In the 30 days he spent living at the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada, Christopher Sebela had received in the mail a series of clown dolls, a clown mask, and a paperback book about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, otherwise known as the Killer Clown. The accompanying shipping slip contained just two words: “Sweet dreams.”
But none of these unsolicited gifts spooked him like the yellowed envelope that arrived at the motel on his 27th day. Unlike most of the other packages he’d received since announcing his new address on the Internet, this one listed a sender. “Not Chris Sebela,” read the manic handwriting. He immediately recognized the return address in Portland, Oregon: It was his own. Inside the envelope, scrawled in a mess of black ink, was a crudely drawn map labeled “God Damned Wasteland.” It contained a set of geographic coordinates and directions to a treasure buried in the desert, surrounded on the map by an illustration of a vulture and two wolves.
“Great, now I have to do cryptography to get to the site of my own murder,” Sebela tweeted to his nearly 5,000 Twitter followers. He was only half-joking. Ever since he’d launched the Kickstarter campaign he now refers to as “the stupidest thing I ever thought of,” he’d casually broached the possibility of his imminent death while living at the Clown Motel.
In fact, the implied threat of his own murder was a key part of his strategy for convincing friends and strangers to contribute $10,000 so he could write a comic book about the experience of living in the Clown Motel for 30 days. “Like, ‘Hey everybody, reputable websites have said that this is the most haunted motel in America, so maybe I’ll die out there,” Sebela says. “And I think that was a large aspect of it, that people were like, ‘Yeah, that sounds like somewhere where you could die.’ It was sort of a running joke.”
But by the time his 27th day at the motel rolled around, the joke had stopped being so funny. He wasn’t much afraid of the clowns in the allegedly haunted motel or the rumored ghosts in the 115-year-old cemetery next door—it was the people who were very much alive in the town itself, those who showed up unannounced at his front door to pay a visit, and yes, especially those who sent him cryptic envelopes bearing his home address.
Titled “I Lived in a Clown Motel,” the journal he plans to publish in May is a frenzied collection of hundreds of his tweets and photos chronicling a nightmarish 30 days in the desert, from hailstorms and flooding to biker gangs and clown troupes to feral cats and meth addicts. An excerpt from day six introduces the recurring character and continual source of anguish known as the Drunk Cowboy, who “sounds about as apocalyptically drunk as a person can be while still able to stand,” Sebela tweeted. Day 16: “Someone set up shop today next to the abandoned gas station on [Interstate] 95 to sell confederate flags.” Day 18: “I am sleeping under clown sex.”
Sebela doesn’t remember how he came across the travel website that first introduced him to the Clown Motel, but the minute he saw the twinkling lights of its roadside marquee, he knew he needed to visit. It wasn’t just the assortment of clowns lurking in each room that mesmerized and terrified him; the combined triple threat of the adjacent cemetery and nearby abandoned silver mine made the whole place seem like the setting of a horror movie—one he desperately wanted to survive. The weekend before Valentine’s Day last year, he succeeded in convincing a friend to fly out from Kansas City, Missouri, to spend a not-so-romantic weekend at the clown-haunted abode.
Day 18: “I am sleeping under clown sex.”
Having spent most of his life in big cities—first Chicago, and then Kansas City and Portland—Sebela was surprised by how much he liked the tiny town of Tonopah, nestled about halfway between Las Vegas and Reno. But the short sojourn didn’t soothe his itch. Back in Portland, frustrated with the publishing world and determined to return to the Clown Motel, Sebela created his first-ever Kickstarter on Labor Day of last year—not the most opportune time to launch an Internet campaign. “The pressure is low enough, and if it fails, it’s not going to be like a huge public failure,” he remembers thinking. “It’ll be like, ‘Well of course that didn’t get funded! That’s a stupid idea.’”
But the project did get funded, and rapidly so. In little more than four hours, Sebela had met his $4,500 goal, making what he dubbed an “insanely bad idea” a reality. It helped that the co-writer of comic books like Captain Marvel and Fantastic Four had a loyal online following who genuinely wanted to see if he could survive 30 days in a motel in the middle of nowhere. It was almost too easy. So he dreamed up more bad ideas—buying a clown suit, conducting a séance in the cemetery—and raised even more money. On Sept. 29, 2015, the total reached $10,000 as he hit the road for a 13-hour drive to Tonopah, two days before the campaign was set to end and three weeks before any of the money would show up in his account. He knew if he didn’t leave right away he’d end up backing out, realizing he’d made a horrible mistake.
