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Shawn: You've seen The Mentalist, right?

Cop: Yes.

Shawn: It's like that.

Gus: Except that guy's a fake.

Shawn: Right. If I were a fake psychic, it would be eerily similar.

Gus: Exactly the same.

Shawn: A virtual carbon copy.
Psych, "Extradition: British Columbia"

The grift-speak name for a person that runs a psychic game is 'Reader'. And it ain't about Tarot cards.

They are the profilers of the grift world. A reader learns more about where a mark's buttons are with a single side-long glance than most people will ever figure out about him. Certainly more than the mark does, anyway.

Phony psychics have a specialized set of tools available for exploring those buttons; Tarot cards, Ouija boards, convincing trance-states, cold-reads, and so forth. These are used to refine the reader's understanding of how best to operate the buttons. Once they are clearly understood, the mark is moved into one of a number of specialized tales.

Some of those tales:

  • Bury The Guilt -- The button is guilt. The mark needs to go somewhere ooky and bury some money to mollify the spirit of someone they have wronged. That's the classic form. It takes many, many others. The main play is convincing the mark that coughing up bucks equals making atonement. The exact method of dispersing the money really makes no difference at all, as long as the reader can grab it after the mark blows off.
  • Rope Out -- The button is greed. Best play here? Get your Con Man buddy in on it. He has tales for that. Boy, howdy, does he have tales for that. The reader's main concern here is to assure that it is clear to the Con Man that they have a split coming.
  • Pimp -- The button is loneliness or horniness. Best of, all ... both. Steer the mark toward a prostitute/gigolo that understands the play.

See Fortune Teller for more "legitimate" psychics, and Not So Phony Psychic for legitimate psychics who think they're phony.

No Real Life Examples, Please.

Examples of Phony Psychic include:


Anime and Manga

  • XxxHolic has a chapter where Yuuko demonstrates the difference between a fake psychic who tries to ask for more money to give Watanuki some love, and a real psychic who guesses Watanuki's name and ghost-seeing abilities without even talking to him.
  • Mai Valentine pulled a fake psychic act at first in the Duelist Kingdom arc of Yu-Gi-Oh!; in reality, she scented all her cards with unique scents so she'd know by scent which cards she'd draw. Joey figured out her trick when he closed his eyes and noticed the scents. Despite having caught a cold a few episodes ago from diving into the ocean in an attempt to recover Yugi's Exodia cards.
    • Espa Roba also pulls a phony psychic stunt in the Battle City tournament, with help from his brothers spying on his opponents' cards and relaying them through a headset.
  • Horribly played with in Tantei Gakuen Q. As a part of a Plan to rebuild her business and save her family from financial ruin, the widow Hanayo Ichinose faked her death, got plastic surgery and tried to make herself pass as one of these to protect her kids. Her two sons, however, mistook her for an accomplice of their evil aunt... and to protect themselves and especially their beloved little sister, killed Hanayo before she could reveal the truth...
  • Miroku in Inuyasha is a genuine Buddhist monk with very real spiritual powers... whose favorite trick upon arriving in a town is to single out a large, prosperous-looking household and announce that it is "threatened by evil spirits," which he then generously offers to exorcize in return for a meal and a place to stay for the night. Every now and again one of these houses surprises him by actually harboring a spirit or two.
  • Psychic Detective Yakumo is another genuine psychic who is not ashamed to pull a con. In Yakumo's case, his one and only psychic power is the ability to see and communicate with the spirits of the dead; he makes money on the side by pretending to be able to tell which card a mark has pulled from a deck in his "office," which has a mirror conveniently placed to give him a clear view from behind his desk.
  • Mob Psycho 100 is about the Con Man Arataka Reigen, who hires the actual psychic Shigeo "Mob" Kageyama for his ghost-exorcism business. Reigen is also a more benevolent example: he is pretty much Shigeo's Parental Substitute, is truly dedicated to helping out his clients, and can play the Guile Hero part well when needed. And later it turns out he does have a bit of Psychic Powers after all. . .
  • One of Shiho's jobs in Private Actress involves playing one of these at the request of the child star Konomi's father, who wants to marry the girl's manager but has Konomi fiercely disapproving because she misses her dead mother. So if Shiho disguises herself as a psychic and conducts a fake séance supposed to invoke the mother's soul, Konomi will stop opposing to the engagement, right...? Shiho soon realizes that there's more to the lady than it seems, though, so she decides to protect little Konomi from her. Subverted at the end, where Shiho pulls a very dangerous stunt to save Konomi's life but cannot remember anything about it... opening the door to the idea that the mother's spirit might have taken possession of Shiho's body to protect her little girl from beyond the grave...


Comic Books

  • Alan Moore's original graphic novel version of From Hell had a historical phony confessing to the main character in a flash forward prologue. But he notes, despite making everything up on whims or to cover his own tail, he was still always right...


