Early in the movie, director Tobe Hooper shows both parents smoking pot in their bedroom while their son Robbie is spooked by a menacing tree outside his window.

Diane and Steve smoking doobies

Later, after the incidents start to get worse (and the team of parapsychologists from UC Irvine comes to investigate the phenomena), both Steve and Diane are seen drinking - even Dr. Lesh, the team-lead participates.

Why were these characters shown smoking pot and drinking? What was Tobe Hooper trying to achieve by doing so?

  • 2
    Actually I'd venture to say there's a criticism of Reagan and the scene pictured above.
    – user4225
    Feb 26, 2013 at 3:19

2 Answers 2


Short answer: He was attempting to show that this was your average run-of-the-mill family.

Up until then, this type of thing was just considered normal. It was really in the mid-to-late 80's that kids started learning in school how damaging these things can be, and I can easily see why someone born later in life would think there's some deeper meaning, but there's really not.

The rest of this is a clarification of that short answer. It goes on a bit, but if you're sitting there thinking "Huh? Average run-of-the-mill family with parents that smoked pot?", read on.

It was 1982, and people in that age group had grown up in the 60's and 70's where smoking pot wasn't such a big deal, and having a drink was just a normal thing to do.

It wasn't until the mid-to-late 80's that we saw a huge increase in in-school initiatives to teach the kiddies young to avoid the evil vices of smoking, drinking, drugs, etc. The combination of the PMRC launching it's war against sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, along with the rise of groups like SADD and MADD, and later DARE have pushed the idea of teaching good behaviors in schools. These came about later in the 80's.

Just a personal illustration to show how things changed in the 80's:

I graduated in high school in 1987, and even then, we noticed it. My best friend had a younger brother in grade school that came to us wide-eyed one day, saying "There's a kid in our class that's really bad. We asked what he did. Did he beat some kid up? Swear at a teacher? throw rocks at cars? In the same tone of voice that you'd expect a kid to say he shot his own parents, he said, "No! He smoooookes!" (Nodding his head to show he's not making this up.)

We thought it was hilarious, because to us, the idea that smoking was a big deal was just silly, but as time has gone on, we've seen a couple of generations growing up having had this type of education, and as a result, more people find the idea of smoking, drugs, and alcohol, especially on television and in movies to be odd.

Back then, heroes smoked while killing the bad guys. (Think Bruce Willis in Die Hard) Now, it's usually only the bad guys that smoke, or the anti-heroes, largely because of years of pushing from various groups to not show such things in a good light.

Now, probably they wouldn't be shown smoking pot because some group or another would raise a stink. Back then they'd have said "It's an R-Rated movie, what do you expect?"

  • 1
    Although I do have to admit, that it's tempting to look at that picture, and, knowing Spielberg's politics, that it's entirely possible that he did want to portray someone who would like Reagan in a negative light. Jun 22, 2012 at 23:34
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    I don't know. I think Spielberg wasn't trying to portray the run of the mile family, but demonstrate some core values of the parents. If he had made them to good and normal, then it would be harder to accept that they would turn to an exorcist for help, because a normal family would stick with the police for help. A hippie parent might be more open minded to the idea of ghosts and poltergeists.
    – Reactgular
    Jun 26, 2012 at 0:05
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    "It's an R-rated movie, what do you expect?" Except it isn't rated R, it's rated PG. But, iirc, Poltergeist, along with Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, was one of the motivations for the introduction of the PG-13 rating.
    – KSmarts
    May 8, 2015 at 14:30

The filmmakers portray characters in specific lights to enhance the purity of Carol Ann.

  • Diane and Steven are shown to be impure by their

    1. Marijuana usage
    2. Consumption of alcohol, arguably excessively, when faced with the true force of the poltergeist
    3. Their handling of their problems by yelling, screaming, reacting before thinking (Ex: Diane and Steve running around the house both inside and out trying to save Robbie and ignoring Carol Ann, leaving her at the mercy of the poltergeist to capture her.
  • Dana is a reflection of her mother, evidenced by Diane's pleased reaction to Dana dealing with construction workers whistling at her by flipping them off in a sassy way (and more subtly, when Dana is up late on the phone-- possibly talking to a boy). In addition both Diane and Dana have similar names and dark hair in contrast to Carol Ann's different name and pure blond locks.

  • Robbie is an instigator, always starting fights with Carol Ann, though not necessarily in a mean-spirited way-- more playful than anything else.
  • Carol Ann never speaks loud or defiantly, never cries or screams, embodying a more peaceful and angelic demeanor to the slightly more chaotic (read: normal) rest of the family.

@DavidStratton makes an excellent point regarding the normalcy of the family being expressed by their use of marijuana and alcohol that absolutely applies here. But to be clear, it only applies to Diane, Steven, Robbie and Dana-- not Carol Ann. She is not normal: she is special, pure, better. Even Robbie, who is a close second to Carol Ann in regard to how pure her character is, can never match her. Which is why he was sucked into the darkness in the evil tree outside the house, while Carol Ann was brought closer to the light.

To sum up: Steven and Diane are shown smoking pot to portray them as a typical couple of grown-up-hippies (even reaching for a biography of Ronald Reagan to further assimilate to their new world of conservative homogeneity) just trying to raise a family-- in addition to raising Carol Ann up on to a pedestal of purity to show us, the audience, just why the poltergeist wanted her and not them.

  • +1 good answer, but maybe rather them portray them as "typical" he is trying to distance them. Make them look more like a troubled family so that the family can transform into a better family by the experience. This is why those behaviors are shown in the beginning. I should watch it again, it's been years since I saw it.
    – Reactgular
    Jun 25, 2012 at 23:58

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