Trudging through the barren wasteland of central Nevada 26 days later, he felt the sweaty weight of that mistake. By that point he’d finally figured out which horror movie he was in: It wasn’t It or Killer Klowns From Outer Space, like he’d once imagined. It was The Hills Have Eyes, and he had no idea who or what lurked beyond the dusty dirt roads. “What’s to say some weird desert mutant isn’t going to come and just take my car? Like with some tow truck,” he thought, his mind racing. He’d made up his mind to give up on the treasure hunt. But once he returned to his car, his Twitter followers begged him to venture back into the hot unknown. “I was like, ‘No, they’re right. What the hell else am I going to do? Sit in my room and read?’” he says. “OK fine, I’ll be brave.”
The Clown Motel has been in Tonopah for more than 25 years, but it’s only recently become the kind of Internet fascination that has spawned dozens of YouTube videos from the likes of amateur ghost hunters, documentary crews, and celebrity mortician Caitlin Doughty, who visited the motel last year as part of her Deathstination webseries. In the nearly two years since an image of the motel’s baby blue marquee was uploaded to the popular subreddit “creepy,” the motel has been featured in a smattering of travel sites dedicated to roadside attractions, haunted hotels, and kitschy American oddities. Roadtrippers.com dubbed it America’s scariest motel, Examiner.com called it the most unique place to stay in Nevada, and Las Vegas Weekly spent a night chasing ghosts there.
The motel is also the backdrop for another Kickstarter-funded project: an independent horror movie about a group of young people who resurrect the spirit of an evil clown after a wrong turn leads them away from Las Vegas and toward the Clown Motel. Owner Bob Perchetti welcomes the attention—and the business it brings in—but insists he never advertised the motel as a frightening place to spend the night. Instead, he emphasizes hospitality, boasting about its low rates (a single is $39.50 plus tax), large rooms (about 26 feet by 14 feet), and amenities including wireless Internet and Dish TV.
“I just can’t believe that that would be a good market as a haunted motel,” he tells me. “Most people are traveling north to south, and they stop here because the price is right and they just want to get a good night’s sleep.” He denies that the motel is haunted, but the cemetery next door is another story. According to Perchetti, LeRoy David built the motel in 1990 and chose the property for its proximity to the circa 1901 cemetery. The former Nye County assemblyman’s father was buried there, along with many other miners who fell ill to a severe pneumonia dubbed the “Tonopah Plague” by the Los Angeles Times in 1905.
“We have great people here. We’ve always had great people.”
David had already amassed a clown collection and decided to use it as the motel’s theme when he purchased the property, Perchetti recalls. Today, there are more than 600 toy clowns on display in the motel’s front office. While the motel has become something of a tourist destination, Tonopah itself is tiny and remote, with a population of just around 2,500—despite being the county seat in the country’s third-largest county by area. It’s an arguable demographic claim that Perchetti, born in Tonopah in 1938, is quick to relay as a badge of honor.
The colossal county of Nye is unusual for two reasons: All of its towns are unincorporated, and it’s one of just a handful of places in the country where prostitution is legal, giving rise to roadside brothels with whimsical themes—aliens, chickens, bunnies—that rival the Clown Motel in eccentricity. “You can drive 300 miles in this county and never run out,” Perchetti boasts. “We have great people here. We’ve always had great people.”
Christopher Sebela had driven three hours and walked a mile into the desert, following a hand-drawn map. Despite an overwhelming sense of dread, he’d been tweeting every step of the way—now his phone was dying and he hadn’t thought to bring any water. “That was the peak of Twitter being my lifeline, that I was literally tweeting, like, ‘OK now I’m walking up the road,’ and people would be like, ‘You haven’t tweeted in a while. Can you say something just so we know you’re OK?’” he recalls. “I think for everyone who followed it, that was the point where it stopped being a joke. And then it was like, ‘I think Chris is genuinely in trouble here, and like, I am worried for him.’”
At one point he began livestreaming on Periscope, and he estimates that some 300 people, including friends at a comic book convention in Paris, tuned in to support him as he made his way through the desert. Eventually he surrendered to his own thirst, his dying phone, and the realization that maybe there was nothing actually buried in the desert. Over the month, he’d survived flash flooding, hail, thunderstorms, and a fire at a nearby nuclear waste site. He’d spent days surrounded by clowns—both the real ones who visited the motel and the stuffed ones living on its walls and shelves—but he’d never been so scared as when he ventured into the great expanse of nothingness beyond the Clown Motel.
He decided to leave. Before driving back to his room, though, he left a single clown doll in the desert, waiting patiently for someone else to find it. “Paying it forward,” he tweeted.
GIF by Bruno Moraes. Photographs by Christopher Sebela.