TONOPAH—I woke up dead in the Clown Motel. Not dead 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, with liberal use of the caps-lock key, THE CLOWN MOTEL SPENT THE NIGHT IN ME.
But first, a clarification: Contrary to the expectation that the name Clown Motel conjures – that the rooms are individual shrines to clowns, or perhaps cross-dimensional pods to another reality filled with clowns, each room stocked with clown figurines, paintings, tchotchkes to act as talismanic triggers to open said otherworldly portal – the rooms, in fact, present themselves in the standard heartbreak of truck-stop town drear.
Curtains stiff and yellowed from years of smoke and probably despairing sighs of regret and furtive remorse. Bed coverings patterned in some weird optical illusion of some unidentifiable fruit transmogrifying into some unidentifiable insect, specifically the insect’s scary underside, where all the creepy gleaming chitinous nested joints and plates are, threatening stings and poisons and diseases. The carpet is the color of mud. And yet such touches of the quotidian unsavory soon later blossom to reveal something else.
The front office, see, is where they do their work. They, meaning the clowns. I checked in last night with Marlena Dufour, a pleasant woman with red hair who gamely told me that many people stay at the Clown Motel expressly to confront their fear of clowns. But I didn’t process that sentence until much later, because at the time I was busy having a psychic breakdown state of experiencing a pair of invisible festively gloved skeleton hands tugging open my soul like a coroner forcing open a ribcage and pouring in pure primal childhood fear.
See, the Clown Motel front office is where you get a loading dose of coulrophobic terror, because it’s filled with clowns – figurines, portraits, puppets, statues, toys, crowding the shelves, covering the walls, marching straight past your defense mechanisms and right through your pupils. I could hear Marlena talking to me, but it was distant, aquatically muffled. Because I had entered clown-time, reality turned into a rippling slow-motion blur as the front-office clowns rushed into my unconscious mind. 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. 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.
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, 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, intermittent wifi that, if it made a sound, would crackle like a transistor radio, the clompings and muted coughs and voices in the next room where they’re probably methodically 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, right then, yes, the camera pulls back, and you’re laying in bed awake at 3 a.m., and the insect-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 obsessively but fruitlessly pushing the wifi 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.