Comic Book Writer to Move Into a Real-Life Clown Motel... No, Really

"I Live In A Clown Motel: A Journey Into The Heart of America" cover
Credit: Christopher Sebela

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and it can be summed up with the fact that there's a real life Clown Motel in Nevada. And writer Christopher Sebela wants to move there for a month, and live to tell the tale: literally.

As part of the unique project I Live In A Clown Motel: A Journey Into The Heart of America, Sebela will live in Tonopah, Nevada's popular Clown Motel and explore the surrounding graveyard and small town for a book, a web experience, a comic book, and more. Initially thought of as an in-joke amongst him and his friends, the project went from laughs to reality when a Kickstarter broke through a $5,000 funding goal in just hours earlier this month.

Sebela will continue writing both Escape From New York and his creator-owned series Welcome Back while staying at the Clown Motel, and will begin writing a comic book about his stay after the experience. Newsarama talked with the writer about this unique project, the allure of clown culture and this slightly creepy inn, and what he'll be writing exactly while he's there.

Newsarama: Chris, what makes the Clown Motel so interesting to you?

Christopher Sebela: I think it’s down to the fact I’ve always lived in big cities and I don’t really know any other way to live. Tonopah is this small town that’s over 200 miles in either direction from Vegas or Reno, it’s a roadside town that you can drive the length of in about five minutes. There’s one grocery store, one bookstore, it’s a genuine small town that most people just speed through on their way to somewhere else, but it’s home to a few thousand people. It has this history to it that is much more easily to get your head around than, say, the history of Chicago. Maybe because it's so opposite of how I know how to live, I find the place interesting.

And yet, in this small town, there's room for a clown-themed motel which is basically the last monument before you pick up speed on 95 and start your slog towards Reno. So, depending which way you’re coming on 95, the Clown Motel is either your introduction or your farewell to Tonopah. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be driving out of the pitch blackness of the desert and see a sign up ahead and it’s this massive clown, and it’s a whole clown themed motel. Or you’re coming the other way and you’ve had to slow down to 25mph and you just want to get moving before it gets too late or too dark and you round the bend to see… the Clown Motel.

The people running this motel, they’re not doing it as a joke, they genuinely like clowns. They have a massive collection of clown figurines and toys, enough to have picked that as a theme to make themselves distinct. And it worked, but probably not the way they intended. The internet has found out about them and turned them into this horror movie scenario. Which, to be fair, literally 20 steps from the front office is a turn of the century graveyard, so maybe they’re savvier than I give them credit for.

Nrama: So the owners of the Clown Motel like clowns… but what about you? Would you consider yourself a clown lover, clown hater, someone who dresses as a clown in the past?

Credit: Natasha Alterici

Sebela: I’m largely clown neutral. I’m not a huge fan of them, but I’m not scared of them. Maybe it’s because I grew up watching horror movies from way too early an age, but unless a clown is coming at me with a weapon, they’re just people. 

What I find interesting about clowns is that they’re so terrifying to so many people. They have their own phobia! I remember reading something somewhere about how there are these commonalities to things people across cultures fear in terms of human features, and distortions of them: huge eyes, gaping mouths, exaggerated extremities. These fears that stretch back thousands of years. The notion is that this is all some kind of genetic memory from long ago when there were things like that roaming the planet or coming down from space or out of the earth. That kind of makes sense to me. Fear of clowns feels very primal, in a weird way.

Nrama: You spent the weekend at this place before starting this project; how did that change your opinion of the place?

Sebela: Before we got there, my friend Shena and I kept joking to each other about how we’d be murdered in this strange motel by clown ghosts; or, we’d just vanish and never be heard from again. It was our way of daring each other to actually go through with this, and when we got there I think we just laughed for a solid 10 minutes that we’d turned a Facebook messenger chat into us standing in a room in the Clown Motel. 

But we both ended up really enjoying ourselves, to the point where we talked about doing this again, which I don’t think either of us expected. It can be a tad unsettling at times with the clown portraits hanging over the beds and the thousands of clowns surrounding you in the front office and the graveyard full of dead people and their causes of death listed on each headstone and the desert winds that almost feel like they’re blowing through your room they’re so strong.

Ultimately, I learned the Clown Motel isn’t the scariest motel in America. The scariest motel in America is still some motel whose name I forget in Omaha, Nebraska that didn’t have locks on the door — just a brass ring on a chain you slipped over the doorknob — and had people violently fist-fighting in the hallway while I tried to watch Hellraiser 3

Nrama: That could be another story. But back to the Clown Motel: what led you to take this from a personal experience to something you wanted to share with the world like this?

Sebela: Part of the fun of the last time I went was sharing it on Twitter. People seemed as into it as I was, but they had the remove of being able to stay home and just see it through their phones or computers. I liked that aspect of making this thing people had only seen stills of online into something a bit more real. That planted the seed in my head.

Then, once I got home from the initial trip, I missed Tonopah in a strange way. There’s videos people post of them just driving through towns in America, and one of them was of a drive through Tonopah and I watched it a few times and felt this nostalgia for a vacation I’d literally just gotten back from.

