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Bob Burns
Bob Burns
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

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 custom-made Nostromo corridor for a 1979 Halloween display
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.

A portrait of the crew that worked on the 1979 Bob Burns Halloween display
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.”

A photo of the Alien costume from a 1979 Burbank Halloween attraction
The Alien costume from the 1979 Halloween extravaganza
Bob 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

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Bob Burns
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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
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15 Must-See Holiday Horror Movies
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Families often use the holidays as an excuse to indulge in repeat viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Elf. But for a certain section of the population, the yuletide is all about horror. Although it didn’t truly emerge until the mid-1970s, “holiday horror” is a thriving subgenre that often combines comedy to tell stories of demented Saint Nicks and lethal gingerbread men. If you’ve never seen Santa slash someone, here are 15 movies to get you started.

1. THANKSKILLING (2009)

Most holiday horror movies concern Christmas, so ThanksKilling is a bit of an anomaly. Another reason it’s an anomaly? It opens in 1621, with an axe-wielding turkey murdering a topless pilgrim woman. The movie continues on to the present-day, where a group of college friends are terrorized by that same demon bird during Thanksgiving break. It’s pretty schlocky, but if Turkey Day-themed terror is your bag, make sure to check out the sequel: ThanksKilling 3. (No one really knows what happened to ThanksKilling 2.)

2. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

Fittingly, the same man who brought us A Christmas Story also brought us its twisted cousin. Before Bob Clark co-wrote and directed the 1983 saga of Ralphie Parker, he helmed Black Christmas. It concerns a group of sorority sisters who are systematically picked off by a man who keeps making threatening phone calls to their house. Oh, and it all happens during the holidays. Black Christmas is often considered the godfather of holiday horror, but it was also pretty early on the slasher scene, too. It opened the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and beat Halloween by a full four years.

3. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)

This movie isn’t about Santa Claus himself going berserk and slaughtering a bunch of people. But it is about a troubled teen who does just that in a Santa suit. Billy Chapman starts Silent Night, Deadly Night as a happy little kid, only to witness a man dressed as St. Nick murder his parents in cold blood. Years later, after he has grown up and gotten a job at a toy store, he conducts a killing spree in his own red-and-white suit. The PTA and plenty of critics condemned the film for demonizing a kiddie icon, but it turned into a bona fide franchise with four sequels and a 2012 remake.

4. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

This Finnish flick dismantles Santa lore in truly bizarre fashion, and it’s not easy to explain in a quick plot summary. But Rare Exports involves a small community living at the base of Korvatunturi mountain, a major excavation project, a bunch of dead reindeer, and a creepy old naked dude who may or may not be Santa Claus. Thanks to its snowy backdrop, the movie scored some comparisons to The Thing, but the hero here isn’t some Kurt Russell clone with equally feathered hair. It’s a bunch of earnest kids and their skeptical dads, who all want to survive the holidays in one piece.

5. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

To All a Goodnight follows a by-now familiar recipe: Add a bunch of young women to one psycho dressed as Santa Claus and you get a healthy dose of murder and this 1980 slasher flick. Only this one takes place at a finishing school. So it’s fancier.

6. KRAMPUS (2015)

Although many Americans are blissfully unaware of him, Krampus has terrorized German-speaking kids for centuries. According to folklore, he’s a yuletide demon who punishes naughty children. (He’s also part-goat.) That’s some solid horror movie material, so naturally Krampus earned his own feature film. In the movie, he’s summoned because a large suburban family loses its Christmas cheer. That family has an Austrian grandma who had encounters with Krampus as a kid, so he returns to punish her descendants. He also animates one truly awful Jack-in-the-Box.

7. THE GINGERDEAD MAN (2005)

“Eat me, you punk b*tch!” That’s one of the many corny catchphrases spouted by the Gingerdead Man, an evil cookie possessed by the spirit of a convicted killer (played by Gary Busey). The lesson here, obviously, is to never bake.

8. JACK FROST (1997)

No, this isn’t the Michael Keaton snowman movie. It’s actually a holiday horror movie that beat that family film by a year. In this version, Jack Frost is a serial killer on death row who escapes prison and then, through a freak accident, becomes a snowman. He embarks on a murder spree that’s often played for laughs—for instance, the cops threaten him with hairdryers. But the comedy is pretty questionable in the infamous, and quite controversial, Shannon Elizabeth shower scene.

9. ELVES (1989)

Based on the tagline—“They’re not working for Santa anymore”—you’d assume this is your standard evil elves movie. But Elves weaves Nazis, bathtub electrocutions, and a solitary, super grotesque elf into its utterly absurd plot. Watch at your own risk.

10. SINT (2010)

The Dutch have their own take on Santa, and his name is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas travels to the Netherlands via steamship each year with his racist sidekick Zwarte Piet. But otherwise, he’s pretty similar to Santa. And if Santa can be evil, so can Sinterklaas. According to the backstory in Sint (or Saint), the townspeople burned their malevolent bishop alive on December 5, 1492. But Sinterklaas returns from the grave on that date whenever there’s a full moon to continue dropping bodies. In keeping with his olden origins, he rides around on a white horse wielding a golden staff … that he can use to murder you.

11. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)

Ever wonder where Santa came from? This horror-comedy claims he comes from the worst possible person: Satan. The devil’s kid lost a bet many years ago and had to pretend to be a jolly gift-giver. But now the terms of the bet are up and he’s out to act like a true demon. That includes killing Fran Drescher and James Caan, obviously.

12. ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (2015)

Another Santa slasher is on the loose in All Through the House, but the big mystery here is who it is. This villain dons a mask during his/her streak through suburbia—and, as the genre dictates, offs a bunch of promiscuous young couples along the way. The riddle is all tied up in the disappearance of a little girl, who vanished several years earlier.

13. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

Several years before Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered protests for its anti-Kringle stance, Christmas Evil put a radicalized Santa at the center of its story. The movie’s protagonist, Harry Stadling, first starts to get weird thoughts in his head as a kid when he sees “Santa” (really his dad in the costume) groping his mom. Then, he becomes unhealthily obsessed with the holiday season, deludes himself into thinking he’s Santa, and goes on a rampage. The movie is mostly notable for its superfan John Waters, who lent commentary to the DVD and gave Christmas Evil some serious cult cred.

14. SANTA CLAWS (1996)

If you thought this was the holiday version of Pet Sematary, guess again. The culprit here isn’t a demon cat in a Santa hat, but a creepy next-door neighbor. Santa Claws stars B-movie icon Debbie Rochon as Raven Quinn, an actress going through a divorce right in the middle of the holidays. She needs some help caring for her two girls, so she seeks out Wayne, her neighbor who has an obsessive crush on her. He eventually snaps and dresses up as Santa Claus in a ski mask. Mayhem ensues.

15. NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980)

Because the holidays aren’t over until everyone’s sung “Auld Lang Syne,” we can’t count out New Year’s Eve horror. In New Year’s Evil, lady rocker Blaze is hosting a live NYE show. Everything is going well, until a man calls in promising to kill at midnight. The cops write it off as a prank call, but soon, Blaze’s friends start dropping like flies. Just to tie it all together, the mysterious murderer refers to himself as … “EVIL.”

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