The Man Behind the Alien-Themed Haunted House That Terrorized 1970s Burbank

Bob Burns
Bob Burns
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Judging by the thousands of people lined up around the block, what Bob Burns had planned for Halloween 1979 promised to be even better than the giant eyeball he had once placed on his roof. Better than the time he constructed an elaborate homage to The Exorcist by having his wife, Kathy, “levitating” over a bed on a cantilever as though she had been overtaken by a demon. Better than the time he constructed a spaceship to make it appear as though it had crashed into his home, complete with malevolent Martians that had to be dispatched by actors with ray guns.

A film editor by trade, Burns was an unabashed fan of Halloween and all its trappings. From 1967 to 1979, he used his modest bungalow residence in Burbank, California, to stage a series of increasingly elaborate haunted house displays—presentations that would bleed into both his front and back yards, pre-dating today's high-tech attractions and stirring up so much anticipation among the community that the candy he handed out became an afterthought.

In his memoir, Monster Kid Memories, co-written with Tom Weaver, Burns would recall that the attraction he pulled off for one of his final shows wound up being his favorite. It involved an eerie spaceship corridor, a lost cat, and an abrupt appearance by the drooling, acid-blooded Xenomorph that had terrified moviegoers that summer.

Before long, word would travel down the long line: The haunted yard of Bob Burns just made a woman faint.

The corridor of the spaceship 'Nostromo,' built by Bob Burns and friends for his 1979 backyard Halloween attraction.Courtesy of Bob Burns

Burns may not have invented the concept of a residential haunted attraction, but he certainly helped perfect it. During the Great Depression, properties decorated for the express purpose of unsettling visitors’ nerves were designed to distract wayward kids from vandalizing the homes of neighbors. Some families would convert their basements into spooky space, hanging raw liver or wet sponges from ceilings and urging kids to paw around in the dark. The opening of Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction in 1969 commercialized the idea, making use of considerably more sophisticated effects than rotting meat. Today, haunted attractions are a big business, with more than 4000 locations bringing in $300 million annually.

Making money wasn’t part of Burns’s Halloween agenda: No admission was ever charged. A self-professed “monster kid” who grew up fascinated by creature features and monster makeup, Burns eyed a career in the film industry, eventually winding up as a film editor at Los Angeles CBS affiliate television station KNXT. In his free time, he grew friendly with a variety of effects artists, some of whom shared his passion for prop-collecting. In his home museum sat one of the original skeletal models for 1933’s King Kong; several aliens from the Cantina scene in Star Wars lined his shelves. Sometimes, the props would be acquired through collectors or studios; other times, they’d be given to him by people who knew he’d give them a proper home.

“He built a museum in his house to display all the stuff he collected, which was extraordinary,” actor Walter Koenig (Star Trek), a  friend of Burns’s, tells Mental Floss. “We had a mutual interest in collecting comic character memorabilia, which is how we met. He’s an extremely congenial man and just a lot of fun to be around.”

That charm and sincerity went a long way when Burns began plotting to do something other than simply dispense candy on Halloween. In 1967, he constructed a mad scientist table in his living room complete with a neon transformer that crackled with energy above a dummy made to resemble Frankenstein’s monster. (The transformer actually interfered with his neighbors’ television reception.) In 1970, he enlisted some friends to build "Goombah," a giant eyeball with tentacles that loomed so large on his roof people could see it from down the block. Inside, trick-or-treaters witnessed an actor grappling with one of its tentacles while screaming, “It’s eating my brain!”

If some displays were silly, others were downright terrifying. In 1974, Burns arranged a motif he titled “The Thing in the Attic,” a convincing portrait of demonic possession. Special effects legend Rick Baker, who would go on to become an Academy Award-winning talent for his contributions to films like An American Werewolf in London, contributed to a display that had Burns’s wife, Kathy, being lifted 4 feet in the air and sporting glowing red bulbs operating on battery power over her eyes. Burns would then shut off the lights before running into the crowd as a masked demon, repurposing one of the Cantina props. Neighbors heard the screaming for hours.

After several years, Burns had developed a reputation. Local newscasts covered his gatherings, and he began fielding nearly 3000 attendees every show. In 1978, sci-fi magazine Starlog profiled Burns in a lengthy story about his love of Halloween and the elaborate attractions he constructed. The article was something of an endorsement, one that Burns passed along to publicists at 20th Century Fox when they visited a nearby television station, KCBS, in the summer of 1979 to promote their new horror film, Alien.

Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, lone survivor of a spaceship crew systematically mauled by a stowaway alien, Burns thought it would be the perfect scenario to cap 12 years of Halloween spectacles. To his surprise, Fox gave him permission to depict the Nostromo ship from the film as well as the distinctive creature designs by H.R. Giger. In a testament to Burns’s affability, they even let him borrow several props from the film, including the mechanical “face hugger” monstrosity that clung to victims’ faces and allowed the alien spawn to incubate in their stomachs.

Armed with Fox's blessing, Burns and his friends—including Dorothy Fontana, a former writer on the original Star Trek series—spent several weeks laboring as carpenters, building out a long corridor over his driveway and into his backyard with pipes and valves reminiscent of the film’s claustrophobic set. To play the doomed occupant of the ship, he enlisted Koenig, who was just about to return to his role of Pavel Chekov in the first Trek feature film that December. Though Burns feared he would insult Koenig by asking him to do a job for free, he was surprised when the actor accepted.

“He asked me to play the captain, and I’ve always wanted to play the captain of something, so I said sure,” Koenig says. “Although I didn’t know it would be so strenuous until afterward.”

For the big payoff, Burns was loaned the actual head from the cumbersome alien costume that appears in the film. (He had to fabricate the rest of its body.) A neighbor, Tom De Veronica, agreed to wear the outfit to give the backyard audience a jolt.

By October 31, word had gotten out that Burns may have topped himself, and fans of the show from years past began camping out on the block to guarantee they’d be able to see the attraction. Several executives from Fox showed up, wondering what Burns and his homegrown approach would do with their increasingly valuable property.

The crew that worked on the Bob Burns 1979 'Alien' attraction. Burns is in the middle row, third from the right.Courtesy of Bob Burns

By Koenig’s estimate, the entire scene was just two to three minutes long. As the captain of the Nostromo, the actor slowly walked down the corridor, audience in tow, while announcing that his handheld motion detector was picking up some unusual movement down the way. Saying it might be the ship’s resident cat, Koenig ascended a ladder and disappeared from view—only to jump back down, grappling with the face hugger that had suddenly enveloped his head.

While the audience recovered from that scare, De Veronica came bursting into view from behind a concealed panel, disarming anyone who expected the creature to materialize in front of them. Attendees jumped; at least one woman fainted. (“I guess today we would have been sued,” Burns later wrote.) For a haunted attraction, there could be no better endorsement.

“We did it at least 50 or 60 times,” Koenig says. “I actually brought in an [acting] student of mine to do it with me so I didn’t have to do it all night. People screamed. They were waiting around the block all night long.”

The Fox executives who saw the show were so impressed by Burns that when he approached the studio about returning the props, he was told to keep them—not only the ones he had borrowed, but others from the movie. Within a few days, a hauling truck was in front of his house and unloading a 12-foot model of the Nostromo used in the film.

“Bob didn’t do amateur productions,” Koenig says. “The people involved were professionals who worked in the industry.”

The Alien costume from the 1979 Halloween extravaganzaBob Burns

That professional touch would ultimately prove to be the end of the Burns Halloween legacy. With friends like Baker and special effects artist Dennis Muren—who would make his name working on the Star Wars films—moving on to time-consuming careers in the business, it became harder for Burns to enlist his regular crew for his elaborate displays. He’s done just two since 1979: a 1982 take-off on Creature from the Black Lagoon and a 2002 show inspired by The Thing. Directors Guillermo del Toro, Frank Darabont, and Rob Zombie were among those who showed up for what might have been his final presentation.

Although he didn't respond to interview requests, Burns, 82, still resides in Burbank, continuing to care for and curate his significant memorabilia collection. While haunted houses have become big business with big budgets, it’s hard to conceive of many made with as much affection as the ones that turned his residential street into a Halloween destination for more than a decade.

“I think the Alien show really solidified the legend of Bob Burns,” Koenig says. “So many of his friends did a lot of manual work just for the fun of doing it.” While the actor wasn’t one of the people who helped build the Nostromo corridor with hammer and nails, Burns “probably could have convinced me to if he wanted.”

Additional Sources: Monster Kid Memories

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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11 Fascinating Facts About Mark Twain

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mark Twain is widely considered the author of the first great American novel—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but his rollicking tales aren’t the only legacy he left behind. His poignant quotes and witticisms have been told and retold (sometimes erroneously) over the last century and a half, and his volume of work speaks for itself. Over the course of his legendary career, Twain—real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens—wrote more than a dozen novels plus countless short stories and essays and still found time to invent new products, hang out with famous scientists, and look after a house full of cats.

