Updated: Aug 4, 2021
Spirits Arise in Tonopah
What better than a glass of deep red port to send you back to a gilded era of lush décor —it seemed so appropriate amidst the burgundy and gold Victorian interiors on the most ghost laden floor of what USA Today readers rated as the nation’s number 1 haunted hotel. The port’s sweet but never cloying richness eased down my throat as I settled into a maroon rocking chair’s soft cushioning while Fred stretched on a small sofa outside our room. Without warning, the silence we luxuriated in broke with an intrusive sound. Ding! rang the elevator.
Since Fred and I only sprang for a discounted little room with a queen size bed, we relaxed outside our door in the public area of a small sitting spot in the Mizpah Hotel’s fifth floor hallway. We wound down after spending eight hours in our car getting from Arizona’s Grand Canyon to Nevada’s historic mining center in Tonopah. Not wanting to drive another four hours home spurred our nighttime stop, along with knowledge that Mizpah owners Fred and Nancy Cline also put their last name on the label of their Sonoma winery whose products we frequently enjoy.
Good wine in the middle-of-nowhere-desert motivates foodies like us, so following a late meal at the hotel café that involved downing a bottle of award-winning Cline viognier, we relaxed upstairs for a private nightcap. But how do you stay private in a public space haunted by ghosts that attract hunters? You don’t—and that makes staying at the Mizpah even more unique than finding a bottle of viognier in a middle-of-nowhere-desert location.
Though it shook our port induced reverie, the ding! brought on no particular fear even if the hotel’s paranormal activities include elevator doors that repeatedly open and close for no reason (after all, I sat in a chair famous for rocking on its own). The fifth-floor doors spread to release a duo bearing an elaborate looking camera set-up. Ghost hunters! Their stories always enliven a vacation.
Fred and I often put ghost tours on our itineraries when we visit regions whose dark histories evoke scary stories. New Orleans, Quebec, Edinburgh, Key West, and London fit the bill, along with Colorado’s Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King to write The Shining. Since we also enjoy playing tourist at home in Reno, we spent one night at the Gold Hill Hotel’s haunted room, plus toured Virginia City’s Washoe Club and Tahoe’s Cal-Neva with tunnels and a guest house where some insist they find Marilyn Monroe unable to abandon memories of liaisons with the Kennedys.
We loved a previous stay at the Mizpah, where we came across a Harley-riding, ghost hunting club. Members invited us to join them as they explored the hotel’s fifth floor, where many say the spirit of a murdered prostitute regularly wanders. The Harley hunters downloaded ghost hunting apps on their cell phones, which worked like radar and blipped whenever something amorphous came into the circle. Android phones prefer the app called Ghost, while iPhones use Ghost Hunter M2. Plenty of choices exist; I like the description for the one they used, Spirit Radar:
“… a radar application which is designed to provide the users a method to measure electromagnetic field radiations levels via a ghost detector app. This application uses your mobile sensors in order to measure radiations at different bandwidths that could indicate the presence of paranormal activities, spirits, ghosts, and other energies. With this application, you can capture the paranormal activities and can share them to your friends.”
This night’s duo used their phones to record images from their Kinect SLS camera set up (also known as Gotcha Ghost and retailing for $399-$639 on various websites). The kit includes a camera, a Tablet with Windows 10 (best used exclusively for spirit searches), an X-Box, and software.
The glasses with our diminishing port took up valuable space on the marble topped coffee table, so we moved them to make room for the camera and Tablet screen. Introducing themselves as Rick and Sheree, the duo said they just rode the elevator up from the Mizpah basement, where a particularly nasty ghost resides. Pulling up images, they showed us their recording of a neon- green stick figure. Nothing like a cartoonish Casper. Nothing like Poltergeist effects from Steven Spielberg. Nothing like the faceless figure in the popular Netflix Haunting of Bly Manor.
Instead, these cameras pick up movement by body joints like knees and elbows, which appear as round dots. Lines connect the dots, which turns them into figures. The cameras function in all lighting conditions including complete dark, where they reveal figures walking, running, standing, and doing whatever they want.
