The Uncanny Horror of ‘Attachment’ 

Both the humor and the horror make this dybbuk tale of traditions and Jewish folklore hilarious and chillingly terrifying.


Some things get trapped in our bodies, some things stick — habits we picked up to survive, cultural taboos that become aversions. I grew up in a Muslim household and to this day, there’s something about pork that irks me; I can’t ever abide by someone stepping or stamping on a book, and leaving 0ne open is always out of the question. Near the beginning of director and writer Gabriel Bier Gislason’s queer folk horror Attachment, Maja (Josephine Park) is making breakfast for herself and the girl she’s fallen head-over-heels in love with, Leah (Ellie Kendrick). 

“What’s that smell?” Leah asks. 

“Bacon,” Maja responds. A shy smile spreads across Leah’s face as she, having grown up in an Orthodox Jewish family and still living in the same house as her mother Chana (Sofie Gråbøl), says that she can’t eat bacon. Maja swiftly and effortlessly offers to make something else, but mischief glints in Leah’s eyes. She asks to try the bacon and Maja jovially obliges. The look in Leah’s eyes speaks to a feeling I often have when it comes to trying that which was verboten for me growing up, those things that my body intuitively, habitually jerks away from, but that my mind after the fact reconsiders. This kind of habitual attachment, rituals of care and love that become second nature to the point of needing to be performed if one is to survive through a moment — this is what Attachment is so effortlessly and thereby beautifully about. 

There is something so intuitively right about Gislason’s vibrant, whip-smart film. From its sharp sense of humor (banter that feels natural and seeped in realism), to a cunning grasp of its folklore that terrifies on that incommunicable, visceral level — Attachment is a perfect movie, a damned good time, all as it raises such profoundly heft questions about love and care, ultimately interrogating those things that stick. This is a film that asks what we never want to think about: whether our humoring of our sticky attachments, though it may help us to survive, does more harm than good.

Attachment, while certainly painting a picture of the sweet love, comfortable and swift, between Maja and Leah, is more an examination of Maja’s and Chana’s potentially self-serving attachments to Leah, and also a dybbuk’s horrifying leech-like attachment to the young woman. The film begins with Leah and Maja’s meet-cute, which is perhaps the cutest and most classically romantic of meetings. Maja is an actress who has achieved mediocre fame amongst Danish children as a Christmas elf; Leah is a grad student on a research trip in Denmark from London. The two women literally run into each other at a library and as they flirtatiously amble and gather their things, each accidentally picks up the other’s books, which serves as an excuse for one to ask the other out. Before the two know it, they’re drunkenly, uber-romantically getting to know each other, and by the next morning, they have basically moved in together, until Leah breaks her leg during a seizure, whereupon Leah decides it would be best to head back to London to recuperate. Leah asks Maja to accompany her.

In London, Chana is introduced. A formidable force in Leah’s life, Chana is very protective and nearly suffocating in her care for her only daughter. Chana effortlessly and reflexively swoops in to begin nursing Leah, turning to trusted and culturally-embedded remedies as though they were second nature, because they are. Maja, desperately trying to make a good impression on the mother of the person she loves, finds herself feeling superfluous amongst the close bond shared by mother and daughter. But as Maja learns more and more about Jewish orthodoxy and as strange things begin to happen to and around Leah, Maja suspects Chana to be playing a dangerous part in keeping Leah bedridden. The film keeps us on the edge of our seats as it has us wonder whether there is some supernatural force at play in Leah’s and Chana’s house, or whether the mother is intentionally hurting her daughter and working to drive Maja away under the ruse of a possession, real or affected.    

The film is expertly paced and crafted, a masterwork of shrewd and biting humor and deliciously aggravating horror that works to satisfy on an intuitive level. Often in dialogue, characters say what my mind as a viewer anticipates, or rather, the dialogue, its turns and twists as natural and familiar as a well-trodden road, follows such a compellingly natural flow that one often finds oneself thinking, “That’s what I would say!” Such essential ease in dialogue must be what all writers aspire to, and it’s achieved by Gislason so perfectly, to the ultimate effect that all the characters feel so fully fleshed out and realized, so sympathetically forged.

The horror, too, is effective on a visceral level, packing that innate and emotional and familiar heft that the dialogue does. Because, in addition to the three women who so perfectly and affectingly carry the film, there is an invisible and masculine force that is horrifyingly present in nearly every frame: the dybbuk that has attached itself to and haunts Leah and Chana and soon Maja.   

The film unfurls at the pace of a possession through Maja… that is, we enter Leah’s world alongside Maja, and are outsiders who learn about Leah’s traditions and Jewish folklore with the bright-eyed curiosity that Maja also possesses. We learn not only about the history of the dybbuk, but also the unique dynamic within Leah and Chana’s family, and the ways in which Chana has attached herself to her daughter and her religion because of the ways in which the dybbuk is attached to Leah. 

Similar to how Maja performs her gradual learning of Leah’s life and her traditions, which excavates the mystery of Leah’s dybbuk, this domineering and exacting masculine force in Leah and Chana’s life, the haunt of the dybbuk in this film is likewise gradual: tiptoeing into the film at first through subtle quirks in Leah’s behavior, and then erupting suddenly to mark and contort and terrorize and inexorably control Leah’s body, taking it from her and her mother and Maja; this dybbuk emerges in a fiery rage and flash similar to the way a missing piece in a mystery reveals itself to us like a sudden enlightenment. 

