It seems everyone I know has now watched “Murder Among the Mormons,” which debuted last month on Netflix. Some streamed with excitement and glee; others watched through laced fingers with the unique nervousness that Latter-day Saints sometimes feel when our people are thrust into the national spotlight.
I was an early booster of the show. But my first-blush bullishness has started to sour. Not necessarily because of the documentary’s treatment of my faith tradition, or because of the quality of the production (which is impressive), but, rather, the “true crime” genre itself has started to churn my stomach.
After I finished the series in one night, I encouraged others to watch. “Don’t worry, it’s fun!” I said to friends and family who were hesitant to watch the series for fear it might attack our faith. And, I was genuine. The series focuses more on document-forger-turned-serial-killer Mark Hofmann, his forgery methods, and the crimes he committed than on my church.
Others agreed with me: “Yeah, it’s fun!” And we weren’t wrong: The series is fun.
It’s nostalgic for a time when shoulders were padded, hair was huge and interior design was beige. It features a whimsical, xylophone-heavy score. There’s footage of Rod Decker — Utah’s most beloved local TV curmudgeon of both KUTV and Deseret News fame — in 1985 glasses singing, badly, the Utah state song. A “Napoleon Dynamite”-esque reenactment depicts a teal Toyota MR2 speeding down a Utah dirt road and two portly men shooting Uzis. Co-director and BYU graduate Jared Hess has infused the production with his signature goofiness. It’s quirky. It’s enthralling. It’s fun.
At times it’s funny.
But should it be?
Not to be that guy, but Hofmann killed two people and defrauded many more. When I stopped to think about it, I began feeling discomfort about consuming, and enjoying, entertainment centered on two gruesome deaths and others’ financial ruin.
My mom called when she finished watching. On Oct. 15, 1985, she was pregnant with her first, and dare I say her favorite child, working in downtown Salt Lake City when the first bomb was detonated, killing Steve Christensen. A while later a second bomb killed Kathy Sheets. She described the horror that ripped through the city. No one knew if there was another device and where it might detonate. Her colleagues feared walking into the parking garage when it came time to leave.
She reminded me of the “true” in “true crime.” Real people lived it. Real people died. Their stories are true and their traumas are real. Had you asked my mother to describe how she felt on that day in 1985, she would tell you the experience was decidedly not fun.
I don’t know if a statute of limitations exists for when a death can become permissible podcast or docuseries fodder. Maybe 1985 falls within the appropriate range. My mom is fine now. She’s long since recovered from the terror of Hofmann’s actions. She even watched the series with little trepidation. But I would like to ask those who experienced real loss that day — the Christensen family and the Sheets family — how they feel about this “fun” show. Or whether they think Hofmann should receive so much attention, or superlatives, regarding his chilling “brilliance” and heinous acts.
If it was one of my loved ones who had been the victim of a murder — and not just affected by its aftermath — I can’t imagine I would be okay with those who watched it on “Dateline” or heard about it on one the thousands of true crime podcasts declaring it “fun!”
I imagine I might feel as though my pain was being mocked. I would also loathe the notoriety provided the murderer. Far more people know the name Mark Hofmann now than did a month ago. And far more people now consider him a kind of genius in the world of document forgeries than did a month ago, which, if I had to guess, is what Hofmann wanted most of all.
Much of the third episode of the series is spent on dreamy, slow re-enactments of Hofmann committing his forgeries over a mischievous, bubbling score. While this third episode is markedly more somber than the previous two, and does make efforts to demonstrate Hofmann’s true psychopathy, there’s also an undeniable, and disturbing, admiration for his work.
Hofmann killed two people to “get out of a jam” (his words). In his interview with prosecutors, he speaks of the murders as a necessary chore in his grand pursuit of deceiving the world’s greatest document experts and an entire religious body. He speaks with pride and excitement of the forgeries he committed. “I think he wanted to tell the world what he did,” a talking head says of Hofmann.
With an excitement that nearly matches that of Hofmann’s, the creators of the series tell the world for him. Hofmann wrapped nails around a pipe bomb to maximize damage to his victims. These victims had their own lives and their own stories to tell. They may even have been geniuses. I wish I knew more about them. But they didn’t murder, so they won’t get their own Netflix special, “Dateline” episode or podcast season.
The series concludes with a producer off camera urging Shannon Flynn, a rare document collector and onetime close friend of Hofmann, to give a quote about Hofmann. He wants Flynn to explain that Hofmann was very good at what he did, possibly the best ever. Flynn’s hands tremble and in a pained and pleading tone he says, “Could I ask a favor? Don’t make me answer that.” Then he shakes his head and repeats, “Don’t make me answer that. Let somebody else do it. I don’t wanna make a hero out of him.”
We should all be so reluctant.
Meg Walter is the editor-in-chief of The Beehive and a Deseret News contributor.