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Not-So-Phony Psychic

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A Sub-Trope of Fake Ultimate Hero.

In a world with a Masquerade, especially of the Urban Fantasy genre, people can be divided mainly as follows: Those who know what's going on, those who don't know what's going on, and those who 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 who 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 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, 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, Phony Psychic, Unexpectedly Real Magic and Obliviously Superpowered. See also The Cuckoolander Was Right.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Bleach: Don Kan'Onji 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 that 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 obliterates them.
  • Mieruko-chan: Mitsue Takeda has genuine powers, but this doesn't stop her from looking, acting, and even thinking like a typical scammer. Her protege, Shindou Romm, posts videos of his exorcisms on Youtube, but most of his audience thinks he's a fraud since most people can't see spirits. The fact that he keeps telling them to subscribe and buy overpriced exorcism gear doesn't help. The few people who can see the spirits he exorcises know he's the real deal.
  • 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.
  • Shugo Chara!: Nobuko Saeki 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 
  • 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.
  • Robert James Lees in From Hell. "I made it all up, and it all came true anyway. That's the funny part."

    Fan Works 
  • Child of the Storm: Professor Trelawney, as it is implied in canon, sees rather more than even she realizes even outside of her prophecies. Most people assume that she's a hack, and not without reason, but she does have real talent. As Draco Malfoy observes, she just has an unfortunate tendency to try and force her gift. Or pickle it. Aside from that, she also has a constant urge towards high drama which leads to misinterpretations. However, at least one of her predictions, a tarot reading, is taken very seriously as the protagonists start noticing that all of it is coming true — and that it is incredibly significant.
  • where the dandylions play: Bruno 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 — 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.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Bedknobs and Broomsticks: Emelius Browne is 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.
  • Eye of the Needle: The German spy Fable is told that Hitler's astrologer has predicted the Allies will land at Normandy instead of Calais, so Der Fuhrer wants him to investigate. Fable 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.
  • The Frighteners: Frank Bannister can see dead people, and uses this ability to con people by hiring ghosts to haunt houses and then "exorcise" them for money.
  • Ghost (1990): Oda Mae Brown 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Literature 
  • The main character of Dead Eye: Pennies for the Ferryman 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.
  • Dirk Gently: In the Backstory, the titular Dirk 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.
  • 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.
  • Good Omens: Marjorie Potts, a.k.a. Madame Tracy, is an interesting example. 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.
  • Harry Potter:
    • This is what Sybill Trelawney is, 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, resulting in interpretations of him being a latent Seer.
  • Land of Oz: Played with in the Wizard. The Wizard of course, turns out to be a fraud at first, but in later volumes is actually taught magic by Glinda.
  • Psychic Detective Yakumo: Yakumo Saito 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 the Repairman Jack novel 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.
  • Tales of the Jokka: In the 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.
  • 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.
  • In Charmed (1998), 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.
  • 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.
  • 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..."
    [Beat]
    "Hell, I can't do what you do, and I
    still let the whole world know it!"
  • Joan of Arcadia: In "Touch Move", Joan's father Will reluctantly allows Charlotte Bloom, who claims to be a psychic, to help with a kidnapping case. Charlotte explains that she began getting visions after a Near-Death Experience, but many of her predictions about the kidnapping prove rather vague, and when the missing child is found via old-fashioned detective work, Will thinks it was all a sham. However, when Charlotte first meets Joan, she immediately tells her that she has a "special connection to the universe" — given that Joan is able to communicate God and do Their will, Charlotte was right on the money with that one. It's deliberately unclear just how real Charlotte's powers are, given the magical realism of the show.
  • An inversion of sorts happens in an episode of Psych when 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 fortune teller 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 phenomena 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?
    Shawn: Holy crap, she's the real deal!
  • In The Sopranos, Paulie visits a psychic who initially seems to be the standard quack who simply tells people what they want to hear. But when it's Paulie's turn, he suddenly starts talking to what is apparently of ghosts of the men Paulie has killed over the years. He cites Charles "Sonny" Pagano (Paulie's first kill) by name and mentions another asking about if "the poison ivy still itches?" (The last thing Paulie said to Mikey Palmice before killing him was a complaint about running through a poison ivy bush). Paulie storms out, thoroughly spooked and agitated.
  • In the Supernatural episode "The Mentalist", 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 Twilight Zone (1959): In "Mr. Garrity and the Graves", a traveling conman comes to a town with a violent past and through various cons convinces the people there that he can raise all of the dead on Boot Hill, while eventually tricking the entire townsfolk, who each have certain people in mind that they do not want to come back, to pay him to not raise anybody. While he's 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 start coming out of their graves with one commenting that the peddler underestimates his own ability.
  • 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.
  • The X-Files: The Stupendous Yappi from "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose". 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]
  • Good Omens: Madame Tracy supplements her income by holding seances, which are implied to be entirely fake. However, she actually is opening herself up to spiritual influences enough to allow Aziraphale to possess her. Hilariously, Aziraphale even allows the deceased human Madame Tracy was pretending to contact speak briefly, with very different results than the preceding seance.

    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, in which 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.
  • Persona 5: Chihaya Mifune, the Fortune confidant, is introduced as a conwoman selling "holy stones" that are actually just rock salt. It later turns out that she does have genuine psychic abilities (which are her Confidant bonus; she can increase your experience/affinity gain with her readings), but back when she'd first arrived at Tokyo she ended up getting conned herself into joining a cult and pushed to sell the holy stones for them. Leveling up her Confidant eventually gives her the courage to leave.

    Webcomics 
  • 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 
  • 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.
  • In 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.
  • 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.
  • The South Park episode "Cartman's Incredible Gift" has Kyle Broflovski 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 that there must be a logical explanation for that, and the episode ends.
  • 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. Nelson remarks that it's a shame she's not doing it for real because she's got "the perfect aura for the work". Come Season 4, she reappears as a real mystic and ally of Zatanna, having been inspired by what she had seen since then. Of course, she still expects to be paid for services rendered.

Alternative Title(s): Phony Phony Psychic

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