Facing My Fear
Confronting coulrophobia in the Nevada desert.
Photos: Erik Tanner
The Clown Motel is big in Europe.
A disproportionate number of its guests come from there. Joe, the motel's jovial and eager manager, in fact just took a booking for seventeen women coming through for a reunion where they will spend a night later in the month.
"We're popular over there," he says, "I'm not really sure why."
The Clown Motel is, I should say, in the Nevada desert.
How do you get to the Clown Motel? The drive is arduous, the location remote. Tonopah, the once thriving mining town in which the Clown Motel resides, is just about halfway between Las Vegas and Reno. That puts it roughly in the middle of nowhere, set down in one of the most arid and remote places on Earth where nights are freezing and days bake your noodle. Many has been the weary gambler run out of either city, traveling either way, gunning to get out of the hole and resting their head for the night at the Clown Motel.
The Clown Motel attracts other guests, of course. Appreciators of clowns. People who got lost. Idiot correspondents with coulrophobia. Just before we arrived, a death metal band had used the motel for a video location and stayed the night.
Bob is the owner of Clown Motel, ("Clown Motel," he answers the phone as it occasionally rings to interrupt us.) He is seventy-five years old, tall and handsome with tan, weathered skin and neat, grey-white hair. His hands are the big, worn hands of someone who has worked with them their whole life. With them he takes out a copy of a Las Vegas metal magazine and leafs through it until he lands on a photo of Kronos*, who he is fairly sure is the band in question.
"That's them," he says, sticking a finger at a fellow in full flights of shred, eyes tight shut and mouth agape, letting loose a guttural howl. "They set up in the graveyard and played at midnight. That made some people upset a little, saying it disrespected the dead."
The band also left red paint on the wall of the room they'd used for a photo shoot. "I don't know, maybe it was meant to be blood or something," Bob says with a small shake of the head. "But they sure left a terrible mess in there."
Between you and me, the motel seems to be more of a bizarre burden to be tolerated than any kind of asset to Bob. He regards it with a kind of resigned bemusement bordering on impatience. The deal was done many years back on a napkin ("That's coming back to haunt me now"), and he intimates that the terms were not especially favorable. The guy who sold it to him just really wanted him to buy it, and as he was in a position to do so, he did.
Bob has done an extraordinary number of things in his life that make his current tenure as owner of the Clown Motel nearly the least interesting thing about him. He's second generation Tonopah, his 92-year-old mother still with us, his family from mining stock going all the way back to the founding of the town in the early 1900s—four generations. He's been a member of the Nevada Tourism Board and so has been all the way down inside Yucca Mountain, back when people still went through there. He was a sheriff at the Nevada Test Site at the height of the atomic age and witnessed the bombs go off ("A lot of people got sick with radiation cancer, I've been lucky. Just this one little skin cancer on my nose. But that was from the sun,").
He's been pretty much a local celebrity for decades, profiled in 1983 in Sierra Life as the "Tonopah Kid", famed for his extensive collection of taxidermy fashioned from game he hunted himself as well as for the huge number of civic duties he undertook as a younger man, from convention center director to coach of both the basketball and softball leagues to organizer of the then annual Antique Bottle Show ("We had over 100 visitors that first year and it kept on growing," the profile reads.)
Bob has long been a successful businessman in Tonopah, owning and operating five hotels and bars back when the population was bustling in the thousands. This is no longer the case and hasn't been for quite some time, the population now just over 2000. Once the mines were tapped out most people took work at the nearby test range, where experimental US military aircraft like the stealth Nighthawk were developed and nuclear weapons delivery systems were built. Still, the exodus was immense and Tonopah today bears many of the hard knock marks of a single-industry town since gone to seed. Though it was at its dawn the home of the second richest silver vein in Nevada.
These days Bob's also the man in town for a loan, his other business is the pawn shop. "There's a lot of people on unemployment and disability who can't make it through the week," he says, "So I help 'em out."