Kendrick wonderfully embodies the dybbuk’s gradual haunt that frightens to the core, because the possession’s creeping manifestation harkens to one of all our worst fears: the threat of slowly but surely losing our minds and control over our bodies, all as no one else notices. Appearing subtly at first through Leah’s vacant gazes and dream-like trances, the dybbuk becomes more and more unable to be ignored, more sinister and terrifying. Leah stirs a cup of tea for longer than normal, remains silent in conversation for just long enough that others become uncomfortable — these faint hints toward possession have a grating and eerie effect because they could so easily be read as normal, as absentmindedness; in other words, we forget that Leah is possessed up until normal actions cross that invisible boundary demarcating the uncanny, at which point she becomes terrifying, simultaneously obviously and imperceptibly haunted.

The horror in this movie lies in the uncanny, and the uncanny will always terrify us because it is smuggled into our lives through the familiar, the things and people we love, ultimately and crucially through ourselves. Therefore, we hold a certain amount of responsibility when something uncanny frightens us. We let ourselves trust that which ends up frightening us. A part of the reason why the horror of the uncanny here is so effective is that we perform a certain element of fear-induction ourselves — why we are doubly afraid of Leah’s possession is that we’re disappointed in ourselves for relaxing our guard, for letting that which ends up scaring us get too close to us and penetrate our defenses, or catch us vulnerable. 

Leah is precious and so we, like Maja, easily come to adore her, but she is also potentially dangerous because of the dybbuk, and because we fall so irrevocably in love with her, we are all the more terrified when the dybbuk creeps into frames, threatening to harm a character we love, to harm us. When we become frightened by the uncanny, we begin to doubt our ability to discern danger, our ability to ultimately keep ourselves safe going forward. It is this nagging doubt in our abilities that Gislason stokes and corrals to frighten endlessly without needing too many flashy special effects or elaborate scare tactics such as jump scares; Gislason can thereby maintain a measure of raw narrative and aesthetic realism to Attachment, leaving the film and its characters all the more affecting. 

We fall in love with Leah and fearfully hold our breath as the dybbuk gradually swallows her more and more in painfully uncanny turns, and this is why the horror in this movie is so trenchant — we doubt whether we can see the next fright coming, and so everything is presumed uncanny until it proves itself to be fully possessed or completely dispossessed. Everything in every frame houses potential danger and fright, we are constantly on edge and fearful as everything is simultaneously familiar and not, and therefore all the more frightening and entertaining.

This gradual and then sudden approach is the pace that the uncanny takes, and is what makes the haunting in this film so viscerally creepy and ultimately successful. Both the humor and the horror, through their organic and real and believable and ultimately well-wrought workings, worm their way under our skin, and by the film’s climax, as Maja and Chana and Leah become direly endangered by the dybbuk, we, too, feel like we have something to lose: these women whom we have grown to love slowly and then suddenly. 

These organically familiar elements of Attachment, its humor and horror, certainly do work to make this a compelling gem of a film, in turns hilarious and chillingly terrifying. But the film’s intuitive perfection also expertly crafts the scaffolding needed to shrewdly and deliberately though still subtly confront attachments, through Chana’s care for Leah as her mother, and through Maja’s all-or-nothing love for Leah, ultimately pointing us toward inward reflection on our motivations in caring for the people we love. 

Whose attachment is worse? the film seems to ask. The obvious answer might be the terrorizing dybbuk who physically destroys Leah’s body and swiftly her life. But because it is familiar as warm milk, we might overlook Chana’s care for Leah, which Maja certainly suspects, and which the film teases out into the open. Chana’s actions are very obviously strange, her attachment to her daughter a bit too intense, all this is clear; but what might be a bit more subtle is the way in which the film challenges Chana to realize how her attachment to her daughter might be keeping her sick more than it is helping her, how her overbearing maternal love is not so much keeping a danger at bay as it is prolonging her daughter’s pain and ignorance of her body. Through Chana, we see how, despite best intentions, parents sometimes, with their overwhelming care, patronizingly keep their adult children from learning how to care for themselves. 

And then there is Maja’s love for Leah that slowly and then suddenly emerges as desperate, something Maja needs and turns to to survive in that reflexive and hungry way that we swallow air after a slight threat of drowning. Maja lost direction in life when her mother passed away, but when she meets Leah, she finds purpose, a person to love, a person to devote all her attention and care to. A person to make breakfast for. Chana threatens to take Leah from Maja, and then the dybbuk takes Leah from her. And though the love between them is sweet and so beautiful, one can’t help but wondering whether Maja’s care for Leah is healthy — is this kind of devotion, this kind of needing to care for a person, is this kind of attachment healthy? This is the question the film ends on, seemingly happily like the sweet coating to a sour candy. It’s a question that doesn’t register as a question at first watch because it’s posed so demurely, in the easy and gradual way that so much of the film twirls in. But there’s something about its ending that nags like an open book lying half a room away — I can’t feel at ease until I shut the book, I can’t feel at ease until I solve the riddle the ending of this movie leaves in my intuition.  

This expertly wrought and compellingly acted, this perfect film eases into my body like a habit. This film knows something about us, and I think, in watching it, it leaves this knowing or this wisdom in our body like the way in which tradition leaves its habits within our easy movements. We just need to be able to recognize what this lesson is, in the way we need to recognize so many of our habits have been imbibed by culture. So much of Attachment is so intuitively and reflexively satisfying — with its humor and its chilling horror, it’s all so entertaining, built as it is so organically and skillfully. I want you to watch this movie, and I want you to see whether in the face of all its entertaining and pitch-perfect integrity, the ending too lands like an inexplicable cerebral itch, something you absorb but that bubbles up long after you have watched it. 

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