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Somber Studios Aims to Stop Hollywood from Bleeding the Horror Genre Dry

Jessica Vill’s fascination with cosplay began over a decade ago. “I would say 2010 was my first time doing cosplay. It was just on Instagram and it kind of bled onto YouTube and then it kind of became a thing since then,” she recalls. Jessica (known as @jbunzie online) adored constructing different characters from scratch. “It’s funny, I’ve never been a fan of makeup. I’m the least beauty guru-ish person you could find who’s in the beauty community, because my love for costly transformation stems from my love for film and filmmaking. And when I could transform myself, I can create a character that I essentially use for my videos, which is what you do for movie making. My YouTube channel was opened to express my love for film and creating characters and making them come to life.” As her YouTube subscriber count ballooned to over 1.5 million, she wound up unintentionally documenting a very formative part of her life. “It’s been fun. It’s been hard. It’s been weird. I was 18 when I started and I’m 27 now. At those points of your life, you’re transforming as a person as well. And sometimes that could be hard when everyone’s watching you do it. I’ve always tried to remain pretty private online because of that. I wanted to allow myself to mature privately without my mistakes being for everyone in the world to see. So I’ve always put my art forward and put myself in the background. That helped me a lot. A lot of creators don’t do that and I feel like a lot of them regret it for that reason. I’m glad that I did that, but it’s definitely a lot when there’s a lot of people watching,” she laughs.

While the decision to keep her personal life close to the vest may have been a wise one, it had the consequence of keeping her in a fog of mystery even to her own followers. “In a way, my privacy became a problem as well because I ended up being a stranger to my own audience. A lot of people would say, ‘I don’t even know what you look like naturally. I don’t know who you are. I know where you’re from. I don’t know what your beliefs are or anything.’ That might’ve burned me a little bit in the long run because people didn’t have a personal connection with me. I was just a circus performer. The clown makeup stays on and no one else gets to see who does the performance underneath. That also affects you too. But I would say I prefer that to everybody knowing too much of me.” Jumping in and out of such a wide variety of personas provides her clarity on her true self. Having a cornucopia of characters at your disposal means you can build your own mosaic of identity! “One of the most common comments I get is, ‘Do you have a personality of your own?’ And in fact, I feel like taking on the personality of so many people only helps you find your own even better because you get to see what all these people are like, and you can look at it and go, ‘That’s not me,’ and ‘That’s not me.’ You learn so much more about yourself when you are acting as all of these other characters and people.”

Jessica’s latest endeavor, Somber Studios, is the culmination of a long held dream. YouTube had been preparing her for this moment for years. “Somber Studios was the vision I had when I first opened my YouTube channel actually. I knew when I created my channel that I could only do it for so long. Not only was my content incredibly hard to keep up with because I was always aiming to make my videos better and better and higher quality (to the point where it could be mistaken for a real film), but I knew that makeup wasn’t my thing and that this was only really a practice run for when I make my movies. I learn how to create characters, I know how to do the makeup, and I can learn how to film as well. A lot of my intros had cinematic value as well. 2020 is when I realized that it was time to make that transition. I felt like I didn’t have much left to learn from the experience of being a YouTuber. So I opened Somber Studios and I’ve written about eight feature films and thirteen short films so far.” The studio has the mission of rescuing the horror genre from the bloody clutches of corporate Hollywood. “We’re aiming to bring the value back to horror and the horror genre, which is my favorite. I’m an absolute lover of all things Halloween. I feel like horror has lost its way to the corporate world. It’s a business decision before it is a creative one. I want to bring horror back to life from the dead.”