For most right-thinking people clowns are not at all fine. My own coulrophobia kicked in early, when I was about four. It is a memory so traumatizing that I immediately suppressed it so deep in my psyche it cannot be dislodged. My mother says there was a supermarket, a clown prowling the aisles(???) and me scared out of my tiny little mind when the clown jumped out from around a corner. This is the event horizon of the end of my childhood up until which point I was blissfully free of a paralyzing phobia. I can never go back.
Coulrophobia itself is controversial in both psychological and clowning literatures. 'Coulrophobia' is not a technically recognized phobia, it was not included in the most recent update to the DSM, much to the relief of clowns, who don't want their profession pathologized. But even if the emergence of term for a (totally rational!) profound fear of clowns is recent (its provenance still unproven, but popularly tied to the release of Stephen King's delightful children's film, It), it goes back a long way.
For as long as there have been clowns people have (correctly!) found them disturbing. There is a great deal written about this, and it is generally agreed that why clowns are so frightening is because they fall precisely within our perception of the uncanny. We inherently (RIGHTLY!) distrust people in masks; being unable to see the person behind a clown's make-up destabilizes our perception of that person as a fellow human; they could be hiding anything under there! What if they were a clown alien, for one thing? Second to this, clowns are transgressive by nature; they do not obey society's rules. They are impish, distrustful, sometimes silent figures whose only job is trick people with seemingly impossible feats of magic. They break social bonds and are never punished for doing so. Plus they seem to be immortal.
You might think that if you owned a clown motel you would furnish it with clown dolls, as in a collection. Though in the case of the Clown Motel, the collection came first and is the reason for the motel's existence. This was back in 1993. The owner of the collection was a keen clown enthusiast, and he bought it from a professional clown, Mister Clown. Then he built the motel.
No one seems to know how much was paid for the dolls. Mister Clown also ran successful clown colleges and clown cruises, but why he parted with the dolls is unclear. The collection takes up the entirety of the motel's office, its two most striking members being a life-sized gentleman with alarmingly life-like hands who sits in the corner by the TV at the check-in desk, and an equally large race track mascot who was repainted accidentally to resemble a famous burger clown ("He used to be blue," Joe says. "I'm not sure how this happened.")
"Some people are scared to death of 'em," Bob says. I'd asked if he'd had any special interest in or appreciation for clowns before buying the motel. "I don't really care. I don't mind them. They're fine."
Joe does care. A lot. Joe has lived at the Clown Motel for seventeen years, since he first came to town and where he works as the manager. Two rooms on the top floor corner overlooking the highway are converted into his neatly-kept apartment. (Joe isn't the motels' only full time resident, a geologist also lives there, but he's out the day of our visit and we can only peek through the glass at his large array of microscopes and other equipment, including a hunting camera keeping watch from the window, and wonder about where he is off prospecting.)
Joe is a veritable font of clown-related information and the enthusiasm with which he embraces his job as the motel's custodian/historian is infectious. He possesses the aura of someone who has found an enviable and total contentment and purpose in life. He's ever ready to politely pipe in with helpful information and will stress a point by jutting out both his hands in front of him while raising his eyebrows from behind his glasses. When we want to get pictures of the motel's road sign in the evening dusk he turns it on, no problem. He also gave me a generous deal on some postcards and a mug.
All the merchandise you can buy at the motel was Joe's idea; T-shirts, mugs, postcards, Joe had them all made up and now the motel does a brisk little side trade. You can even buy some of the clowns, if you like, if you ask which are for sale. Though these are certainly never the rare clowns, which no one is allowed to buy. People from all over the world come to the motel and donate clown dolls, some of them very precious and hard to find.
When he isn't working Joe likes to feed the little half-wild cats who live in the adjoining cemetery, whose eyes you can sometimes feel on you but who scamper off quick on dropped haunches if you get too near.