1. Mark Twain is a nautical reference.

Like many of history’s literary greats, Mark Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) decided to assume an alias early on in his writing career. He tried out a few different names—Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and, more plainly, Josh—before settling on Mark Twain, which means two fathoms (12 feet) deep in boating jargon. He got the idea while working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River—a job he held for four years until the Civil War broke out in 1861, putting a halt to commerce. (However, another popular theory holds that he earned the nickname in a bar. According to reports in a couple of 19th-century newspapers, he’d walk into a pub and call out “mark twain!,” prompting the bartender to take a piece of chalk and make two marks on a wall for twain—two—drinks. Twain denied this version of events, though.)

2. In addition to being a steamboat pilot, Mark Twain also worked as a miner.

Shortly after his stint on The Big Muddy, Twain headed west with his brother to avoid having to fight in the war. He took up work as a miner in Virginia City, Nevada, but the job wasn't for him. (He described it as "hard and long and dismal.") Fortunately for Twain, he didn’t have to work there long. In 1862, he was offered his first writing job for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he covered crime, politics, mining, and culture.

3. A story Mark Twain heard in a bar led to his “big break.”

Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1864, Twain headed to Calaveras County, California in hopes of striking gold as a prospector (he didn’t). However, it was during his time here that he heard the bartender of the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp share an incredulous story about a frog-jumping contest. Twain recounted the tale in his own words in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was published in 1865 in The New York Saturday Press and went on to receive national acclaim.

4. It took Mark Twain seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Twain started writing the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, but he wasn’t too pleased with his progress. After writing about 400 pages, he told a friend he liked it "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript. He put the project on the back burner for several years and finally finished it in 1883 following a burst of inspiration.

5. Mark Twain invented a board game.

While Twain was putting off writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was busy working on a game he dubbed Memory Builder. It was originally supposed to be an outdoor game to help his children learn about England’s monarchs, but he ended up turning it into a board game to improve its chances of selling. However, after two years of work, it was still too convoluted to be marketable and required a vast knowledge of historical facts and dates. That didn’t stop him from patenting the game, though.

6. Mark Twain created "improved" scrapbooks and suspenders.

Memory Builder wasn't Twain's only invention; he also patented two other products. One was inspired by his love of scrapbooking, while the other came about from his hatred of suspenders. He designed a self-adhesive scrapbook that works like an envelope, which netted him about $50,000 in profits. His “improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments” also ended up being useful, but for an entirely different purpose than Twain originally intended. According to The Atlantic, “This clever invention only caught on for one snug garment: the bra. For those with little brassiere experience, not a button, nor a snap, but a clasp is all that secures that elastic band, which holds up women's breasts. So not-so-dexterous ladies and gents, you can thank Mark Twain for that."

7. Thomas Edison filmed Twain at home.

Only one video of Twain exists, and it was shot by none other than his close friend Thomas Edison. The footage was captured in 1909—one year before the author died—at Twain’s estate in Redding, Connecticut. He’s seen sporting a light-colored suit and his usual walrus mustache, and one scene shows him with his daughters, Clara and Jean. On a separate occasion that same year, Edison recorded Twain as he read stories into a phonograph, but those audio clips were destroyed in a fire. No other recording of Twain’s voice exists.

8. Mark Twain did wear white suits, but not as often as you might think.

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When you think of Mark Twain, you probably picture him in an all-white suit with a cigar or pipe hanging from his lips. It’s true that he was photographed in a white suit on several occasions, but he didn’t start this habit until later in life. According to The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, “In December 1906, he wore a white suit while appearing before a congressional committee regarding copyright. He did this for dramatic emphasis. Several times after that he wore white out of season for effect.” He also refused to trade his white clothes for “shapeless and degrading black ones” in the winter, no matter how cold it got. So take that, people who subscribe to the “no white after Labor Day” rule.

9. At one point, Mark Twain had 19 cats.

Twain really, really liked cats—so much so that he had 19 of them at one time. And if he was traveling, he would “rent” cats to keep him company. In fact, he had a much higher opinion of felines than humans, remarking, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” He also had a talent for coming up with some great cat names; Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, Zoroaster, Soapy Sal, Pestilence, Bambino, and Satan were just a few of the kitties in his brood.

10. Mark Twain probably didn’t say that thing you think he said.

Twain is one of the most misquoted authors in history. According to one quote wrongfully attributed to him, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” What Twain actually said was, “[He] was endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times and tie.” There are many, many examples of these.

11. Mark Twain accurately predicted when he would die.

When he was born on November 30, 1835, Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth. It appears roughly every 75 years, and Twain predicted he would die the next time it graced the sky. As he put it in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.” He ended up passing away at his Connecticut home on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky once again.

This story has been updated for 2020.