We learned about the process after Rick and Sheree set up the screen. We chatted while waiting for the infrared to reveal something other than the hallway, dimly lit by old-fashioned chandeliers whose glow reflected off gold gilt plated walls. Sheree, pretty and dressed in attire appropriate for her job as a teacher, explained how she felt the presence of ghosts ever since childhood.
The “I see dead people” line from The Sixth Sense came to mind, leading me to ask, “So you have sort of like a sixth sense where you feel things around?”
“She does,” Rick chimed in. “Since the day I met her. We’ve been together for 23 years.”
Coping with a sixth sense involved an evolutionary process for the couple.
“I got away from it for a while because then I got afraid of it and I wasn’t understanding it and more stuff kept happening to me. And so finally I realized I had to educate myself on how to deal with it.”
My imagination leapt to various images from movies, and I agreed that seeing ghosts would dampen my spirits and cause me to run.
Instead, the couple and their sons face spirits head on. They plan all their family vacations around haunted places and list Virginia City, Nevada as one of their favorites.
Joining their teenage son the previous evening, they stayed in the Gold Hill Hotel’s Miner’s Cabin and called it “the scariest place we’ve ever been.”
Scary; I know scary, just go down Tonopah’s main street to the Clown Motel.
“Oh, right by the cemetery!” Sheree said knowingly when I mentioned the location. “I’ve heard it really is scary.”
I concurred but noted that unsettled feeling comes partly because despite centuries of directions to laugh at clowns, many of us actually feel creeped out by those white faces, bulbous noses, and big red lips. Stephen King cemented the fear for us by putting his demonic creature in a clown’s costume for It, but many of us had our doubts before that.
I recounted my previous visit to the site, where I discovered filmmakers working on a project called Clown Motel: Spirits Arise. Star Ari Lehman spent time on set, looking grown up and unrecognizable from his previous claim to fame as the juvenile and non-lethal Jason in the first Friday the 13th. Credits include a brief appearance by Tony Moran, most famous for hiding his face behind a mask as Michael Myers in 1978’s Halloween.
Finding Jason and Michael together should prove plenty scary, but I felt more freaked by the motel’s lobby, permanently decorated with hundreds of clown figurines, toys, and mannequins. Walls included paintings of clowns, but fortunately none looked like John Wayne Gacy.
I bolted upright from the sinister memory as movement caught my eye.
There in the screen’s upper left corner, a green stick figure appeared with sudden brightness and jerky moves.
“This dude’s dancing to rock n’ roll,” said Fred, watching the screen from his lounging position, stretched on the love seat.
With legs locked straight, the figure held one hand to hip, while the other arm shot up and down spasmodically in a variation of John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever stance.
None of us saw anything in the empty hallway despite all the screen’s activity. Since Rick stood while the rest of us sat, we directed him near the figure revealed on screen
“You’re heading to it,” Fred approved.
A quick series of instructions followed:
“Keeping going,” from Fred. “Right there, stop right there,” from Sheree. “Right next to you,” Fred put in.
Rick saw nothing. The rest of us focused on the figure--which the screen reduced to a tiny dancer. With a jerk, it stretched an arm towards the man standing next to him.
“Can you raise your hand?” Sheree requested, then to Rick, “ask him…or her…to.”
“Can you give me a high five?” Rick asked as Sheree provided further guidance.
Instructions continued until a jubilant cry arose from Sheree as our trio watched the green arm jut towards Rick.
“It just touched his hand!” Sheree said gleefully.
Rick took a break, then went back for another round.
On screen, the green stick continued pushing its arm up and swinging to an unheard rhythm, perhaps “Stayin’ Alive.”
“Why the performance?” wondered Fred.
“Sometimes it will map it like that—moving, and it’s not moving so much, it just is kind of jumbling,” Sheree explained.
However, Fred and I preferred to think that any ghost drawn to our room chose to dance rather than wait patiently for the right moment to spook us with scary behaviors.
“So, this is friendly and dancing?” I asked.
“We hope,” said Sheree, adding, “we really don’t know. It’s in front of your room, we hope it’s friendly,” she added with a wry giggle.
Friendly? Perhaps. Certainly no threat to the entertainment industry—this performer would never get a shot on Dancing with the Stars.
Eventually returning to our room, we passed directly through the dancer. Our missing sixth sense receptors meant we experienced no chills or unease. Instead, we appreciated our other senses, the traditional ability to smell and taste spirits like wine, leading to a deep and quiet slumber on the Mizpah’s most haunted floor.
