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Crowded’s Christopher Sebela on the Terror and Absurdity of His Month in Nevada’s Clown Motel

Christopher Sebela has a sinister skill for weaving horrific scenarios throughout his comics.

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Comic creators aren’t made: they’re forged. The people who devote their lives to sequential storytelling contain a pandora’s box of wayward adventures, often reflected in the subtext of their comics. In Secret Identities, we quiz select creators on their most noteworthy, bizarre, and outlandish gigs. Photography courtesy Christopher Sebela. 

In the body-horror opus Evolution, the scribe unites with James Asmus, Joseph Keatinge, Joshua Williamson, Joe Infurnari, and Jordan Boyd for a taut conspiracy about humanity contorting into its next gruesome phase. The scribe has also unleashed two new taut thrillers this summer. Historical revenge boiler Shanghai Red revisits the involuntary labor crimes of the mid-19th century, with shadow-drenched art courtesy of Joshua Hixson. Jumping centuries ahead, Crowded, featuring illustrations from Ted Brandt and Ro Stein, shows a tech dystopia where the unwashed masses crowdfund assassinations and bodyguards.

But Sebela subjected himself to an experience far more terrifying than his fictional scenarios in the winter of 2015, spending a month in the infamous Clown Motel—which is exactly what it sounds like. Located dead center in Nevada in the micro-town of Tonopah, the stay often touts itself as one of the most haunted places in America, but Sebela found dangers far more tangible lurking throughout its proximity. Preserved through a zine that collects his live-tweeting rampage and a subsequent book, the writer reconstructs the absurdity and terror of living in a roadside attraction plagued by stray cats, drug addicts, and a vagrant “cowboy” named Jeff. Sebela reflects on the experience in the feature below.

When did you first encounter the Clown Motel in Tonopah? What inspired you to return to it for a month while live-journaling/tweeting the entire experience?
I saw it on the internet, one of those Facebook links or something about “The Most Haunted Motel in America,” and once I read about it being next door to a cemetery and in the same town as an abandoned silver mine, that was enough to snag my attention. I ended up going for the first time with my friend Shena for a weekend and had a fun time, which was not what I was expecting, so that by the time I got back home after a 14-hour drive, I was still thinking about it. Mostly what inspired me to go back was that I wanted to do a writing retreat to get away from things, and I’d made the joke on Twitter about me going back to live there for a month, and the two ideas kinda merged. I quickly set up a Kickstarter because I didn’t want to pay for it myself, and ended up hitting my goal in under five hours. So I was then obligated to go. Live-tweeting the experience was just something I did to pass the time and keep myself sane—it was my only connection to the world I’d left behind.

What was your impression of clowns before staying at the motel? Did it change during your month?
I’ve never been afraid of clowns, or had much of a feeling about them, except slight amusement at friends of mine who are terrified of them. So going to the Clown Motel didn’t fill me with fear or anything, at least not about being surrounded by clown art all the time. And it would have remained mostly the same, except that some clowns showed up at the motel for a weekend while I was living there, and they were the worst kind of clowns: obnoxious and always on, forever being clowns and never being real human beings. That combined with my general malaise the longer I was there, I learned to hate clowns while I was there.

The motel is branded as one of the most haunted places in America, but if your narrative had a theme, it was watching your fear shift from seances and ghosts to meth heads and a belligerent drunk cowboy. When did that realization hit you?
Pretty quickly, actually. I mean, I knew going there the second time that it wasn’t really haunted. At least not by ghosts. But this time, I found out what it was haunted by: a drunk guy named Cowboy Jeff who slept in some abandoned shacks out behind the motel and would come by every four or five days, drunk as hell, to yell at everyone and swear up a storm before wandering off. Jeff was harmless, I guess, but he seemed terrifying hearing him from inside my room. I think when the Breaking Bad RV showed up at the motel is when I finally keyed into the fact I was in a meth horror story and not a ghost one. Eventually, it turned into a couple other horror movies, but most of those can be filed under the same bad decision-making that led me to live in the Clown Motel for a month.

Also: a dachshund chased you through a meth subdivision?
Less exciting than it sounds, but it seemed sort of indicative of the rest of the town. When I would get into the neighborhoods anywhere beyond the main drag of Tonopah, things got even weirder. It was like you’re telling one story and then you open a door and discover there are a thousand other parts of the story in there you never even thought about. I could’ve spent way longer there just uncovering all that stuff, but I had my sanity and life to think of.

I also found your narrative to be the story of a small, small town that found unexpected relevance through this roadside attraction. How did Tonopah change you, if at all, after you returned to Portland?
It certainly made me appreciate what I have here. Tonopah as a town is tiny, 2,000 or so people living there, 300 miles in either direction from big cities, no movies or entertainment except for some dinky museums and a lot of bars. Portland is like 10,000 Tonopahs wrapped up in one. But I think living out of a suitcase and a few bags for a month also made me realize that I don’t need all the trappings of life I surround myself with. I was able to make do for 30 days with just the stuff I could fit in my car, and there was nothing from my house I really missed (outside of my bed or laying on my couch and watching my big TV), so I think it definitely changed me in terms of how I structure my life.

At one juncture you said you were very, very close to abandoning the project and heading home. What pushed you to that extreme?
So the RV I mentioned earlier that showed up at the motel, it was just parked alongside the motel, so it was clear it didn’t belong to one of the guests. It showed up about a week and change into my stay, and sat there until about two weeks into my stay. I went out to stare at the sun setting over the cemetery—my nightly ritual—and there was a woman inside the RV cleaning it. Eventually, she came out, sat near me and eventually related that someone committed suicide in that RV and she was hired to clean it out by the new owner. That was the moment where I was like, “y’know what? To hell with this. Why am I sleeping 40 feet from a suicide RV? I should go home.” But I got through it like I got through all the other questionable stuff I went through.

Last July, the Clown Motel went up for sale for $900,000. How does the prospect of a world without a Clown Motel make you feel? 
One, that asking price was ridiculous and I’m sure Bob knew it. I don’t think that was a serious sale, I think it was a way to get themselves back in the news, and it totally worked. Plus, I think if anyone were to buy it at that price, they’d have to keep it as a Clown Motel. It’s literally the only draw of the place. Tonopah has several other motels in town that you could stay at and feel much better about your choices. None of those places show up all over the internet or get featured on ghost-hunting shows and all that. So I’m not worried about the future of the Clown Motel.

Before you left, you told the owner, Bob Perchetti, “I’m sure I’ll be back.” Have you been?

I haven’t been back. For a lot of reasons. But ultimately, I feel like I did it and I don’t need to revisit it. I can close my eyes right now and visualize the entire length of the town, naming off stores as I go. It’s tattooed on my memories in a way I can’t shake, so it’s not like going back would add anything on to this. At the time, and even when I left, I was feeling a little nostalgic for the experience, but not in a longing way. More in a way of like “Wow, I wish I’d had a clue what I was gonna go through when I got here. This was one of the craziest experiences of my life.” But as soon as you put that experience in a box (or a book), why would you go back? All that said, I will probably end up there again one more time in my life, but I choose to remain ignorant of when that moment will be.

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