One hair-raising night at the Clown Motel
For a long time, poets have been trying to convey the notion of The Sublime (sorry, fellow San Diegans — not that Sublime).
The Sublime is awe-inspiring transcendence, a feeling delineated from the self while attempting to reconcile the boundlessness of the universe. It can be simultaneously as profound looking upon nature’s grandeur and as terrifying as staring into the abyss.
I’ve only experienced The Sublime twice in my life. The first was when I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. The sheer immensity of it made my heart skip.
The second was arriving at the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nev., near dusk.
After hundreds of miles of nothing, Tonopah loomed heavy on both the eyes and heart. The four-ish blocks of the city were lined with casinos, historic buildings, a brewery and shuttered stores. It seemed like COVID had not been especially kind to Tonopah, and the ghost town feel of the place was eerie.
And then there it was: the Clown Motel.
A large white sign, framed with blinking marquee lights rose out of the darkening desert like a perverted beacon. On the sign was a deranged clown with a dark V-shaped mouth and surprised eyes. There was something sinister to it, especially considering its placement amidst the barren and vast landscape. Like a mirage. I shuddered, thinking of the poor souls crawling through the desert only to find their salvation at the Clown Motel.
At the clown’s behest, I turned into its parking lot. There were other cars, but not many.
Next to the motel — like, right next door — was the Old Tonopah Cemetery. Crooked crosses stuck out of the dirt, marking where the dead lay underneath. It all seemed Old World bleak. Wild West goth. Of course there’d be a cemetery next to this creepy-ass motel.
The decision to stay at the Clown Motel came after I planned a solo road trip to see family in Utah. It was only a four hour detour — negligible when you break up the trip into two days. I’ve always been intrigued that the place existed, and it felt like one of those novelties that was too good/bad to be true.
I’m also fascinated by the fear of clowns, otherwise known by its official (and strangely obtuse) term, coulrophobia.
What once were symbols of joviality, subversive irreverence and borderline anarchy, are now widely regarded as monsters. And it’s a relatively new phenomenon. From the late ‘40s to the ‘70s, Bozo the Clown was pretty much untouchable in the world of children’s entertainment. His popularity was so widespread that he franchised out his likeness for regional TV shows (Chicago’s iteration, “Bozo’s Circus,” reportedly had a 10-year waiting list to be an audience member).
In the mid-1970s, John Wayne Gacy murdered at least 33 young men and boys, and the media latched onto the fact that he previously had been a clown-for-hire. Sensationalist headlines deemed him the “Killer Clown” when, in fact, he never killed anyone as his clown persona, Pogo.
In 1981, the first true clown panic began when children in Boston began talking about a mysterious clown trying to lure them into a van.
Since then, clowns have become recurring agents of fear in books and movies — a stigma that recently culminated in the 2016 clown panic, a national hysteria that started when kids in Green Bay, Wis., claimed they saw clowns in forests surrounding schools and apartment buildings, and then people all over the country — bolstered by potential internet fame — began posting videos of their own sightings. All of these turned out to be hoaxes.
I’ve mostly grown out of my fear of clowns, which wasn’t really very strong to begin with. In fact, my mom was a party clown when I was young, which means I have some clown lineage in my blood.
Still, that’s not to say that I was nonchalant about staying at the Clown Motel, especially by myself. While I may not be overtly afraid of them, I’m not dying to meet one in a dark alley.
I stepped out of my car and walked toward the check-in office. I tried not to look at the two giant, wood cutouts of clowns affixed to the buildings. Just like the clown on the sign, they seemed too eager to have me there, as if I was a modern day Hansel stepping into a candy house.
Stop it, I told myself.
Signs next to the front door read “Are you brave enough to enter?” I passed a plastic sculpture of a life size Ronald McDonald, purposefully avoiding eye contact because the prospect of it suddenly turning its head and saying “Hello, Ryan,” felt very real in that moment, and I had no desire to go instantly mad in Tonopah.
It turned out the Clown Motel’s office doubled as a museum, and the place was stuffed with little horrors donated by clown aficionados from around the world. It’s difficult to explain the surreality of opening a door and meeting thousands of clown dolls. Definitely instant fodder for the ol’ mental nightmare bank.
Little figurines of all types of materials sat on shelves, stacked floor to ceiling. All of them seemed to watch me. And in front of it all, a human-sized clown sat, buck-toothed, sleepy-eyed and beguiling. I felt a straight-up chill run up my spine. If any of these monstrosities were to murder me that night, I supposed it’d be that sleepy-eyed fellow. Just the thought of waking up and seeing it standing over me in the night with a knife raised made my blood run cold.
After perusing the clown memorabilia, I waited behind a couple checking in who looked straight out of an Inland Empire adult film shoot. He had on a matching tracksuit and she wore, well, not much. I can only imagine how much erotica has been shot at The Clown Motel, but it’s not something I want to Google.
“Ah,” the man at the front desk said when I gave him my name. “The Clown Suite.”
