The Tiny Terrors of the Clown Motel of Tonopah, Nevada

Clown Motel, Tonopah Nevada

The Tonopah Historic Cemetery is just a few feet to the right of the office of the Clown Motel.

 

This small-town motel brings together creepy clowns and a historic cemetery

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the town of Tonopah, Nevada. About two and a half hours north of Death Valley, the small town on a stretch of highway that connects Reno to Las Vegas is less depressed than many of central Nevada’s communities; there’s a nice “downtown” hotel, a few decent restaurants, and even a craft brewery with an adjacent taproom. But hundreds of road trippers and kitsch-seekers are drawn to Tonopah every year for something else: what some have dubbed “the most terrifying hotel in America.”

Sitting at the end of Tonopah’s main drag is the Clown Motel, a shabby two-storey building adorned with peeling blue paint and a neon sign with a clip art-style clown smiling down towards the parking lot. Nothing seems too terrifying — the wooden clowns on each room’s door and the wood cutout proclaiming “Bikers Welcome” are actually cheery. Weary from a long day’s drive, my husband, two children and I proceed to the office to check in.

clown motel, tonopah nevada

This is just a selection of the over 500 pieces of clown memorabilia to be found in the Clown Motel’s main office.

 

Despite the relatively late hour, there are a few parties ahead of us checking in (apparently there was an AA convention going on, and every room in Tonopah was booked), which gives us time to adjust to the sight of over 500 clown figurines lining the shelves of the small office. Behind the counter, a friendly older woman takes her time to greet each guest, explaining that the clown figurines have mostly been donated by friends and fans, and that the collection is continuously growing. For the most part, the dolls are cute: slightly dusty porcelain figures with innocuous expressions, nothing sinister or nightmare inducing, with the possible exception of a human-sized clown mannequin seated in the corner. There are sad clown paintings on the wall, copies of Clowning Around magazine fanned on the coffee table in front of a well-worn sofa. Not a clourophobe’s idea of a good time, but not exactly terrifying.

A group of giggling hipsters checks in ahead of us, the woman behind the desk feigning confusion as to why they’re so excited to stay at the hotel. “Well, there aren’t many motels themed around clowns,” she concedes. “So I guess some people find that a little weird.”

Clearly, though, she must realize the concept is odd and is drawing attention (writer Christopher Sebela recently stayed in the hotel for an entire month after a successful kickstarter campaign to fund a comic book about the Clown Motel). As she spies my young son sitting on the floor crying out of fatigue, she looks at my husband and knowingly whispers, “It’s the clowns, isn’t it?” We assure her that he’s fine, and she hands us a key to room 208, solemnly assuring us that “it’s a good room.”

Tonopah Historic Cemetery

The Tonopah Historic Cemetery is the final resting place for many miners who died in a fire in the early 1900s.

 

We retreat to our room, which is worn but clean and comfortable (we can only assume that what makes it “good” is a lack of known clown hauntings) and sleep through the night without incident. In the morning, I open the door to take a look and behind the office I see it: just steps from the motel’s parking lot is a field full of makeshift headstones festooned with tin name plates sparkling in the sun and rocks outlining each grave. It’s the old Tonopah Cemetery, the final resting place of townspeople who died between 1901 and 1911, either from a mine fire in nearby Belmont or a surge of illness known as the “Tonopah plague.”

The cemetery is peaceful and only creepy in the way any cemetery is (though we are somewhat jolted by the early age at which many of the inhabitants met their end), but it’s easy to see why the faint of heart may take issue with the Clown Motel. That said, with rooms priced at less than $50 USD, it’s a comfortable place to stay mid-road trip and worth it if only for the Instagram posts.

Tonopah is an approximate three-and-a-half hour drive southeast from Reno or a three-hour drive northwest from Las Vegas. The closest airport is the Fresno Yosemite Airport, approximately 262 kilometres away.

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