Do Not Disturb: The Clown Motel and Tonopah Cemetery

February 22, 2015 — It’s become Internet-infamous. A clown-themed motel out in the Nevada desert next door to an old graveyard. “God-damn terrifying” I believe is the consensus. And certainly, it sounds like a versatile setting for every possible kind of nightmare. So when I recently discovered I’d be driving through the town where it’s located, I of course wanted to stay the night there. Of course.

And it would only have cost me $40 and my marriage.

My wife has stayed overnight with me at murder scenes, tromped with me into eccentric stranger’s houses on thin pretenses, has gone with me into graveyards at night and right up to the dizzying edges of precipices without guardrails. After eight years of the macabre, the strange, and the outré, this is where she finally drew the line—the Clown Motel. In her defense, I’m not sure if it was the clown theme by itself or the as-scary dive-motel price of $40 a night. Fortunately for our relationship, it turned out to be a non-issue, as timing had us blowing through town during the middle of the day, with many miles to go before we slept. Still, I had to stop. Had to.

The Clown Motel is in the town of Tonopah, 200 miles northwest of Las Vegas and not too far above the also-infamous Area 51. It started out as a mining town back in the earliest of 1900s, and these days maintains a population of about 2,500 thanks to a nearby bomb testing range and, I assume, such treasures as a clown-themed motel.

But the place was pleasant. A bit sand-scoured, sure, as every desert town is, but Tonopah didn’t seem at all desolate or depressing. It was a refreshing break from the road for us. And the Clown Motel was nestled right there on the main street at the northern edge of town.

And that breaks the first law of spooky motels, as clearly argued in Psycho vs. the People. It has to be secluded, remote. You shouldn’t be able to just run down the street to the local Subway if you’re being chased by the ghost of a serial killer alien clown. That’s poor plot planning.

But, man, it was certainly clowned up. That was no Internet-exaggeration. Every sign from the one denoting the name of the place to the one offering the room rates to the one welcoming bikers to the one topping the office itself had at least one cartoony clown on it. And every door to every room bore identical, colorful clowns. Parking in its lot placed us at the center of a vortex of red noses and fluffy wigs.

But, again, I found it—not at all scary. Bear in mind, I’ve never been coulrophobic. I mean, I’ve definitely seen some pretty scary clowns in my day, but I’ve also seen some silly ones and some bland ones and some sad ones and maybe even—although I’d have to think deep about it—some funny ones. They’re like everything else in that way. So merely surrounding me with clowns isn’t going to freak me out. Unless they’re asking for audience participation.

The parking lot was empty, and I got out with my five-year-old. My wife stayed in the car. Because the baby was sleeping, she said. We entered the office and, well, I learned what it really was like to be at the center of a vortex of clowns. And I realize I’m not using “vortex” correctly. But I’m trying to describe a singular thing, here.

The office was small and ancient-seeming and lined with shelves crowded with clowns. But before I could assimilate that cacophony of clowns (and I realize I’m not using that term correctly either—see above), I was greeted by the desk clerk.

I regret that I didn’t get her name, because she was the nicest person, even after I explained that I was there out of curiosity and not as a paying customer (or I might, might, might have hid behind my kid’s curiosity). Once she found out I was there to gawk, she invited me to take pictures, answered my questions, and helped me with the pronunciation of the town name (TOE-no-pah).

There must’ve been hundreds of clowns in that small space, from little ceramic figurines to plush toys to paintings. Even a life-sized bloke sitting in a plastic patio chair. He looked high and was missing two fingers on what were disconcertingly human-like hands. I asked my kid if she wanted her picture taken with the clowns to continue my cover as an indulgent father. She vehemently declined, pointing out that a couple of the clowns were indeed of the scary sort, with pointy teeth and John Wayne Gacy eyes. I’m paraphrasing her.

The clerk told me that the motel had been clowned-themed before the current owners bought the place and that most of the clowns that were beaming their red-outlined smiles at me were donations and gifts. I neglected to ask her the age of the motel. On Yelp, it says it was established in 1990, but it seems much older. That year could have been when the hotel changed hands. Or it could be that 1990 is a lot further in the past than I want to admit.

“Are the rooms clown-themed?” I asked.

“Not really. They have a few pictures on the wall, that’s about it. Do you want to see one?”

“Would love to.”

She summoned a young girl to take to me to a room across the parking lot from the office. This girl also turned out to be one of the nicest people ever.

Inside, the room looked merely like an extremely outdated, beat-up, although surprisingly clean, motel room. The only trace of clowns were three small pictures on the wall. It was so non-clowny that I didn’t even bother to take a photo.

“Don’t forget to check out the cemetery next door. It’s 100 years old.” That was the last thing that the woman at the desk had said to me before I exited the office. So, after leaving both of my impromptu tour guides tips, we took off for the motel’s neighbor, just a few steps away.

Tonopah Cemetery was established in 1901 and was used as an active burial ground for only a decade. According to a metal placard at its gates, many of the town’s “pioneer residents” are buried there, including the victims of a mine fire in 1911 and more victims, this time in 1902, of a disease called simply the “Tonopah Plague.”

The cemetery definitely felt like a pioneer cemetery, with all the “stones” made of wood, some of which had epitaphs carved directly into them and others punched into tin plates and affixed to the wood. Many of them listed the cause of death. Besides the mine fire, I also saw pneumonia, blood poisoning, and inflammation of the bowels in the end credits of the town’s founders.

On the way back to the car, I took a few more pictures of the hotel, more disappointed than ever that I wasn’t staying there for the night. While I was doing that a maid came by and asked if I’d like to see inside a room. I’ve never seen this helpful of a hotel staff, even in the few times I’ve 5-starred it.

So maybe at midnight, this place is terrifying. Maybe the amazing staff was just a ruse to pull us into a nightmare trap of face paint and massive shoes. But I’ve got say, its Internet reputation seems undeserved. The biggest testimony to that, I think, was that as we left for our next adventure, my wife told me, “Now that I’ve seen it, I totally could have stayed here.”

Next time we’re in Nevada, I’m calling that bluff.