The Raven House Rules

Author: Sarah Cahalan '14

“You can’t miss it,” said the witch through the speaker of my iPhone. “It’s the big gray house with gargoyles on the roof, a ten-foot spider climbing up one wall and a cauldron in the front yard.”


I took down her instructions, penciled our appointment into my planner and broke into a satisfied grin. It was the week before Halloween, and I was going to a psychic.


Cahalan 2Photos by Barbara Johnston


I had long ago noticed the handful of psychic shops scattered near Notre Dame. As the calendar flipped to October and spooky season dawned, I debated pitching a story about them to some out-of-town publication. Just as the thought entered my head, our editor announced the theme of the issue you’re holding in your hands. Perfect timing, I thought — almost too perfect.


As I searched the Google listings for South Bend psychics, one practitioner rose above the rest. Barbara the Gray Witch — in business since 1976 — had a bevy of glowing reviews and an impressive roster of media appearances, from consultations in the South Bend Tribune to a weekly radio show on U93. I decided to give her a call.


I hoped, of course, to snag an appointment on Halloween, so when Barbara asked what day might be best for me, I casually suggested the following Wednesday, pretending I didn’t notice the “10/31” staring up from my calendar.


“Well that’s Halloween, my dear friend,” she replied. “I don’t work on Halloween.”


Of course she doesn’t, I thought. Probably doing a séance or someth


“The trick-or-treaters would interrupt all my readings.”


My spooky dreams dashed, we scheduled the appointment in November and I told her my zodiac sign. Then she walked me through the details of what to bring and what to expect. The reading would comprise three “rolls” of the tarot deck over 90 minutes and would cost $50, cash. Barbara prides herself on transparency in her rates and services, and I understood why her Google reviewers were so taken with her straightforwardness. If I was going to spend money on a psychic service I may or may not believe in, at least I was spending it on a reputable business model.


The witch rattled off the instructions to her house.


“Oh,” she added, “and have a margarita this weekend.”


Reader, I had two.



Among the countless trends that millennials are said to have killed, there is one we have decidedly resurrected: an interest in the supernatural. My spiritual-but-not-religious generation has a passion for the new New Age, from crystals to chakras to holistic health. While I distrust my most zealous woo-woo peers, like the wedding tablemate last summer who spent three hours regaling me with the restorative qualities of his pocketful of rose quartz, I do buy into much of the trend.


Have I spent untold sums at Urban Outfitters on onyx-laced perfume that’s supposed to manifest confidence? Maybe. Do I know my sun, moon and rising signs? Possibly. Did I once tell my yoga teacher I really needed this class today since Mercury is in retrograde? No, I’ve done that six times.


So yes, I have at least a passing interest in the otherworldly, and I have for quite some time. I know there’s no proof that any of this magic is real, but ultimately, we all want advice and reassurance — and a psychic’s office in a haunted mansion seems like a much more interesting place to find it than a self-help book.


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Because, oh, haven’t I mentioned? Barbara the Gray Witch’s house is haunted. Built in 1905 by real estate magnate and eventual South Bend mayor William Keller, the three-story Raven House has been a private residence, an oral surgeon’s office and a music school, and all that life has brought with it some afterlife. Some 32 spirits inhabit the place, Barbara told me matter-of-factly as we munched on Bit-O-Honeys before my reading.


The third floor is so haunted, she explained, that even after living in the house for a quarter-century, she refuses to go beyond the second story by herself. Once, she said, she hired a construction crew with the intent to convert the space into a “dead and breakfast,” featuring readings, séances and overnight stays. But unexplained accidents kept happening, and the crew grew increasingly skittish. After a saw flew across the room unaided, they abandoned the project for good — and Barbara’s barely gone up there since.


With that, she left me alone in the reading room, stepping away for a rather conveniently timed glass of water.


From the hallway, a life-sized mummy figurine stared at me with milky glass eyes. A human skeleton — real, Barbara would later tell me — sat disassembled in a display case in one corner, and, in another, a crystal ball rested on top of a filing cabinet labeled “WITCHES’ PARKING ONLY — ALL OTHERS WILL BE TOAD.”


Barbara’s Doberman mix, Gabby, wandered into the room, and I petted her absentmindedly while reading the certificates hanging on the back wall. Though she identifies as a witch, Barbara says the title is mostly a signifier that uninformed clients will understand. Parapsychology — the study of psychic phenomena such as clairvoyance, extrasensory perception, hypnosis and telepathy that ordinary science cannot or will not explain — is the more technical term for her field. She earned a graduate-level education in the subject 50 years ago in California, and achievements from that time hang in her office beside framed notes from the Trump White House thanking her for her hard work as a campaign volunteer.


As I examined an autographed photo of Donald and Melania, Barbara returned and gestured to Gabby.


“Wanna hear her talk?”


To my astonishment, Barbara commanded the dog to sit and to speak, and the dog responded with an unmistakable “hello.” She suspended a treat over Gabby’s head and asked her to speak again, insisting that she wouldn’t hand over the biscuit until the critter said the magic words.


“I love you,” Gabby croaked.


Barbara moved on as if nothing had happened, and I blinked at both dog and owner in stunned silence. I knew it was just the trick some dogs can do to mimic human words, but still — I was sitting in a haunted house with a witch who said her dog could talk, and here the thing was, talking.


