Tonopah, Nevada Clowns Around with the American Psyche

Tonopah, Nevada Clowns Around with the American Psyche

IT SEEMS DIFFICULT TO REMEMBER a time when clowns were not unequivocally synonymous with dread in the American cultural imagination.

IT SEEMS DIFFICULT TO REMEMBER a time when clowns were not unequivocally synonymous with dread in the American cultural imagination.

In her nonfiction book Maximum Sunlight, Meagan Day examines the unlikely interior of a clown-themed motel in Tonopah, Nevada, a former mining town that she first discovered by accident while driving between Las Vegas and Reno.

The curiosity that Day experienced on her discovering Tonopah seems instantly captured by the anomaly of the Clown Motel:

I was especially transfixed by the Clown Motel, a pair of shabby two-story blue buildings at the edge of town. A plywood cutout in the shape of a clown points to a hand-painted sign announcing that truckers are welcome…. I stared at the motel in amazement thinking Why does this exist? Who the hell lives here, works here? I had no frame of reference.

The discovery of the motel in this remote town encapsulates Day’s experience of a cultural shock. Tonopah is roughly 200 miles northwest of Las Vegas, which is pretty much the middle of nowhere as far as the rest of America is concerned. “Well, aside from Vegas, I don’t think [people in big American cities] think about us at all,” says Linda, a woman in Tonopah’s casino, to Day after she decides to return on a project of cultural investigation.

The motel’s characteristic feature is its collection of clown ornaments which, like a museum, testifies to the evolution of the clown’s perception in recent cultural history. Some items in the collection remind Day that clowns were once primarily conceived as kind, cheerful figures “with oversized shoes, accordions and juggling pins.” These items are “vestiges of a time when clowns enjoyed more favor in the hearts of the masses.

Later iterations, more threatening in appearance, illustrate the way in which clowns fell out of favor in the popular opinion. The first movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It in 1990 and the infamous case of serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., Day writes, transformed the clown into an object of anxiety in the popular imagination. The collection includes an “early iteration of Ronald McDonald,” an all-American pop cultural figure which, photographed in the book among other, smaller-sized clowns, elicits a feeling of uneasy familiarity. After the wave of “killer-clown” pranks which arose across urban communities in the U.S. in 2016, the fast-food chain’s mascot has been keeping a low marketing profile.

People come from across the nation to try and come to terms with their fear of clowns, sometimes on the advice of their therapist, Wilma, the manager of the Clown Motel, says. Others discover the Clown Motel online and visit it out of curiosity or fascination with quirky, off-grid Americana. One of them, Day discovers, has sent himself on a self-appointed writer’s residence at the Clown Motel, which he documents on Twitter.


About the Author: Elsa Court is a London-based writer and journalist. She writes for the Financial Times and reads prose for Granta magazine. Her monograph Émigré Representations of the American Roadside 1955–85: Explorations in Literature, Film, and Photography is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan as part of the new academic series Studies in Mobilities, Literature, and Culture.


To read the rest of this article, members are invited to log in. Members without a username and password can request member access here. Not a member? We invite you to join. This article originally appeared in the SCA Journal, Fall 2018, Vol. 36, No. 2. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.

More Articles Join the SCA