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.
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.
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.”
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