The witch looked up from the tarot deck she was shuffling.


“Let’s roll these cards!”


Barbara instructed me to cut the deck into four, and as I did, she laid out a few warnings for things we might encounter. She said, for instance, that there was a Death card (though it doesn’t mean what you think it means), and that one card, The Major, symbolized better fortunes than all the others put together (though it almost never appears in her readings). She explained that the first card she drew with a woman on it would represent me, and we were off.


She pulled the first card, a man, from the deck and laid it on the Ouija-printed mat before her, then pulled another: The High Priestess.


Barbara gasped.


“That’s the most powerful woman in the deck!”


Moments later, she was shocked again: Just seven cards into the 60-card reading, Barbara had drawn The Major.


Exciting as the draws were, I felt a twinge of doubt as the witch explained my good luck. I hadn’t checked the deck in advance. Wouldn’t it draw in more customers if the cards were rigged to paint a rosy picture for every client?


I pushed my doubts aside and listened as she progressed through the first 20-card set. On the 18th draw, she pulled the Empress card and smiled.


“Now this is a friend,” she said. The witch described a young woman, blonde like the empress on the card, who had been through hardship in the past year. She said I was a protector for this woman, her listening ear when she needed help and a steady force to balance out her free spirit. Essentially she described my relationship with my best friend — almost to a T. Barbara moved on, but my talking-dog wonder crept back in as I considered the cards’ promise that the Empress and I were friend-soulmates. Perhaps there was something to this after all.


The reading continued with a mix of hits, misses and predictions. She envisioned me traveling southwest across a large body of water — interesting given the New Zealand trip I’d talked about with friends a few days before. She insisted I see a chiropractor for my bad back — less interesting given my lack of back issues. She predicted financial and career success and kept me nodding along in agreement that she was, more or less, on the right track.


Halfway through the second set, the Lovers card appeared.


Before my appointment, I’d assumed that, if things would go wrong anywhere, it would be here. I am in a relationship — a happy one! — but I did not want to hear of a wedding or an infant in my future, and I wagered that, given the bare ring finger of the 26-year-old girl sitting before her, the witch would miss the memo.


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When she drew the Lovers, though, Barbara simply asked if I was seeing anyone, and, when I said yes, asked for his sign. She described my shy, caring Virgo as shy and caring, and she murmured approvingly at how well suited we were for each other. With nary a nod to nuptials, she moved on, and I sat back, impressed that she had passed my test.


I didn’t know that, apparently, I had passed hers.


As our reading drew to a close, Barbara circled back to my boyfriend, mentioning again how well things seemed to be going. She took a long pause, examining the cards on the table, before looking up to speak.


“I think you conjured this guy,” she said. “I think this is the kind of guy that you were thinking about that you wanted, and you got him. See? Because I . . .”


I shifted in my seat, unsure of what to make of this new tone in the conversation.


“. . . I’ve got a really heavy feeling that you’re a witch.”


On my recording of the session, you can hear me make a sound at this moment that registers somewhere between a snort and a gasp. I’m a what now?


“I really do,” she continued. “I felt that when you walked in. I felt that when you talked to me on the phone! That there was something very psychic about you. I think you’re a witch.”


She clearly expected some kind of a response to this news, so I attempted one, mentioning that I often joke I’m a witch when I fix a broken appliance or pull off an impressive multitask. But Barbara shook her head, insisting that it’s no joke — I have a gift.


In my less-charitable moments during the session, I had theorized that, if nothing else, psychics must be good at reading people. Intuit what a person wants to hear, refract that through their tarot cards, and voilà — a fortune has been told.


If the Gray Witch is nothing but a people-reader, I realized during this final revelation that she must be a great one. I came into the session open to the possibility of the supernatural but skeptical that any of it could really be true. What better way to convince me of a second sight than to tell me that I have it? But I had to admit I agreed with much of her reasoning. I am a suspiciously good judge of character, and I do have an occasional knack for calling things before they happen.


It may be that Barbara is a real, authentic psychic, divining the future from a house populated with 32 spirits near downtown South Bend.


With the session over, I left Raven House reeling and a little confused. I texted my friend from the Empress card:


“So that psychic I told you about thinks I’m a witch.”


I sat down at my laptop and opened Netflix, where the teen-witch drama, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, beckoned from the “Top Pick for You” slot. As I queued up the show, Empress responded to my text.


“OMG!!! You should totally look into opening your third eye. I can help if you want!”


Her sentiment echoed (albeit more enthusiastically) what I heard from most people when I mentioned my night with the psychic. Whomever I told about the witch’s claim that I was one of her own, I got the same question in response: Well, are you?


The short answer is that I don’t know.


I have no proof that I’m clairvoyant, but then I don’t really have any proof that I’m not. I don’t plan to quit my Muggle day job any time soon, but who knows? Maybe I’ll start studying the stars, or at least buy more crystals for my apartment.


As for Barbara the Gray, it may be that she’s a Halloween junkie with a knack for memorizing tarot facts, or it may be that she’s a psychic — real, authentic and divining the future from a house populated with 32 spirits near downtown South Bend. But I know that, on one dark and stormy November night, she spent her time telling a young woman that she was destined to write great things, amass great wealth and live happily ever after with a Lover and an Empress. And if that’s what witches are up to these days? Hand me a broom.


Sarah Cahalan is an associate editor of this magazine.