Yes, the Clown Suite. It feels a little strange to say that I splurged at the Clown Motel, but what am I, a peasant? If I’m going to die at a strange motel in the middle of the desert, I figured I’d at least do it in the comfort of a clown king.
While booking the room, they gave me an option to rent an EMF (electromotive force) reader for $25. As if the clowns weren’t enough, the motel’s proximity to the cemetery supposedly makes it ideal for ghost sightings. I don’t think I’ve ever been more easily sold on shelling out $25 in my life. When in ghost-clown Rome, etc.
The man at the front desk handed over the EMF reader and my key. A real key — none of that keycard stuff. Its weight felt foreboding in my hand. He printed my receipt and circled his name and phone number “in case I had any emergencies.”
“I live on the property,” he said.
I stared at the name: Heym.
What kind of emergencies? I thought. Hey Heym, sorry to bug you, but there’s a clown in the corner of my room and he keeps whispering my name and saying “we all float down here.” Is this an emergency?
The sun had set by the time I left the office, casting the desolate parking lot in a muted twilight. To my left, the Old Tonopah Cemetery sat, waiting. I pulled the collar of my jacket up. The cool desert wind had turned bitter.
I passed the Ronald McDonald again to get to my room. Had he moved since I last saw him?
There was a crudely painted wooden clown hanging on the door to my room. It looked like something a child would’ve painted, a terrifying decoration that parents feel obligated to keep around. I slid the key in the lock, paused briefly, and considered what horrors may lie within. Abandon hope all ye who enter.
I held my breath and pushed the door open.
The Clown Suite was ... nice?
New flooring, fresh paint, retro appliances — this was not the hallucinatory funhouse I expected. Garish paintings of clowns hung on all walls, but their presence felt more postmodern than frightening. I inspected a painting of a clown with a (dare I say?) seductive smile hanging over the air conditioner and noticed Heym’s signature, and I briefly considered that owning a clown motel and filling it with your own clown art is probably the height of artistic achievement.
I settled in. I watched TV for a while, but it sort of broke the spell that the motel had over me, and I realized that I quite enjoyed that spell. So I read a magazine in relative silence — the only noise was the increasing howl of the desert wind. Every once in a while, I’d hear laughing in the room next door, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t unnerve me. At the Clown Motel, all laughter sounds threatening.
When the clock ticked 10 p.m., I cracked open a flask of Jim Beam (which I had purchased at a Tonopah gas station ominously named Giggle Springs), and set about chugging. I felt it was my journalistic duty to at least try to find some ghosts in the Old Tonopah Cemetery, but I needed the liquid courage.
Well-lubricated, I stepped back out into the night. I walked to the entrance of the cemetery, and saw a light dancing out there. I hope it’s fellow ghost hunter, I thought. I turned on my EMF reader. The light gauge rested on green. No ghosts.
I walked through the crooked markers, waving the reader over the graves. Green, green, green. I heard distant voices and looked up, hoping to see the dancing light, but it was gone. However, I did see some dim illumination wavering deeper in the cemetery. I walked toward it and found a dying spotlight shining on a American flag, dropped to half-mast, flapping in the wind.
Just then, my EMF reader went nuts. The indicator jumped to red.
I pulled out my phone to record the action, but when I pointed the camera at it, the indicator went back to green.
I turned off my camera and, once again, the reader jumped to red.
On the opposite end of the cemetery, I saw the dancing flashlight again, heard accompanying distant voices. I wanted to run toward them, drunkenly exclaiming that I had found a ghostly hotspot. But then I thought: what if they’re not people? The EMF was still bouncing in the red.
I ran out of the graveyard, and back to the safety of my Clown Suite.
It had been a long time since I woke up that hungover. I didn’t feel like I had consumed much alcohol, but maybe the clowns had slipped something in my drink when I wasn’t looking. I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering if being partied-out in the Clown Motel was the highest or lowest point in my life.
I finally got out of bed and took the coldest shower of my life. I don’t know if it was the motel’s fault or my inability to work easy machinery. I was, however, impressed at how ADA-friendly the bathroom was. Support bars everywhere, and hoo-boy, I needed them.
I barely made the 11 a.m. check-out time, but I don’t think Heym would’ve cared. He and his brother were amicably chatting with an older woman, who was marveling over their “beautiful” clown collection. Later, I found out that the two brothers had bought the motel in early 2019 for a mind-bogglingly low price of $800,000— less than a lot of houses in San Diego.
I picked out a few souvenirs for myself as proof that I had survived the night.
I asked the brothers/owners — who grew up in India and had previously owned hotels in Las Vegas — if they had been horror fans before buying the Clown Motel, and they both simply said, “No.” But they did seem stoked to be in charge of such a strange operation, and excitedly told me about their plans for expansion, which included more room for the many donated clowns people bring them.
Heym gave me two postcards, free of charge. “Did you take these photographs?” I asked. He said yes. “They’re beautiful,” I replied. And, strangely, they were.
As I drove out of the parking lot, I couldn’t help but think that the Clown Motel is a good example of the American Dream: the idea of it is simultaneously beautiful, terrifying and awesome.
It is, in fact, Sublime.
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