Audiences who hit play on Joshua Rofé’s new documentary miniseries Sasquatch in the expectation that someone’s finally gotten some straight answers about that elusive hirsute bastard will be sorely disappointed. “I wasn’t hung up on whether I believe in Bigfoot or whether I buy the details of this story. All of that became secondary and fell by the wayside,” Rofé tells the Guardian via Zoom. “I was struck by the visceral fear present in all these encounter stories. I was taken by how afraid these people were, which was totally authentic.”

His three-part project takes the myth of the shy giant allegedly hiding in the wilds of the west coast as a jumping-off point, leaving behind the cryptozoological to pursue something more tangible and knowable. What begins as an inspection of Bigfoot as a sociological phenomenon leads Rofé and his partner-in-true-crime, journalist David Holthouse, to a 1993 triple homicide said by locals to be the handiwork of the infamous ape-creature. But there’s a far darker truth buried deep beneath the legend, pertaining instead to a mammal capable of greater violence than any other in the animal kingdom. “Some monsters are real,” warns the production’s tagline; naturally, it’s referring to homo sapiens.

In February of 2018, Rofé was wrapping up a series on Lorena Bobbitt when he started itching for a new challenge. As he researched the noted penis-amputator, he was stricken by how much archival footage and other supplemental materials were readily available to any average joe willing to file the right requests to the right people. He wanted to blaze his own path, break some new ground, put shoe-leather to pavement – whichever metaphor you prefer. “I got to thinking, ‘Wow, what if the next thing, we do something you can’t Google?’” Rofé says. “I wanted something about which no publicly available information existed.”

His friend and producer Zach Cregger recommended the Sasquatch Chronicles podcast, a collection of interviews with people spinning yarns of their run-ins. “Right away, I had no interest,” Rofé laughs. “I’m not a huge monster movie person, not that into creature-features. He told me to just try one episode, and four days later, I’d listened to 11 of them.” He was moved by the intensity and vulnerability of the contributors, and realized that even if the 10ft oddity they all claimed to have glimpsed might not be real, his potency in the collective imagination definitely was. This spark of inspiration set him on a search for an angle, some event or incident that spoke to the distinct spirit of Sasquatch country.

“If you were me, and you came up with the crazy pitch of ‘Sasquatch murder mystery’, there’s one person to reach out to, and that’s David Holthouse,” Rofé explains. “He has experience as a gonzo journalist, investigative processes, everything. When I contacted him, I thought this might be a bridge too far in the weird department, so I said, ‘Hey, man, this is going to be a strange text, but I’m looking into crimes linked to the Sasquatch myth, thinking I might want to pursue that as the next project.’ He wrote back immediately: ‘I love it. I got one. I’ll call you in five.’”

Nearly 30 years ago, in the splotch of northern California known as the Emerald Triangle for growing much of America’s marijuana, three men working in the industry were savagely killed. The details were confounding, however, as these were not the brisk, efficient offings of a rival operation. None of the crop was stolen or destroyed, aside from the stalks crushed as the men were ripped limb from limb. As is human tendency, Mendocino county residents told themselves a tall tale to make sense of the tragic and inexplicable, and a rumor that Sasquatch might be the culprit that took shape. Dispelling it brought Rofé and Holthouse into an underworld that was “a lot trickier to penetrate”, peopled by both affable eccentrics and humorless lifers glaring with the capacity for violence.

Photograph: Hulu

“There were a few times when people made it clear to us that they didn’t want us to film when we were filming,” Rofé recalls. “There was one time where David was going to go meet somebody on his own, a new source, and it went from a broad daylight meeting in a public place to a close-to-midnight meeting in a private location after a few changes. When he got there, there were eight other people he didn’t know were going to be present. That was a tense night. They wanted to drive him three hours away in the middle of the night to yet another location to talk to someone who had a crucial piece of information. That whole night, any time David could sneak away, he was texting me with updates, just to have a record of where he was and what was happening. I didn’t know which way it would shake out. We had a few nights like that, where we didn’t know if he’d be leaving the place he’d gone to.”

Things took on the feeling of a “paranoid thriller meets a graphic novel” as Holthouse tromped further and further into an insular subculture of manufacturers and growers like the grizzled, captivating Ghostdance. (“If your patch – that is, your farm, your livelihood – has fungus or mold, isn’t growing right, you bring in Ghostdance for a few weeks and he’ll save your whole season,” Rofé says.) Our dual guides lead us to the realization that the whole Bigfoot hullabaloo was something between a misunderstanding and misdirection, less to do with the beast and more to do with the shifting dynamics of the gradually industrializing region. The fact that the three men slaughtered were Mexican laborers proves crucial to understanding what’s really afoot, entangled as it is in tensions between Latino migrants and white farmers. “All these things – the racism, the trauma of the land, the multiple unsolved homicides – each was a door for us to open,” he says. “It all informs the story, because they’re all interconnected.”

Photograph: Hulu

The miniseries comes to Hulu on the stoner’s holiday of 20 April, though Rofé wouldn’t quite recommend it as entertainment for the bleary-eyed. “If you get paranoid when you get high, you probably don’t want to be high while watching this,” he says. “It can be scary, in the way that creeps up on you. You can make it scarier for yourself, turn it all 3D.” Far from the kooky exploration of the out-there suggested by the title or the cartoonish style of the animated segments, the series takes an intense look at weighty topics with stakes unusually high for a cold case.

In getting to the bottom of what happened that grim night, Rofé assembles a profile of an area rapidly changing along with the increasingly legal business of weed. “Some of the things that came up were so shocking, but once that shock wears off, everything comes to feel logical and inevitable,” he says. “Ghostdance speaks very candidly in the third episode about where corporatization is taking the industry. It does the same thing it does to any free-spirited craft, and ruins it.”

This whole process imbued Rofé, an indoor kid raised around New York and Jersey, with newfound respect. And not just for an industry far from the hippy image it once had, or for the men and women defiantly soldiering on through the grief left behind, but for nature itself. “I didn’t even grow up going camping,” he says. “This was all new to me, and the thing that stuck with me was how massive the forest really is. If you’re out there long enough, you go deep enough into that forest that you can’t hear the cars any more, you wouldn’t be surprised to see a brontosaurus walk by. Anything could be hiding in there. It’s prehistoric, and that’s a powerful thing.”

Bigfoot doesn’t need to be real, ultimately. The not-knowing is frightening enough. “In a way I wasn’t before I embarked on this weird adventure, I am now truly afraid of the woods” he says.

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