Finally, I’ve been wanting to get back to doing more prose writing and the idea of doing a whole month at the motel and writing about it just made sense to me in a weird way. I wasn’t sure if anyone else would be into it. There’s a huge difference between watching someone do something questionable for free and paying to see someone do something really questionable. But apparently a lot of people are into the idea. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s the support on the Kickstarter that was what this whole idea needed to actually turn into a real thing and not some idle daydream.

Nrama: I have a feeling that if this was the late 1990s or early 2000s, you'd be doing this on a live webcam. How will you be documenting your stay here in the month of October?

Sebela: Well, now we have Skype and Periscope, which makes streaming things a lot easier. We pretty much all walk around with cameras and video platforms in our pockets. Plus I’ll have a high quality camera with me. My plan is to post bits and pieces on a website I’m setting up for the project. People who give at a certain level get password access and it’ll be updated daily with photos, video, text, maybe I’ll write a song. If you’ve ever watched a livestream, those things get deadly boring at times because life happens and a lot of life is quiet, so I’m not planning on subjecting anyone to the unexpurgated view of me sitting in a Clown Motel staring at a laptop or watching TV. It’ll be curated for maximum enjoyment, on my end and on theirs.

Credit: Sean Von Gorman

Nrama: The bulk of this is a prose piece, but one of your stretch goals is a comic book – one that was achieved early on in the Kickstarter funding. So since this is Newsarama, what can you say about that facet of this project?

Sebela: I started getting messages from artists I know who offered up their talents if I needed it and doing a comic version just makes sense since I’m a comics writer. But as to what it’s going to be, I’m not sure yet. I’m torn between doing something that’s reportage or using it to tell a fictional story. I’m probably going to shoot for a hybrid between the two if I can manage it. This is one of the things I’ll be figuring out while I’m there, but I definitely have some great artists lined up who are eager to work on it and I have a couple ideas for how to do it, now I just have to see what kind of ideas I get from my stay. If we've done our jobs right, whatever it ends up being will be unnerving.

Nrama: There's no comic book shops near Tonopah -- are you going all digital for your reading that month, or do you have other plans?

Sebela: Anything new that comes out in October I’ll have to pick up digitally, but I have a giant stack of comics that I’ve been buying for the last two years and wanting to read and not reading due to working so much. Lately all I can keep up to date on is books that friends are writing or drawing. So, one of my personal goals on this trip is to get caught up on that stack. Like, I’ve never read Saga, which apparently is a good comic from what I’ve heard?

Nrama: You could say that.

Will you be writing your comic book work here during this month as well?

Sebela: Yeah, I haven’t even told my editors that I’m doing this but I’m sure they’re probably aware by now. Actually, while I was writing this I got an email from an editor wanting to check about October and deadlines. There’s no dispensations for living in clown motels, so I’ll be hitting my deadlines while I’m there. My plan is to live my life like I live my life here in Portland, only somewhere else. I’m gonna be working on new stuff too. The upside of all this is that I will be completely away from all my housebound distractions, so hopefully — between the book and everything else — I’ll be more productive than usual. 

Credit: Marissa Louise

Nrama: Have you spoken to anyone who works at the Clown Motel about your project?

Sebela: I haven’t. I did call to confirm the room rate when I was doing a cost breakdown, but then I suddenly got really self-conscious when I was about to ask if they had a monthly rate. I’m not sure what they’re going to think of it, and I’d kind of like to have that discussion face-to-face. One, just to see how an idea like this lands with them. And two, I know they must get a fair number of goofballs making prank calls to them. I’ve seen at least one on YouTube. I don’t want to be mistaken for that kind of Clown Motel enthusiast. As weird as this whole concept is, I’m approaching it with a fair amount of seriousness.

Credit: Jordan Boyd

Nrama: Your Kickstarter  Kickstarter has already surpassed it's $5,000 goal, making this idea awfully real, really quick. What do you think about the response?

Sebela: I launched it around noon on Labor Day, which is probably a terrible time to launch a Kickstarter if you ask people who do their homework. I didn’t do homework. I made it up as I went along, with just the basic premise to hold onto. I never really told anyone it was coming. I talked about it on Twitter here and there, vague references, and I think most people took it as a joke. Which, why wouldn’t you? Then I launched it on accident — thinking there was a whole Kickstarter approval process that would take a few days — and I had no choice but to roll with it.

But it got funded in the first four or five hours and I spent most of Labor Day staring at my phone wondering what was happening. There’s a certain amount of support you can expect from friends, and I got more than that, especially from other comics folks, but lots of the backers were complete strangers. The whole thing is super confusing. I had no idea when I launched it if it would hit its goal or not in the 27 days I allotted to the campaign.

I expected it would get some response, because it’s kind of bizarre when compared to the usual spectrum of Kickstarter stuff, but I didn’t think it would blow up to 250+ people supporting it or even having stretch goals. But we’ve already passed the first one and I’m kinda doing like I’ve been since Labor Day: rolling with it, having no idea what the rest of the campaign will bring, and hoping for the best.

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