SPOOKY SHOWS FROM RURAL NEVADA
The Clown Motel: Spirits Arise, 2018 with Ari Lehman and other jesters taking souls in Tonopah. Horror of the bile inducing type finds an ideal setting at Tonopah’s real-life Clown Motel. The movie’s special effects wipe away surrounding businesses to give the motel a “middle-of-nowhere” setting, but no one needed to add the cemetery next door—it sits there in real life. Set dressing proved equally simple since the motel lobby looks the same as in the movie, an eye- popping array of clown figurines and décor. The place feels creepy, even without writer-director Joseph Kelly’s plot that brings in low-grade splatter shenanigans. Fans of the genre find plenty of bloody moments to guzzle, along with crude and inane dialogue. How inane? Lehman, all grown up from his turn as the first Jason in the original Friday the 13th, shouts “Huzzah!” Not just once. Three times.
Dead Man, 1995, with Johnny Depp fatally shot in Gold Hill, Nevada. A four-hour drive from Tonopah with its haunted Mizpah Hotel and Clown Motel, Gold Hill and Virginia City lure their own contingent of road tripping ghost hunters. Actor Depp showed up in town as star of director Jim Jarmusch’s surreal Western about a man’s journey toward death. Depp got in the mood with special accommodations I helped arrange at Virginia City’s Mackay Mansion, the 1860 home built for a mine executive. All alone, Depp spent a sleepless night, staying up and hoping to see ghosts. He seemed sad when he told me none presented themselves, but at least he looked appropriately exhausted for his role as a man wearing down after getting shot. Filmmakers used an engine and cars from the region’s V & T Railroad as well as the Crown Point Mill, which provided factory interiors for an imaginary town called Machine.
Ghosts of Goldfield, 2007, with Rowdy Roddy Piper checking guests into a rural Nevada hotel and telling them not to go in Room 109. Looking for a “portal to the other side,” a ghost-hunting team hopes to capture spirits for a documentary project. Though based on true events—or at least a real ghost legend at the Goldfield Hotel--the movie filmed 26 miles away in Tonopah’s Mizpah. Photogenic in films like Vanishing Point and Cherry 2000, the abandoned Goldfield Hotel’s unsafe conditions usually prevent feature filmmakers from working there. The Ghosts group arrived just before the newly renovated Mizpah reopened, making it a comfortable and practical location compared to the dilapidated hotel in Goldfield. However, ghost hunting teams with small crews and minimal equipment go inside the Goldfield hotel to explore its paranormal activities in several projects available on YouTube.
The Island, 2005 with Ewan Macgregor and Scarlett Johansson seeking safety in Rhyolite. Tonopah visitors who miss seeing phantasms at the Mizpah Hotel or Clown Motel can drive south about an hour to a nearly abandoned town called Rhyolite and take photos with more than a dozen ghosts. Rhyolite boasts the Goldwell Open Air Museum featuring a play on Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” using life size sculptures that recall the popular “sheet-over-head” approach to a ghost costume. Belgian artist Albert Szukalski also created “Ghost Rider” featuring a white-sheeted creation standing by a bicycle. The museum offers intriguing interpretations of life in the middle of nowhere, but director Michael Bay brought his massive-scale production to Rhyolite for the photogenic skeletons of its once-thriving town. Loud, bombastic and focusing on action more than the lessons that dystopian stories often feature, The Island seeks to entertain rather than enlighten.
The Stranger, 1995 with Kathy Long pummeling bad bikers. Predating Nevadan Gina Carano’s mixed-martial arts skills as Cara Dune in The Mandalorian, five-time world kickboxing champion Long takes full control of action on screen. Dressed in leather and ruffles as she struts through streets in dusty, barren desert towns, Long needed no special effects to enhance her feminine toughness. The story bears absolutely nothing in common with the respected Orson Welles film called The Stranger, looking towards Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter for inspiration. A supernatural figure, vengeance, and lots of villains who need reprobation create one of those “guilty pleasures,” a movie that lets you feel good about emotions that you should probably bury. Locations include Coaldale and Goldfield, with one fight in the town’s Mozart Club.