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WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Tarot.

Tarot is one of the oldest and most popular methods of divination. A form of cartomancy, it’s the practice of connecting with ancestors, spirit guides, or hidden aspects of the self by drawing cards and interpreting their hidden meanings. British occultist Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the iconic Rider-Waite-Smith deck which remains the standard representation of each card and forms the basis of most tarot analysis today. But there are endless interpretations of the 78-card structure. Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg’s Tarot imagines a similar deck with the power to bring a reading’s final outcome to bloody life. Designed by a witch who infused the deck with her dying blood, this grisly stack contains malevolent variations of tarot’s most frightening faces. 

Haley (Harriet Slater) and her friends stumble upon the deck while searching for alcohol in a rented house. A self-taught tarot reader, she insists it’s bad luck to use someone else’s cards, but reluctantly gives each of her friends a personalized reading using the Zodiac Spread. This configuration involves twelve cards arranged in a circle to correspond with the astrological chart. Haley adds a thirteenth placed in the middle as a final outcome – the most direct and powerful message of the reading. 

She pulls a card of the Major Arcana for each final outcome, indicating a particularly powerful theme. This series of 22 named cards is arranged in a sequence commonly understood to represent the cycle of life. No card is inherently good or bad, though many have their own reputations. In the Minor Arcana, the three of swords is said to foretell betrayal while many believe the two of cups predicts budding romance. A reversed card, or one pulled upside down, can indicate blockage, opposition, or corruption of the original meaning. 

There is no one way to read tarot or to interpret individual cards. Each deck becomes a unique tool believed to absorb the energy of the reader. Haley attempts to bring her own positivity to this violent deck, but she cannot combat its intense negativity. Each image is designed to terrify, with ghoulish imagery and malevolence pervading the stack. In one reading she pulls the Tower, a particularly ominous card predicting drastic and often shocking change. Smith’s imagery shows a brick tower struck by lightning. Flames shoot from upper windows while screaming victims fall. This card becomes a harbinger for the events of the film and an eerie forecast of the carnage to come.  

Tarot is now available on VOD outlets at home.

High Priestess Tarot Card

Haley first gives a reading for birthday girl Elise (Larsen Thompson) that concludes with the High Priestess reversed. This hideous illustration shows a screaming wraith clutching an upside-down cross in her clawed hands. Said to represent the darker side of the feminine archetype, the High Priestess is often associated with clairvoyance, mysticism, and the occult. As Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack writes in her seminal book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, “We partake of the High Priestess every time we read the cards.” This final outcome has little to do with Elise herself, but serves as an omen for the entire group. Reversed, this card warns us against ignoring our own judgment or intuition, but Haley precedes with these ill-advised readings. The blindfold worn by this cinematic High Priestess represents this unheeded warning and the destruction caused by Haley’s refusal to follow her gut.

The Hermit Card

Ninth in the series, the Hermit, is a card of inner contemplation. Smith’s illustration shows a hooded figure with a staff and glowing lantern. Other interpretations feature an old man or crone, indicating transference of knowledge from a seasoned guide. Reversed, this card becomes a warning against isolation or paranoia. Self-reflection can be beneficial, but hiding away from the world can lead to loneliness and despair. Cohen and Halberg play with this darker approach by creating an ominous Hermit who commands the darkness. Screaming from beneath his dark cloak, this skeletal creature is able to blot out all light and force its victims to follow his sinister path. Lucas (Wolfgang Novogratz) runs from this nefarious figure and winds up alone in an alternate dimension. Trapped in a ghostly train station, he can no longer connect with the outside world. He’s so caught up in this isolated delusion that he cannot see the subway train hurtling toward him. 

The Hanged Man Tarot

Similar to the Hermit, the Hanged Man indicates stillness and introspection. Smith’s illustration shows a man serenely suspended upside down with his legs crossed in the shape of a four. Though its name hints at violence, the Hanged Man is a grounded card extolling the virtues of strength and stamina. Inspired by meditation and yoga, this imagery invites us to find peace in uncertainty. Classical variations do not include a noose, but Cohen and Halberg take inspiration from historical executioners to highlight Madeline’s (Humberly González) struggle to embrace her fear. Reversed, the Hanged Man can indicate inner turmoil or a reminder to stay strong under intense pressure. Madeline first encounters this ghoulish manifestation as it circles her from outside a stalled car. Though her horoscope warned her not to run in times of danger, she can’t withstand the Hanged Man’s terror. She gives in to fear and flees, delivering herself into the monster’s clutches.  

The Fool Tarot card

The first card in the Major Arcana indicates the beginning of an adventure. Fool energy invites us to take a risk or step out into the unknown. Rather than silliness or stupidity, the Fool is blissfully naïve and embarks on a journey with innocent abandon. Reversed, it can warn against a rash decision or unconsidered risk. Paxton (Jacob Batalon) is the lovable fool of the group. They see him as a ridiculous jokester and he leans into this endearing reputation. But his devil-may-care attitude takes a dangerous turn when he abandons the group after Madeline’s death. Ignoring the truth, he rejects the advice from his reading and sets off alone to fend for himself. 

Returning to campus, Paxton notices a sinister figure in a red court jester’s suit watching him from across the courtyard. Smith’s Fool is a jovial man enjoying the sunshine with a stick and parcel perched on his shoulder. But Cohen and Halberg have adapted a darker variation. Swiss occultist Joseph Paul Oswald Wirth’s Les 22 Arcanes du Tarot Kabbalistique deck envisions the fool as a malevolent joker. His Fool is also headed on a journey, but scowls at an animal biting his leg. The cinematic variation is a similar trickster who torments Paxton before going in for the kill. The creature twists and folds his body upside down, reversing his position and mocking Paxton for his deadly choice.  

