powers and drinking, his powers atrophied to nearly nothing, making his living as a medium by conning his clients rather than genuine medium work. Harry, though, persuades him to take the job seriously again. By his third appearance in Ghost Story, Mortimer's shaped up and, while still only able to use ectomancy, he has just as much power as a middle-ranking member of the White Council - to the point where Harry explicitly notes that in his field, Mort is every bit as strong as Dresden himself, who's consistently in the top 50 Wizards in the world for raw power.
    • Death Masks features a Jerry Springer Expy who is hell-bent on outing Harry and Mortimer as frauds, bringing in a whole slew of experts against them. What makes the whole thing hilarious is that everyone on the stage apart from the host is a supernaturally empowered being of some sort. Yes, the debunkers too. All of them.
  • 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, a.k.a. 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 and to generally have their expectations confirmed. (She's even taken most of the Major Arcana out of her Tarot deck because they're too scary.) One of her fake sessions is nevertheless interrupted when she's possessed by a disembodied angel. Then said angel puts through the actual ghost she's been pretending to contact, the deceased Henpecked Husband of a rather unpleasant woman, who promptly takes the opportunity to tell his former wife to shut up.
  • 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, three times in a row. 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Not-So-Phony Witches, in this case. In Season 4, Willow joins a Wicca group on UC Sunnydale campus, but finds herself disillusioned when they dismiss her as a stereotyping wannabe for wanting to discuss spellcraft instead of bake sales. Three years later, she turns to them when she is desperate for help, only to find that they are a real coven of practicing Wicca now.
  • 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.
  • Doctor Who: In "Planet of the Spiders", the Doctor identifies a mentalist stage performer who has started to develop genuine ESP, yet represses it because he's afraid of going insane.
  • 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.
  • Ghost Whisperer: Melinda Gordon once had her town visited by a famous TV psychic, whom she tries to contact to warn him off from making things worse and/or maybe team up before she notices he is a fake. For his part, he thinks she is just trying to run him off "her turf". Later, circumstances 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!
  • The Twilight Zone (1985): In "The Trance", Leonard Randall is a con artist who claims to be able to channel the spirit of Delos, a warrior who lived in Atlantis 10,000 years ago, by placing himself into a trance. Delos is nothing more than the invention of Leonard and his business partner Don, who have made a small fortune by taking advantage of gullible people. It soon becomes clear that Leonard's powers are actually real as he manages to channel an extremely wise and benevolent being who speaks through him without his knowledge. This strange voice exposes Leonard's claims about Delos as fraudulent during his first TV appearance on Daphne Blake's talk show and later tells Leonard that it will spend the two or three decades teaching him the wisdom of the universe.
  • An inversion of sorts happens in an episode of Psych, where main character and Phony Psychic Shawn Spencer visits a traditional gypsy fortuneteller named Miss Ivana (who turns out to be faking the traditional part, including the accent) with Gus and the guest star of the week. Gus gets some good laughs out of presenting Shawn to the fortuneteller as a fellow psychic (Gus and the audience knowing full well Shawn just has Awesomeness by Analysis going for him), convinced that that the fortuneteller is also fake. However, certain things indicate that while the accent is not real, the fortuneteller predicts the guest star's character's death with tarot cards and is able to read the thoughts of the rather eccentric and pop-culture-obsessed Shawn. Notable that all supernatural phenomenon had been debunked in the show at this point (usually by Shawn and Gus themselves, despite them usually wanting to believe otherwise, Depending on the Writer) but in this case, they have no doubt that they're in the presence of a person with real psychic abilities.
    Miss Ivana: You are thinking... whether Ted Knight... and Jim J. Bullock had anything to talk about on the set of... Too Close for Comfort?
  • In a Season 7 episode of Supernatural, the brothers visit Lily Dale, a town filled with Phony Psychics. In one scene, the viewer sees a museum curator claiming to have a modest family history of psychic power. After speaking to the brothers, he grabs Dean's arm.
    Curator: I’m sorry, I don't normally do this during business hours, but do you know an Eleanor... or an Ellen? She seems quite concerned about you. She wants to tell you -– pardon me -– if you don't tell someone how bad it really is, she'll kick your ass from beyond. You have to trust someone again eventually.
  • 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]

    Video Games 
  • The "Medium?" legacy in Cultist Simulator starts off as a Phony Psychic with a very profitable routine, until the dead notice and take offense. This results in the Medium babbling like a lunatic in one of their readings and getting fired, after which they gain the ability to genuinely read the memories of the dead... by eating their flesh.
  • Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc: While the veracity of Yasuhiro's psychic abilities is left in the air, one of the predictions he makes in-game will be right, depending on how the player approaches the fifth trial. At one point he'll say that his and Makoto's children will share a mother- this is true in the Bad Ending, where Kyoko is framed by the Mastermind, leaving the remaining students with no way to escape, and all three boys end up having kids with Aoi. Later, after the third trial, he'll say there will be no more murders. This is true in the canon Good Ending, where Makoto takes the fall for Kyoko, as unlike her Alter Ego saves him in the nick of time. The fourth case is a suicide, the fifth case is a fake with the corpse of a student who died earlier, and the final victim is the Mastermind, who also commits suicide.
  • Inverted by Hu Tao from Genshin Impact. Rather than someone lacking in knowledge dabbling with real rituals, she is legitimately knowledgeable in the nature of life and death but advocates using fake rituals and hocus pocus. She thinks it is better for the populace to remain ignorant to the true nature of life and death, lest they become superstitious.

    Web Comics 
  • Mieruko-chan:
    • In Chapter 6 Miko encounters Mitsue Takeda, a fortune teller and psychic known as the "Godmother of Downtown". Mitsue at first seems like an old fraud who's just looking to make money, but she does have enough genuine psychic ability to see the presence haunting Miko and tries to help.
    • Chapter 25 introduces Shindou Romm, whose first impression is of a huckster trying to sell vastly overpriced baubles to Miko and Hana. Much to Miko's surprise, his "power stones" really do have the ability to ward off ghosts, and when Julia watches some of his videos in Chapter 26 she becomes convinced Shindou is the real deal as well.

    Web Original 
  • Invoked in the Evil Overlord List: "All crones with the ability to prophesize will be given free facelifts, permanents, manicures, and Donna Karan wardrobes. That should pretty much destroy their credibility."

    Western Animation 
  • 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 under the wet dock instead of the dry dock, calling to question whether it was precognition or just his subconscious picking up the details.
  • Madame Xanadu appears in the opening scene of the Young Justice (2010) Season 1 episode "Denial", where she's a fake psychic who gets exposed by Kent Nelson, who adds that it's a shame she's not doing it for real because she's got "the perfect aura for the work". Since in The DCU, she's a powerful seeress and sorceress, he's presumably correct. She later appears in Season 4 as a real psychic.
  • After being kicked out of the theater in Magical Maestro, Presto the Magician waves his wand around nonchalantly, which causes rabbits to appear. Even he seems surprised that its magic is real, and that's what gave him his idea for revenge.

Alternative Title(s): Phony Phony Psychic