Film

  • Alfred Hitchcock's final film Family Plot stars Barbara Harris as a faux psychic and Bruce Dern as her legman-researcher.
  • In Magicians, part of Karl's reinvention of himself as a 'street' magician involves a Phony Psychic routine complete with Cold Reading. He's not very comfortable with it to begin with, but when his would-be girlfriend leaves him when she learns he's not a real psychic and upon hearing the sad story of someone coming to see his act who wants to make contact with a loved one on the other side he breaks down and admits he's a fake. At the end of the movie, we then see that a much less-scrupulous magician has filled the niche he left behind.
  • The classic Film Noir Nightmare Alley features Tyrone Power as a venal carnie who gets the show's resident "psychic" to give him the secret of a successful con before accidentally poisoning him. Without spoiling too much, it's safe to say things do not end well for him.
  • The B-plot of Ghost is a Phony Psychic played by Whoopi Goldberg discovering that she actually can See Dead People.
  • A similar idea crops up in the earlier Ghostbusters: Peter Venkman, the de facto leader of the team, starts out as a phony parapsychologist (i.e. he treats the science as a joke), but gradually becomes a true believer throughout the course of the story.
  • In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy runs across a fortune-teller who tells her to close her eyes, and then proceeds to looks through her bag. He finds a picture of Dorothy and Auntie Em, and tells Dorothy that Auntie Em has fallen ill - a more benevolent example of the trope than many, as the result is to inspire Dorothy to head back home instead of running away as she'd intended.
    • This is referenced/parodied in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure: a psychic tells him that his bike is in the Alamo's basement ( this was divined from her being across the street from "Al and Moe's Bargain Basement").


Literature

  • Dirk Gently has tried to be one on several occasions. The fact he's invariably accurate (but never manages to make any money at it, and at least once was arrested) annoys him intensely.
  • Played for laughs in the Diogenes Club story "Angel Down, Sussex" by Kim Newman; a young woman, Catriona, visits a psychic after World War I, and the psychic divines that she is seeking contact with a soldier, Edwin; the psychic assures her that her soldier felt no pain when he died and that he sends his love to her from the afterlife, and a ghostly, indistinct image appears. After a moment, Catriona points out that there's one problem with the psychic's reading: Edwin, the soldier who the psychic has made such direct contact with? Isn't actually dead. Turns out Catriona's a particularly savvy paranormal investigator, and proceeds to deconstruct the psychic's act with devastating accuracy and reveal to her other patrons that she's a sham.
  • In the Connie Willis book Inside Job, the ghost of H. L. Mencken helps debunk phony psychics, by possessing one during their act. Possibly. Or it's the most complicated scam in existence to make a debunker believe in ghosts.
  • Employed by John Sandford in The Empress File using rigged Tarot readings to convince a corrupt official to invest in a scam. Then it's averted in that a later unstaged reading comes out completely true.
  • Repairman Jack helps Phony Psychic brothers stop a rival husband-and-wife Phony Psychic team who are trying to drive them out of business in The Haunted Air.
  • Madame Tracy from Good Omens is a phony medium who puts on a show for Londoners looking to paddle in the occult while staying firmly in the metaphorical shallow end. To that end, she does Tarot readings with some of the more distressing cards removed from the deck, and pretends to channel departed friends and relatives who offer vague platitudes about how nice it is on the other side. Much to her surprise, she ends up channeling an actual ghost when Aziraphale temporarily possesses her body.