Her ardent love of horror was an affinity that was uniquely her own. “I was never raised around the horror genre. My mom is a Christmas freak. She loves the holidays. So I would hear Christmas in July for sure. There’s no one in my family that would’ve contributed to this. I think this was something that I grew close to on my own just from watching Halloween movies, like Hocus Pocus and enjoying the magical whimsical that is Halloween. I always enjoyed trick-or- treating more than I did opening a Christmas present. It was just something I decided to become utterly obsessed with. In middle school I started expressing that with my fashion. Everybody called me the real life Wednesday Addams, because I always wore the pigtails and dressed in all black. I lost that a little bit in high school and definitely on YouTube because I became this pastel unicorn mermaid which is another part of my aesthetic, but it all always comes back to horror and Halloween for some odd reason. I don’t even know where it comes from. I just love how whimsical it is. A lot of people treat the horror genre or the Halloween holiday as something of a negative experience, but it’s always been magical to me.” She delights in being a contradiction. “I’ve always been a 50/50 child. I love princesses and I love bunnies and all things pastel, but I equally love Tim Burton. That’s exactly how he’s always done his films. Edward Scissorhands would probably represent my style the best. It’s a pastel film, but it’s horror. I feel like humans should be more comfortable in expressing the multiple facets within themselves, whether they are completely opposing or not. I’m like my own twin.” 

Through Somber Studios, she plans to give horror its teeth back. “Quite honestly, I feel like as a horror fan I’ve seen thousands of movies. And when you do that, you desensitize yourself to what’s scary. Godzilla was considered the scariest movie when it came out and now it’s something to make a parody out of. Hollywood is continuing an old formula and we need a new formula for those who have grown out of the old formula. They have to come to terms with it. The more we go through our timeline in the world, we’re going to be desensitized to everything. Formulas are not going to work anymore.” First on the agenda is reimagining who has the staying power. “I noticed that in the horror genre, you really don’t see a lot of leading ladies – we call them final girls. Final girls are the ones that make it all the way to the end. Like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. Every final girl tends to have a very specific look – you know, the skinny blonde with the nice boobs and short shorts. It would be really nice to see different versions of final girls and maybe final men that represent humanity a little bit more evidently. Hollywood is definitely on its way to do that as well in other genres, but I feel like horror could use a little more of that.” The goal is to plant new roots in realism – and with them, seeds of the fear of possibility. “It would be wonderful to see the final girl as a better representation of the average person. Because the thing with scary movies is that if you cannot relate to it or feel like it could happen to you, it’s not scary. For example, when you try to make horror an animation, it’s tough because an animation lets our brains know this isn’t real, it’s a cartoon. And I feel like that also applies to situations, cliches, tropes, and final girls. When they’re not relatable, no matter how awesome the monster looks at the end of the reveal, it’s just not going to be scary because we don’t think it could happen to us.” 

Keep an eye out for Somber Studios to take a stab at releasing films next year. The characters are blank canvases by design and Jessica wants to emphasize that anyone is welcome to join their team. “We are casting now for those who want to join in. We’re an equal opportunity studio. What that means is the characters in our scripts aren’t really written with a description. They could be Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, abled, disabled, female, male. We make it very general because we’re looking for talent at the end of the day and uniqueness. So we don’t like to write characters with a predestined image unless it’s necessary culturally to the story. We’re looking for people with all the experience or no experience. When I was attempting to be an actress before, I went to these schools and I did the whole run in LA and I realized how unfair casting can be sometimes. They often prefer to cast maybe the more famous one, the one who’s more relevant, the one who has a resume as thick as a book. I can understand from a business aspect, but I feel like it leaves a lot of hidden gems lying around that I would like to pick up with my studio. We don’t really look for experience and your resume doesn’t hold the most value. It’s more so if you nailed your audition that day. We’re also looking for crew – people who maybe want to learn film and eventually work for Somber Studios. We’re just really trying to push a lot of fresh new people and pump them through the system, because I feel like we’re seeing too much of the same.” Gatekeeping in the industry can feel like an impossibly heavy door to open, but if Jessica is willing to try to unlock it, anyone should be equally enthusiastic to help her push it open!

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Somber Studios Aims to Stop Hollywood from Bleeding the Horror Genre Dry. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Vill.

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