In Curtis Harrington’s eerie black-and-white mermaid film

In Curtis Harrington’s eerie black-and-white mermaid film Night Tide, the young, naively romantic protagonist Johnny – played by Dennis Hopper in his first leading role – is encouraged to have a tarot reading by a well-meaning clairvoyant, who will help him answer some questions. Is Mora, the young woman Johnny loves, really a mermaid? And does her siren-like nature and tragic romantic past put Johnny in danger? The bejewelled older woman with a hooked nose who reads his future satiates his curiosity in psychic powers by laying out cards specially chosen for him. “Take a good look at these cards, young man,” she advises. “They contain all the secrets of the universe.”

Those alleged secrets, of course, are open for interpretation – not only by the tarot reader, but by the receiver, like Johnny. In my experience as a professional tarot reader, I’ve learned that I can’t possibly read cards for a customer without first reading them. Seeing how they interact with the cards, how they react to symbolism, and how ready they are for self-reflection. Like with all communication, words are less important than body language, tone of voice, mood, and one’s highly unique aura. After all, someone can politely claim they’re interested in what I have to say, but a critical or ingenuine expression quickly gives them away.

Perhaps they were gifted a tarot reading but don’t put stock in such alleged secrets of the universe, which have been ever so conveniently painted onto cards to be chosen for each individual. Such skepticism or deceit can greatly alter the reading. Or occasionally, a stubbornly skeptical person comes to see me – again, because they were goaded or gifted by a more open-minded friend – and sometimes this skeptic reveals a “tell” when I lay down a card with an obvious heavy and loaded meaning, like Death. Their eyes widen in alarm before they collect themselves. That too, is another example of me reading the customer, and understanding exactly how to inform them of their supposed “fortune.”

Like many women my age, I became interested in tarot in adolescence, but my experiences left me unsatisfied. Too many friends who read my alleged fortune emphasized some mystical force at play, which made me uncomfortable and skeptical of the results. The idea that someone or something was trying to relay a message to me from another worldly realm was ridiculous to entertain. Many years later, a more agnostic friend read my tarot using Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris’ Thoth deck. It was a welcome change of pace. The questions were no longer concrete, like “What is your fortune?” or “What is the universe trying to tell you?” and more like: “How do these cards best apply to your life? What can you glean from their symbols? How can they help you?” The overall effect may not be as sexy, but the therapeutic value can’t be dismissed.

I resist the notion that I can read my clients’ fortunes. The tarot reader in Night Tide is equally resistant to the term fortune-teller: “It’s so vulgar. I prefer to be known as a chiromancer or clairvoyant.” But those are simply more esoteric or definitive words describing the ability to tell someone’s fortune. I do not claim to know the future, how lucky or unlucky someone is presently or how they might become so in the future. Phrases like, “You will meet a dark and mysterious stranger who will sweep you off your feet,” or “you will soon become wealthy” are never uttered in my practice. I also don’t claim to know how or why certain cards emerge in readings – no matter how eerily accurate they may pertain to a person’s life – and nor would I ever claim to understand the secrets of the universe. I read the cards to help clients understand the meanings.

Cards are drawn purely by chance, and yet there does appear to be a rhyme or reason – though your belief (or lack) of such a thing is usually more fluid than you think, shaped, lessened, or heightened by how appropriate the cards’ symbols may apply to your life. The people who are drawn to my practice, and who gain the most from readings, are often intuitive thinkers, keen to read into symbols, and are looking for answers. Rarely do their religious or spiritual beliefs correlate with their belief in tarot. Usually, they are soul-searching, stuck in a rut, or facing some problem. Often, they already know the answer to whatever that ails them, but need confirmation. Tarot provides that confirmation.

In Night Tide, one of the essentials in Johnny’s reading

In Night Tide, one of the essentials in Johnny’s reading is the Hanged Man, a powerful and symbolically loaded card. He also appears in the Thoth tarot, the primary deck I use. When I draw the Hanged Man, I can tell a client is suffering from stagnation in their life, that there is a need for surrender, or to break through old habits and behaviours. In Night Tide, Johnny’s myopia of the potentially dangerous situation presented by femme fatale Mora prevents him from making appropriate decisions. He is a hanged man, marooned by love, on his way to total shipwreck. Johnny doesn’t seem to believe the need to follow the clairvoyant’s advice – this is a common occurrence.

The Hanged Man, alongside a few others – including Death, the Devil, and the Moon – are difficult cards to explain to clients, because they contain painful, powerful truths. Often, what I must tell someone is that they have an inability to let go of things that are emotionally draining, or they must begin to admit certain truths about themselves that they’re unwilling to let on. Resistance to self-reflection following a tarot reading is a normal reaction – we don’t want to blindly follow someone’s advice, even if that person is right or someone whom we respect. Often we need to figure out our own path – no matter how laden with mistakes. For Johnny, that path is potentially dangerous, but thankfully, my clients aren’t falling in love with sirens. Usually, these folks are unsure whether to quit their job, switch majors in school, stop an addictive behaviour, or break up with a loved one. They are hanging onto something toxic – a relationship or perhaps a negative idea about themselves – and it’s seemingly impossible to let it go.

As brutal as such readings may sound, for each card I draw, even the most painful ones, I do offer ways to gain autonomy. I don’t expect people to immediately break up a toxic relationship simply because a reading is making that connection. Many of the tarot cards I use contain helpful advice on what to try next, to let their soul-searching begin. Meditation, yoga, socializing with friends, journalling, and other forms of self-care are common recommendations in my practice, and some cards point to specific activities to guide self-reflection. The Chariot, a Major Arcana card showing a driver sitting still in a motionless chariot, is directly asking the recipient to become introspective through meditation. The Queen of Cups shows a woman whose face is nearly hidden by light beams, and represents emotional integrity. When I draw these cards, their meanings are different. The Chariot has to do with self-reflection necessary to start a new path, while the Queen of Cups is about embracing the openness of emotions. Both – and indeed, many of the cards in the Thoth deck – are asking the recipient to finally give time to themselves. Sometimes that’s all a person needs to hear.

I work with what I’m given: the cards, the client’s reactions, and the ineffable mood of the reading – occasionally I’m granted acute clarity on someone’s reading, and sometimes, the meanings are murky, occluded. But no matter what cards are drawn, what advice is given, I know that my clients leave with the symbols, images, and ideas planted in their minds; someday in the future, the iconography and ideas will guide them with big life decisions. Hence, I’m not giving them their future: I’m simply guiding them on how best to shape that future. Maybe that’s not spiritual or New-Agey enough for some people, but I like to think that most leave my tarot reading with the optimism of understanding their own influence and power over their lives. That’s the greatest gift I can give.

Tina Hassannia writes on film, TV, and culture for National Post, The Globe and Mail, and other outlets. She's a frequent panelist on CBC Radio's q, and her book Asghar Farhadi: Life and Cinema is the first English-language study of the Iranian filmmaker's work. Tina lives in Toronto.

Art by Jason Ngai