The fourth episode of part 2 of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina shakes up the traditional hour-long formula. Like part 1’s fifth episode “Dreams in a Witch House”, which showed the characters’ individual nightmares framed by a dream demon preying on them, “Doctor Cerebuses’ House of Horrors” is made up of short, character-specific, horror-filled segments, each framed through a tarot card reading.
Generally, the cards fit to the stories that unfold, though most of them seem to be chosen as visual cues over their actual meaning. Anyone steeped in tarotology will notice a few glaring disconnects between the chosen symbols and their actual meaning, especially in the way mysterious tarot reader Mrs. McGarvey describes them and in the way the witches react. These characters are masters of the occult and ... should probably know their tarot.
So what do these card spreads actually mean? And do they fit in with the story at hand? Or is Mrs. McGarvey — revealed to be Madame Satan in disguise — trying to deliberately mislead them?
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Chilling Adventures of Sabrina part 2, episode 4, “Doctor Cerebuses’ House of Horrors.”]
The basics of tarot
Before we begin, some rudimentary tarot. Tarot cards are separated into the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana is made up of 21 cards, each assigned a symbol or figure (The Fool, The Sun, The Wheel of Fortune) and usually indicate bigger life events. For instance, the Sun indicates a time of prosperity. The Minor Arcana is separated into four suites (Cups, Wands, Swords, and Coins) and represent more everyday situations.
The Magician - The Tower - Three of Swords
Sabrina has doubts about the loyalties of her new boyfriend Nick, because of his promiscuous past. Mrs. McGarvey pulls out The Magician to describe him as a “handsome trickster that few women can resist.” In a literal sense, Nick is a magician, but the Magician card symbolizes resourcefulness, putting a plan into action, as well as knowledge and capability. There is an aspect to the Magician that involves impressing others and the reversed meaning (the “bad” aspects of the card when it’s upside down) does involve a sense of manipulation, but when right-side up it’s less about charming tricksters and more about carrying out new plans.
In general, the Minor Arcana court cards (Page-Knight-Queen-King) usually represent people more often than the Major Arcana cards do. The romantic and flirtatious Knight of Cups would have been a better choice for Nick.
Mrs. McGarvey doesn’t comment on the reversed Tower card she places down, but that’s one of the biggest YIKES of a tarot reading. The Tower card is pretty ominous: it represents sudden, disastrous change and upheaval. The reversed card means that it’s one of internal growth and change versus one that comes from external factors. This actually doesn’t seem far off from Sabrina’s newfound affinity for the “dark side,” but it’s not addressed.
Finally, the Three of Swords is used to literally depict the three Weird Sisters coming after Nick; in reality, that card symbolizes heartbreak and emotional pain.
If we look at the spread without the narration and accompanying short, it fits Sabrina to a tee: Sabrina herself is on a quest to take charge of her life and change the institution of the Church of the Night, this will require massive personal transformation, and the end result might be sorrow. Pinned to Nick — Mrs. McGarvey says that this means Sabrina can trust him, but not necessarily the others — the cards don’t add up.
Knight of Swords - Wheel of Fortune
The Knight of Swords fits just fine for Theo, who is most curious about his own transition. Knight of Swords represents an individual on a mission, a quest. But the Knight of Swords also represent a desire for success and assertiveness, which doesn’t quite line up with who Theo is. It does, however, mirror who he wants to be.
The Wheel of Fortune meanwhile represents karma and life’s constant changes. Upright, it urges you to have faith in the way the wheel turns, so to speak: what goes around will come around.
Mrs. McGarvey tells Theo not to resort to stealing, which fits in line with the karmic message of the Wheel of Fortune, and to have faith in how it turns. Also mentioned, though, is reaching out to others for help — a message not reflected by either card.
Roz’s dilemma revolves around whether or not she should go through with a pricey operation that will restore her sight, but will rely on donations from her father’s parish. The Justice card pops up when people need to make an important choice with long-lasting repercussions — there is more going on here than the fact the Justice card is blind. Unfortunately, Roz only gets one card without any indication of the future, but Justice asks you to trust your inner sense of morality, which Roz ends up deciding to do in the end.
The High Priestess - The Hermit
Zelda is set to marry the High Priest Father Blackwood, so on the surface the High Priestess card looks enticing. Her big question is about the secret she’s harboring: she kidnapped Father Blackwood’s infant daughter because she feared what he would do to her if he found out he didn’t have a son. She wants to know if this is something she should reveal.
The High Priestess’ meaning represents intuition, but reversed it represents secrets and repressing intuition. Literally every bit of the world is telling Zelda that this marriage is a bad idea, but she’s ignoring her gut in the pursuit of power. Additionally, the High Priestess symbolizes tapping into the Divine Feminine; Father Blackwood wishes to suppress the female influence of the witches.
We’re told the Hermit physically represents Desmelda, the outcast witch who Zelda gave Father Blackwood’s infant daughter. In reality, the Hermit symbolizes isolation and self-reflection. Perhaps the cards actually urge Zelda to take a moment to think about this rushed marriage, trust her intuition and eventually realize that she should not marry someone who thinks femininity is inferior. But Mrs. McGarvey reads the spread as if Zelda needs to continue to keep her secrets. Much like Sabrina’s reading, the cards could make sense when applied to the situation, but the way Mrs. McGarvey delineates them misleads Zelda — whether this is on purpose is still up for question.
The Fool - The Hanged Man - Ace of Pentacles
Harvey wants to know if he should go to an art program in Rhode Island. The Fool fits pretty well. It represents a youth at the start of their journey, a new beginning.
Though Mrs. McGarvey uses the Hanged Man to foreshadow Harvey’s potential roommate’s suicide, the Hanged Man actually reads another way: It represents a period of reflection, figuring out what you need to let go of in life to move forward. Another key facet of the Hanged Man: clarity comes from discomfort. Harvey should shake off some of the comfort he’s grown accustomed to in Greendale in order to grow as a person and an artist.
But Mrs. McGarvey tells Harvey that this means he should stay in Greendale. In actuality, it looks like the cards are urging him to let go of Greendale so he can move onto new horizons.
This is further confused with the last card, the Ace of Pentacles, which symbolizes new career opportunities. But Harvey’s a clueless, foolish mortal who doesn’t know better, so he listens blindly to Mrs. McGarvey.
The Hierophant - The Devil - Death
Ambrose specifically wants to know where his boyfriend is. The first two cards in the reading do indicate something is up. The Hierophant points to Father Blackwood, as it represents tradition and conformity. The Devil, meanwhile, points to limitation and addiction, as well as binding contracts (a la “selling your soul to the Devil”). In the vision Mrs. McGarvey relays to Ambrose, he makes a disastrous deal with Father Blackwood.
It’s the Death card — and more importantly the reaction that the characters have to it — that throw a wrench in things.
Mrs. McGarvey holds it close to her chest, unwilling to reveal it to Ambrose. When he finally gets it, he stands up in alarm and flips out — and quickly learns that his boyfriend Lucas died.
But the Death tarot card does not mean death. Death is not a bad card. Death looks scary, but the card is about transformations and rebirth. Unlike the Tower’s violent, sudden changes, Death often indicates the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one. It could very well be that there is a big change coming for Ambrose, but the way everyone reacts when the Death card is weird, considering they’re all, well, witches and presumably know their occult.
At the end of the episode, some of the characters get pretty accurate readings that will help them — but the others are distorted, their meanings blurred a bit. It could be Madame Satan deliberately misconstrued the meanings of the cards in order to play into her grand scheme, but one has to wonder: why don’t the witches know any better?