Drugs. Guns. Hell’s Angels. Tweakers. Massive, mythical creatures in the woods. Sexual assault. Weirdos. Murder. Few people are as comfortable dwelling in such environs as David Holthouse. The former Westword staff writer stars in a three-part Hulu docu-series, Sasquatch, which started streaming on 4/20 — and not by coincidence.
Did Bigfoot kill three Mexicans on a pot farm in Mendocino County in 1993? That’s the question Holthouse, who now lives in New Mexico, set out to answer when he returned to a Northern California marijuana grow operation where he’d worked with a buddy at the age of 23. Whether he answers that question turns out to be beside the point. The project reads like a distillation of Holthouse’s life and career, in which his most notable piece of work (so far) was “Stalking the Bogeyman,” a recounting of being sexually assaulted at the age of seven and confronting his attacker, whom he’d planned to shoot and kill.
As Holthouse makes clear in Sasquatch, that childhood experience gave him a looser lease on life and, while undeniably traumatic, has played a large part in making him one of the most daring storytellers of our time. At sundown on Sunday, we caught up with Holthouse.
Westword: Talk about your journey to the documentary film world? How did you gravitate toward that method of storytelling?
David Holthouse: In the summer of 2000, this writer who lived in Tucson called me up and said there was this kid who was a film student at USC and was doing his senior project on cockfighting. I’d just done this piece on cockfighting for Phoenix New Times and I’d just been partying in Los Angeles. Tiller Russell was his name; he did this film called Cockfight. He called me again about 2012. He’d sort of moved up the ranks where he’d gotten his first feature financed — The Seven Five, about corrupt cops in New York. I went and worked on it and it felt like gonzo journalism in a different medium.
How did your experience with Westword and the alt-weekly world in general prepare you for what you’re doing now?
Longform journalism, it’s literary storytelling. I take all the interview transcripts and I write the documentaries, almost like story form. It feels definitely in the same galaxy as longform literary journalism that I did for New Times and Westword. It’s in-depth storytelling, developing characters and having a good beginning and an ending. It was really good preparation.
Talk about the experience of working on a pot farm in the ’90s and what people’s misconceptions are about the marijuana trade?
I think that most people’s impression of the dope growers in the Emerald Triangle are these peace-loving, back-to-the-land hippies who use dope to subsidize their organic food, back-to-nature lifestyle. That exists up there, but once you introduced cocaine to that scene in the late ’70s, it started to get darker. They were heavily armed. They had to be. They were a rip-off target. They had hundreds of thousands of dollars literally hanging on plants. I went to visit my buddy during the most dangerous time of the year. I didn’t know that. I was still pretty fucking naive at that point in my life. I was like 23. I wasn’t used to immersing myself in strange criminal worlds.
Was there any point in making this film where you started to believe Bigfoot could be real?
Some of the people who believe in Sasquatch are absolutely convinced that they had a Sasquatch encounter. I don’t think they were lying to me. That said, come on — everybody’s got a phone in their pocket. I’d really like to believe in Sasquatch. It’d be a much more fun world. I thought I’d think these people were idiots, but I came away with a lot of respect for them. It takes some balls to say you believe in Sasquatch.
Why do you think so many people believe in Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest? Is it the quality of the weed up here or is there a deeper explanation?
There’s something about those woods. There’s something spooky about the way the shadows play. If you have just a little paranoia, the light plays tricks on you. Those forests are so old and ancient and big, it looked like a place where a dinosaur could come out from behind a tree. It just looks like a place where Bigfoot would live.
Bigfoot territory in Northern California.
Are you 100 percent certain that Bigfoot Gary had nothing to do with the central crime in the series?
I’m not totally certain of anything. I’m not trying to implicate him, but in the past couple of days, I’ve heard from some guys who were Hell’s Angels on Spy Rock and some guy was going to do some time and basically gave Gary custodianship of his girlfriend. The slang for that is having a daughter. That whole fucking story is a hall of mirrors. You go up to these dope towns and start asking around about unsolved homicides and you’ll quickly find yourself on the trail of several.
In the film, you talk about how being raped as a child lowered your self-worth to a point where you were perfectly willing to put your safety at risk and hang out and write about more dangerous people. Can you elaborate on that sentiment a bit?
I just turned fifty. I can see a direct line between my being sexually assaulted at the age of seven and being a gonzo journalist who repeatedly put myself in dangerous situations during the course of reporting a story. The lesson you get by being raped before the age of ten is you’re not worth that much. It gets burned into your code. All through my twenties and well into my thirties, I really didn’t give a fuck if I got killed while I was reporting a story. It’s not like I wanted to die, but I was certainly willing to push my luck. I remember sort of leaving my body at seven and floating around the room and not fully experiencing the terror of it. I started to find that I could use disassociation as a sort of superpower. The worst thing you can do when you’re embedded with criminals is to seem like you don’t belong there. I’d disassociate a little bit and seem like I wasn’t freaked out.
In the film, you seem to strike a sympathetic stance toward vigilante justice if someone is avenging a crime against children. Do you think that sort of thing should be legal?
No. But, you know, I certainly don’t have a problem with it. I have no problem with the state executing child molesters. The ripple effect of that crime through generations is a really destructive force in society. If I hadn’t been a reporter, I would have been a criminal, and society would have paid a price for that.
Do you think all drugs should be legalized? Are there some substances you think shouldn’t be legalized under any circumstances?
Ideologically, yes, but there are real-world ramifications that make it difficult right now. I’ve seen too many people go down on coke and heroin and meth to think it should be as easy to score a bag of weed. Plus, if you legalized all drugs in the U.S., the economy of Mexico would immediately collapse, and we’d have a failed state to deal with at our southern border.
Why do you think it is that people are so fascinated with the drug trade and the people involved in it?
Dating back to Miami Vice, Scarface — the drug trade, more than any other brand of crime, it’s just part of American pop culture. It appeals to the capitalist in all of us. And nobody spends the money better than narcos.
Sasquatch is now available on Hulu. Read the original “Stalking the Bogeyman,” published on May 13, 2004, here; Westword published a followup on July 1, 2004, after Holthouse was arrested for stalking his attacker; find that story here.
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