As far as accommodations go, the Clown Motel is totally serviceable, which I can honestly tell you as someone who has stayed in many a motel across this fine country. It's kind of a down-market Super 8, and staying there will set you back just $35, so for value it is solid. The bed is comfortable enough, the television is a flat screen, you get a bar fridge and a microwave and a whole wall for hanging your clothes. The floor of my bathroom was extremely hot to stand on, either from some hokey plumbing, or all the trapped souls beneath the tiles, I'm not sure which. Either way on a cold evening it is a plus.
As I am afflicted with an mortal terror of clowns, I try and work out what I can do to spend as little time as possible in the motel, as friendly as everyone who works there is. One of the straight away fun things to do instead of spending even one extra second inside is to check out the graveyard, right next door. Handily it is literally feet away from our rooms. It is not, sadly, a graveyard for clowns, though I take pleasure in imagining dozens of them attending a clown funeral, wearing their frown make-up while dressed all in black, letting off sad black balloons into the desert sky while it rains on their faces already streaked with tears. Then they would all be struck by lightning and die, falling into conveniently open graves.
In reality, it's a graveyard for townspeople who died between 1901 and 1911 of a horrible disease of still unknown provenance. Heartbreakingly there are some tiny graves in a section for children who were claimed by the lethal sickness. The town's first sheriff is buried there too, along with the victims of a catastrophic fire in one of the local mines.
Up the road is the Mizpah Hotel, the last vestige of the halcyon days of Tonopah when the place was still serviced by rail. The Hotel is grand and ornate with period details, brass ornaments and intricate chandeliers, is apparently haunted by The Lady in Red and was for a time the tallest building in Nevada, standing five storeys high. It served up a very nice cheese steak to boot and scores 4.5 on a popular travel review site.
Then it was time for bed, where I slept one of the top three worst sleeps of my life, which had nothing to do with the décor or comfort of the Clown Motel, and everything to do with me not having ingested enough water during the day. The elevation and profound dryness of the town's desert locale leeched every drop of moisture from my body, almost crusting my eyes shut and turning my mouth to sand, visiting upon me nightmarish visions of walking aimlessly through an endless wasteland.
At least I think they were nightmares.
Come morning we are being regaled with tales of life at the Clown Motel. Some people try and mess with the motel's staff and they understandably do not appreciate it. For a time they were hounded by a prank caller. When Joe answered he knew right away they weren't serious and hung straight up on them. But Bob is more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt and so ended up being harangued by some clown looking to pump iron. The Motel also appears in Call of Duty's Havoc expansion pack, though cheekily, and perhaps to skirt some tidy licensing fees, the developers renamed it the Clown Inn and stuck a big old butte behind it, neither of which reflect the reality of the actual Clown Motel.
Even so it's clear that Joe gets a kick out these minor notorieties, that he enjoys looking them up on the internet and takes pride in the proof that the outside world still knows about Tonopah, about the kooky little motel in the middle of nowhere. Bob just says that business isn't what it used to be (though I counted seven other cars and one eighteen wheeler in the lot the night we stayed) and seems to have a hard time understanding what all the fuss is about; it's just a clown motel.
When before we head off the next morning we gather everyone in the lot behind the motel for some staff photos, Bob says to me, "We just don't want anything negative about us in the press, about our business. We're trying to make a living here." If after four generations of your family carving a living out of one of the most unforgiving places you could ever hope to find yourself in, you wanted to make that living running a Clown Motel, then that is your right. This is after all the American West. Stake your claim.
And if ever you should pass through Tonopah you'd be a fool not to visit the Clown Motel. Please come and visit the Clown Motel. Quickly. Tonight, if possible. It was totally fine! Here I am writing this from the comfort of my desk, safely back home, and definitely not from inside a coffin in which I was hastily buried alive in the cemetery with only my quickly draining phone to send word of my fate over the motel's increasingly faint wifi signal.
*All apologies if the room-trashing band was not actually Kronos.
- motherboard show
- Mizpah Hotel
- down to Tonopah
- the clown motel