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Fear: The killer clowns of Tonopah

Photography by Andrew Kiraly
Photography by Andrew Kiraly

Could I survive a night in their motel of terror?

I woke up dead in the Clown Motel. Not dead dead, or undead dead. I’m not writing this as a demonically zombified clown soldier, blood-caked mouth stretched into a poisoned wolf rictus, camera pulling back to show my filthy balloon suit, revealing another Clown Motel victim as the horror-movie credits scroll amid an ominous closing score. I’m just dead tired. You might say I spent the night at the Clown Motel. But you might more accurately say THE CLOWN MOTEL SPENT THE NIGHT IN ME.

Let me back up. As part of Desert Companion’s Great Big Nevada Road Trip, I’d planned to spend my final night at Tonopah’s famous Clown Motel. For a couple reasons: One, like they do most people, clowns make my skin want to leap off my own skeleton and run away screaming. I wanted to face that skin-leaping fear and grow as a person. But I was also on a Goonies-style vision quest to deposit at The Clown Motel a portentous item from my childhood, a wooden folk-art puzzle that depicted a clown’s cryptically smirking face. It had been in my family for years. Nobody knew where the puzzle-face came from, which obviously means it was a mystic talisman of a timeless, primal evil. My family had named the puzzle-face Clowny. When I was cleaning out my parents’ house last year, I had, omg, discovered Clowny in a closet, abiding in his ectoplasmic mist of ancient, unspeakable malignance. Long story short, when we were planning our Nevada trip, I realized that only by casting Clowny back into the swirling Stygian hell-portal of Tonopah’s Clown Motel could balance be restored to The Force or something.

My night at the Clown Motel would prove to be a cosmic battle between pure evil and my desire to sleep. Now, contrary to the expectation that the name Clown Motel conjures — that the rooms are shrines to clowns, or perhaps cross-dimensional pods to another phantasmic reality filled with clowns, each room stocked with clown figurines and paintings to act as triggers to open said otherworldly portal — the rooms, in fact, present themselves in the standard heartbreak of truck-stop town drear: stiff bedsheets, clompy brown ’70s carpet, the smell of sad. The front office of The Clown Motel, rather, is where you get a loading dose of coulrophobic terror, because it’s filled with clowns — figurines, portraits, puppets, statues, toys, marching straight past your most advanced psychological defense mechanisms and right through your pupils. Some of the clowns are smiling. Some are sad. Some look pensive. Others quite unapologetically leer. But they all share that unmistakable, ineffable trait that makes clowns so creepy: The scandal, the trauma of artifice falling away to reveal, too late for you!, true intent, a carnivore springing on the naif. The paranoia of knowing it’s going to happen sooner or later. We’re all conspiracy theorists when it comes to clowns. We’ve trusted too much, and now we’re gonna get eaten by Bozo. Goddamn clowns.

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With the front-office top-off of a black bilge of clown-fear sloshing around your soul, what was formerly a sufferably despair-inducing motel room, with its peeling walls and water-stained ceiling, its stiff towels and slow-flushing toilet, its TV that I swear smells like Chinese food and its shower that runs too hot or too cold, its fussy Wi-Fi, the clompings and muted voices in the next room where they’re probably dismembering a corpse, the phlegmy cackles coming from the parking lot, the hard bed, the groan of semis passing by, dragging along this godforsaken starless, sleepless night, takes on a new shape. With those laughing clown eyes and murderous smiles rioting inside you, the fact that nothing is quite how you want it takes on a cast of sinister intent.

Everything at the Clown Motel is just slightly off. The reception is fuzzy, the water scalds or chills, the lamp flickers, there are little bits of garbage here and there from whoever stayed here the night before. And then, yes, the camera pulls back, and you’re laying in bed awake at 3 a.m., and the fruit-pattern sheets are in fact a clown suit, and your tired eyes are growing bags and dark circles, and your hands are turning into distorted repetitive motion claws from fruitlessly pushing the Wi-Fi connect button on your phone, and you realize: the clowns rushed inside you, but even worse, the real secret is that the room, the motel, the entire complex IS THE CLOWN.

When I checked out Saturday morning, I explained to the office manager my Goonies vision quest, producing Clowny from my suitcase. She was delighted to accept Clowny as part of the Clown Motel family. I placed him in the arms of a life-size clown mannequin (pictured right), where he seemed to nestle comfortably in his new unholy shrine to primeval malevolence. She said the owner would just love to get my address to send along little thank-you note.

The weird thing is that, as though in a trance — maybe it was exhaustion, or maybe it was some other force — I wrote down my real home address. And beneath the jangle of the office door, I swear I heard a murderous chuckle.

As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.