Live Action TV

  • The show Psych is about a phony psychic who's on the right side of the law; he feigns psychic abilities but really uses his acute powers of observation to solve crimes.
    • Why doesn't he use his real ability to be a legitimate police officer (like his Dad) or a successful non-psychic P.I.? First, he's Brilliant but Lazy. Second, he's such a goofy dork that most of the department would rather believe he's in on the crimes he solves than admit he's just that good - they settle for letting him call himself a psychic. Third, Shawn thinks being thought of as psychic is more fun.
      • He's got a criminal record for stealing a car. That tends to be frowned upon in most precincts. It's implied in the show that he stole the car to deliberately ruin any chance of being a cop like his father.
      • Not to mention, they already have a show like that.
  • The NBC reality show Phenomenon, about the search for the best new magician, had judges Criss Angel and Uri Geller call out a man for pretending to be able to talk to the dead. When Uri Geller calls you out on psychic fakery, you've done something very wrong.
  • Lost's Richard Malkin appears to be a "legit" Fortune Teller in the first season episode "Raised By Another." However, in the second season episode "?" he admits he's a fraud. It's still up in the air whether he had an actual psychic experience reading Claire in "Raised By Another."
    • Miles genuinely has the ability to hear the dead, but semi-counts because of his history of telling clients what they want to hear for money, and using it to find a dead drug dealer's cash.
  • The Mentalist character Patrick Jane used to be a Phony Psychic, but he angered a Serial Killer who then killed his family. Now he helps the law as a consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation with Hyper Awareness.
  • Law and Order SVU had one, who claimed he could find missing/dead girls. Turns out, with the help of his manipulated wife, he was the one kidnapping and killing them. CSI also had a variation of this.
  • The Leverage episode "The Future Job" has a Phony Psychic as the villain, and the episode is wholly recommended for the great detail they go into on his methods.
    • It also is utterly hilarious: the team convinces the villain (who is very aware that he's running a con) that one of them is a real psychic.
  • Most of the bad guys in Trick are running this scam. The ones who aren't are the guys handling the business end of the scam.
  • One episode of John Doe had a woman who honestly thought she was having psychic visions about a serial killer. Turned out that she herself had been abducted and wounded by the killer, but escaped, and promptly forgot most of her ordeal due to trauma and blood loss.
    • Of course, the show already has a secret organization using actual psychics for remote viewing purposes.
  • One episode of Hetty Wainthropp Investigates had Hetty being hired by a woman to debunk the psychic her mother was seeing as a fraud. To complicate matters, the local police are also investigating the medium, for suspected blackmailing, and Hetty helps them set up a sting operation by fabricating a scandalous story about her "dead" husband's illegitimate child. The episode actually goes with Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane for the psychic's abilities, though she does make extensive use of the standard cold reading tricks, but the focus is on the blackmailing.
  • In Supernatural, Sam and Dean Winchester run into an entire town of these in "The Mentalists". Lampshaded to no end, but particularely when Dean mentions that Pamela was one of the few genuine psychics they have encountered. There are actually some real ones as well, including the villain, who has summoned the ghost of a dead psychic to kill the impostors, while her equally psychic and ghostly sister tries to warn people about her.


Tabletop Games

  • Illuminati: New World Order parodies them. You can dial 1-900-SUC-KERS to talk to your psychic buddy.
  • One of the books for Orpheus suggests a plot hook where one of these - a medium with her own television show and absolutely zero talent, as opposed to the Player Character "operators" - makes the Orpheus agents, already on the run for the suspected murder of the rest of their organization, the targets of a crusade.
  • The Witchcraft core book has a fiction piece where a phony medium earns the ire of a lot of ghosts, and it's only due to the intervention of one of the Gifted that she's not torn to bits.


Theatre

  • Madame Flora in The Medium by Gian-Carlo Menotti.


Video Games

  • The Pkunk from Star Control 2 are an entire race of relatively harmless Phony Psychics. Complicating things are the fact that it's implied that they actually do have some authentic psychic powers, and it's not always clear which of their statements are the real thing and which are nonsense. It's also not totally clear how much they buy into their own act.
  • Implied by the "Phone Psychic" career in The Sims games. No Sims have real psychic powers (though they can get magic in the first two games) and any random Sim can take the "psychic" career, so they're probably faking.


Webcomics

  • PvP did a similar thing to the above example, with Brent and Cole attending a taping of Crossing Over With John Edward. Brent is picked as a target, and leads Edward on with a story about a deceased teacher and his sister; when Edward falls for it, Brent says, "Yes, all us Skywalkers are strong in the Force." When the edited show is broadcast, it just comes off as a success for Edward.


Western Animation

  • The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin, of all franchises, subverted this trope with a wizard character who claims to be psychic and can show visitors magical images of anything they want to see. The catch is that, while the wizard doesn't actually have any powers, the images he shows are real. What the wizard's customers are actually seeing are films taken by the wizard's assistant, who spends a lot of time flying around Grundo taping interesting sights and places, which are then projected onto a screen. The whole "magic powers" schtick is just a way to attract customers, and otherwise the wizard isn't actually conning anyone.
  • Parodied in the Home Movies episode "Temporary Blindness", in which Coach McGuirk is believed to be psychic after going blind, and attempts to give a demonstration to an audience:

 "Did someone over here lose a loved one?... How about over here? I'm getting a strong feeling from... here? Here. Say between 'here' and 'here.' Anyone, between this hand and this hand, going all the way back. No? So you mean to tell me that in this room full of people, no one... you don't know anyone who's died? No one, nothing. Look, it is statistically impossible that no one here knows someone who died. *sigh* Alright, who wants me to channel some dead celebrities, how about that?"

  • In the Powerpuff Girls episode "I See A Funny Cartoon In Your Future," the girls try to catch a fake psychic who uses her tricks to distract victims while her assistant picks their pockets.
  • An episode of South Park has Stan trying to debunk phony psychics after Kyle is convinced by one that his dead grandmother is disappointed in him. This being South Park, all of the idiot adults he tries to reveal the tricks to just think he has become psychic and encourage him to pursue this newfound "power." This leads as far as getting him his own (unwanted) TV show where he continues to try to demonstrate why all the psychics on TV are phony.
  • A medieval age version exists in The Smurfs episode "Gargamel's Miss-Fortune".
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