Magician Tarot Card

The Magician follows the Fool in the Major Arcana and both cards carry a similar energy. However, where the Fool is innocent, the Magician is intentional. Smith’s design features a wizard standing in front of a table with elements from all four Minor Arcana suits at his disposal. With one hand holding a wand in the air, the Magician’s other hand points down, indicating a manifestation of magical ideas. He is a creator and a performer, evolving Fool energy with measured intention. Reversed, the Magician is a destroyer. He could foresee lethargy or inaction, but a darker reading indicates an abuse of power. When drawing the card, Haley warns Paige (Avantika) to beware of deception and dangerous tricks.

The Magician reversed is traditionally seen as a bad omen – an eerie predictor of tragedy to come. Following suit, Cohen’s and Halberg’s Magician takes inspiration from malevolent clowns and horrific illusionists. Similar to Oswald Wirth’s variation, the Juggler, this frightening manifestation wears a large top hat and garish stage makeup while performing for a ghastly audience. Paige has climbed into his trunk under the illusion of safety and now finds herself the unwitting star of his torturous show. On stage, the Magician changes the trunk’s dimensions and forces Paige into a reclined position, creating the lethargic energy of Magician reversed. Embodying Smith’s illustration, he raises his makeshift wand, a jagged saw, and proceeds to cut the box, with Paige inside, into bloody pieces. 

Having recognized the pattern, Haley and her remaining friends seek guidance from a reader who’s tangled with these cards before. Alma (Olwen Fouéré) once used the deck with her own friends decades ago and watched them all die by their final outcomes. She tells them about the Astrologer (Suncica Milanovic) who created the sinister deck and offers to help them break this centuries-old curse. But the Astrologer surprises Alma with a reading of her own and pushes towards her the six of swords. The disturbing illustration shows a man crawling forward with six long blades protruding from his back. One sword for each of her departed friends, this imagery represents Alma’s slow and futile movement towards justice and retribution. 

This ominous card is the only one of the Minor Arcana to be featured in the film, but it packs a no less powerful punch. This 56-card series is similar to that of a standard deck of playing cards with the swords suit symbolizing interpersonal action and conflict. The six of swords is often interpreted to represent a protracted journey nearing completion and Smith’s illustration features a ferryman rowing a parent and child out of troubled waters. Similarly Alma has been heading towards a confrontation with the Astrologer since the long-ago death of her friends. As a mother figure, she leads Haley towards a solution but finds an end to her own pain in death.   

The Devil Tarot

This familiar figure occupies one of the deck’s most infamous cards. Said to convey addiction or negative attachment, the Devil reversed can also encourage us to rebel and break free from established systems. Many iterations show a grinning demon with curved horns holding chains encircling a pair of tormented victims. The cinematic manifestation is a nightmare come to life, incorporating classic imagery from religion and mythology. The horned beast drags Grant (Adain Bradley) away from Haley and towards a pit of burning roots, a manifestation of his feelings since their breakup. After drawing the card for her ex, Haley stresses a need to confront his inner darkness, but it may hold meaning for the couple themselves.

When drawn with the Lovers, sixth in the major arcana, the Devil could indicate a romantic relationship that has begun to sour or addiction to a person who is no longer supportive. Perhaps Haley and Grant are the chained lovers unable to see a way out of their tangled relationship and the Devil is merely solidifying their uncertain breakup. Haley claims their relationship was cursed from the start and the appearance of the Devil may mean that she’s right. 

Death Tarot

Death is not only tarot’s most feared card, it’s arguably the most misunderstood. Placed thirteenth in the series, Smith’s interpretation features a skeletal figure riding a pale horse on a battlefield littered with bodies. Oswald Wirth’s version is more simple – a skeleton wandering through a field of bones, similar to Cohen’s and Halberg’s muscle-bound humanoid standing on a pile of skulls. Haley notes that this card rarely means physical death, but often a time of transformation. We also learn that Death is a repeater or stalker card that shows up frequently in her personal readings. Not simply a coincidence, stalker cards can indicate a persistent energy or a lesson yet to be learned. Haley has interpreted Death as a predictor of her mother’s slow demise, but it seems she has taken the wrong lesson from its repeated appearance. 

Death can be an incredibly liberating card, representing purification or a shedding of toxic skin. Haley admits to breaking up with Grant because the cards would not bless the relationship. Perhaps she is placing too much weight on these final outcomes and taking them as directives rather than invitations to reflect. The cards don’t predict our fate, they simply help us uncover hidden parts of ourselves that already exist. They are tools to assist us in finding our own path, not creators of paths themselves. After tangling with Death, Haley emerges with a new understanding of fate and a willingness to listen to her own intuition. 

Tarot presents a frightening interpretation of legendary cards empowered by a sinister spell, but Haley learns an important lesson through this deadly reading. It’s always okay to reject a pull or placement that doesn’t feel right. There is no correct way to interpret the cards and divination always begins with a connection to the self. Many practitioners don’t recognize reversals at all. They simply turn the image around and continue the reading. The cards do not control our lives and the only power they hold over our future is the energy we choose to give them. If we pull a card we don’t like or one that does not resonate with our personal energy, it’s always okay to put it back and draw again. 

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