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

11 Surprising Facts About Sylvester Stallone

Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As streetwise boxer Rocky Balboa (in eight films) and haunted Vietnam veteran John Rambo (in five films), the man born Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone has made his brand of muscular melodrama a staple of the action film genre across five decades.

The latest Rambo chapter, Rambo: Last Blood, opens September 20. In the meantime, check out some of the more intriguing facts about the actor, from his modest beginnings as an accidental porn star to his peculiar rivalry with Richard Gere to his waylaid plans to run a pudding empire.

1. An errant pair of forceps gave Sylvester Stallone his distinctive look.

Many comedians have paid their bills over the decades by adopting Sylvester Stallone’s distinctive lip droop and guttural baritone voice. The facial feature was the result of some slight mishandling at birth. When Stallone was born on July 6, 1946 in Manhattan, the physician used a pair of forceps to deliver him. The malpractice left his lip, chin, and part of his tongue partially paralyzed due to a severed nerve. Stallone later said his face and awkward demeanor earned him the nickname “Sylvia” and authority figures telling him his brain was “dormant.” Burdened with low self-esteem, Stallone turned to bodybuilding and later performing as a way of breaking through what seemed to be a consensus of low expectations.

2. sylvester Stallone attended college in Switzerland.

A publicity still of Sylvester Stallone from the 1981 film 'Victory' is pictured
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite a tumultuous adolescence in which he was kicked out of several schools for misbehavior, Stallone eventually graduated high school while living with his mother in Philadelphia. He went on to attend American College, a university in Leysin, Switzerland, where he also worked as a gym teacher and dorm bouncer in addition to selling hamburgers on campus. It was there he became interested in theater—both acting and writing.

Stallone continued his education at the University of Miami before moving to New York with the hopes of breaking into the entertainment industry. While auditioning for parts, Stallone worked as a movie theater usher and cleaned lion cages at the zoo. He was fired from the theater for trying to scalp tickets to a customer. Unknown to Stallone, the customer was the theater owner.

3. Sylvester Stallone’s mother was an expert in “rumpology.”

Stallone’s parents separated while he was still a child. His father, a beauty salon owner named Francesco Stallone, was apparently prone to corporal punishment, and would cuff his young son for misbehavior. (Stallone was once caught swatting flies with a lead pipe on the hood of his father’s brand-new car.) His mother, Jackie Stallone—whom he once described as “half-French, half-Martian"—later grew interested in the study of rumpology, or the study of the buttocks to reveal personality traits and future events.

4. Sylvester Stallone had a small part in a porno.

Actor Sylvester Stallone is pictured during a promotional tour for the film 'Rambo' in Madrid, Spain in January 2008
Carlos Alvarez, Getty Images

While struggling to make it as an actor, Stallone was talked into making an appearance in Party at Kitty and Stud’s, a 1970 softcore adult film that was not as explicit as other sex features of the era but still required Stallone to appear in the nude. While he was initially hesitant to take the role, Stallone was sleeping in a bus shelter at the time. He took the $200 for two days of work. Following the success of Rocky in 1976, the film’s producers capitalized on their now-valuable footage and re-released it under the title The Italian Stallion. In 2010, a 35mm negative of the film and all worldwide rights to it were auctioned off on eBay for $412,100.

5. Sylvester Stallone wrote a novel.

In addition to his acting ambitions, Stallone decided to pursue a career in writing. After numerous screenplays, he wrote Paradise Alley, a novel about siblings who get caught up in the circus world of professional wrestling in Hell’s Kitchen. Stallone finished the novel before deciding to turn it into a screenplay. Paradise Alley was eventually produced in 1978. The book, which was perceived as a novelization, was published that same year.

6. Sylvester Stallone was not a fan of the Rambo cartoon series.

After the success of 1982’s First Blood and 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, Stallone was confronted with a litany of Rambo merchandising. Speaking with the Chicago Tribune in 1986, he said he disliked that the psychologically-tortured war veteran was being used to peddle toys. “I couldn’t control it,” he said. “I tried to stop it, but I don’t own the licensing rights.”

On the subject of Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a 1986 animated series featuring a considerably softened-up version of the character, Stallone was resigned. “They’re going to make this Saturday morning TV cartoon show for kids with what they tell me is a softened version of Rambo doing good deeds. First of all, that isn’t Rambo, but more important, they tell me I can’t stop them because it’s not me they’re using. It’s a likeness of a character I played and don’t own.” The show lasted just one season.

7. Sylvester Stallone never planned on the Rocky series enduring as long as it has.

Through the years, Stallone has made some definitive declarations about the Rocky series, which has been extended to eight films including its two spin-off installments, 2015’s Creed and 2018’s Creed II. Speaking with movie critic Roger Ebert in 1979 shortly before the release of Rocky II, Stallone indicated Rocky III that would conclude the series. “There’ll never be a Rocky IV,” he said. "You gotta call it a halt.” In 1985, while filming Rocky IV, Stallone told Interview magazine that he was finished. “Oh, this is it for Rocky,” he said. “Because I don’t know where you go after you battle Russia.” In 1990, following the release of Rocky V, Stallone declared that “There is no Rocky VI. He’s done.” Upon the release of Rocky Balboa in 2006, Stallone once more declared he was finished. "I couldn't top this," he told People. "I would have to wait another 10 years to build up a head of steam, and by that point, come on."

Creed was released nine years later. Following Creed II, he posted a message on Instagram that served as a “final farewell” to the character. Several months later, in July 2019, Stallone told Variety that, “There’s a good chance Rocky may ride again” and explained an idea involving Rocky befriending an immigrant street fighter. It would be the ninth film in the series.

8. Sylvester Stallone was offered the lead role in Beverly Hills Cop.

Actor Sylvester Stallone is pictured during production of the 1978 film 'Paradise Alley'
Central Press/Getty Images

In one of the more intriguing alternate casting decisions in Hollywood history, Stallone was originally offered the Axel Foley role in 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop. Not wishing to make a comedy, Stallone rewrote the script to focus more on the action, as Detroit cop Foley stampedes through Beverly Hills to find his friend’s killers. Stallone described his version as resembling “the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan on the beaches of Normandy” and said his climax involved a game of chicken between a Lamborghini and an oncoming train. Producers opted to go in another direction. It became one of Eddie Murphy’s biggest hits. Stallone would later use some of his ideas for a rogue cop in the 1986 film Cobra.

9. Sylester Stallone does not get along with Richard Gere.

While filming 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush, in which Stallone and then-unknown actor Richard Gere both played 1950s street toughs, the two actors apparently got off on the wrong foot. Stallone recalled that Gere drew his ire for being too physical during rehearsals—and worse, getting mustard on Stallone during a lunch break. Incensed, Stallone demanded the director choose one of them to stay and one of them to be fired. Gere was let go and replaced by Perry King.

10. Arnold Schwarzenegger once tricked sylvester stallone into starring in a box office bomb.

Actors Sylvester Stallone (L) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) are photographed during the premiere of 'The Expendables 2' in Hollywood, California in August 2012
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Stallone has often discussed his rivalry with Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the two action stars were believed to be the two biggest marquee attractions in the 1980s. Recalling his 1992 bomb Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Stallone told a journalist in 2014 that he believed Schwarzenegger was to blame. “I heard Arnold wanted to do that movie and after hearing that, I said I wanted to do it,” he said. “He tricked me. He’s always been clever.”

11. sylvester Stallone wanted to create a pudding empire.

In 2005, shortly before Rocky Balboa resurrected his film career, Stallone embarked on a line of fitness supplements. His company, Instone, produced a pudding snack that was low-carb and high in protein. Stallone even appeared on Larry King to hawk the product. A legal dispute with a food scientist over the rights to the concoction dragged on for years and Instone eventually folded.

Highclere Castle—the Real-Life Downton Abbey—Is Available to Rent on Airbnb

Highclere Castle, used as the setting for Downton Abbey
Highclere Castle, used as the setting for Downton Abbey
Emily_M_Wilson/iStock via Getty Images

Have you ever wanted to spend a night in a castle? And not just any castle—the Downton Abbey castle, Highclere Castle? On November 26, one lucky couple will get the opportunity to relive the TV show and movie, when castle owners Lady and Lord Carnarvon will cordially invite one person and their guest of choice to spend the night in the castle, which is located in Hampshire, England—about 45 miles west of London. On October 1 (Airbnb reservations go live at noon BST) anyone with a verified profile, positive reviews, and passion for Downton Abbey can vie for the opportunity. Even though the castle has 300 rooms, they are only making one bedroom available, for $159.

Upon arrival, the royals will host cocktails with the guests in the saloon. Visitors will hear stories from more than 300 years of Highclere Castle history (construction on the castle began in 1679, and has been in the Carnarvon family ever since).

“I am passionate about the stories and heritage of Highclere Castle and I am delighted to be able to share it with others who have a love of the building and its history,” Lady Carnarvon said in the Airbnb listing.

The Earl and Countess will host a dinner for the guests in the state dining room, and afterwards have coffee in the library. Before bed, the guests’ butler will escort them to their gallery bedroom. The next morning, guests will receive a complimentary breakfast, a private tour of the 100,000-square foot castle and 1000-acre grounds, and a special gift from the Carnarvons. (Airbnb will also make a donation to The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.)

It should be noted the castle doesn’t have Wi-Fi or central air, but it does have fireplaces and central heat. There are a few rules guests must follow, though: all newspapers must be ironed; one butler per person; cocktail dress is required at dinner; gossip is restricted to downstairs; the listing is midweek because, as the Dowanger once said, “What is a weekend?”

If you don’t win the opportunity to stay at Highclere, all is not lost: you can tour the castle year-round.

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