Netflix constitutes a veritable true crime industrial complex at this point. Some of its docuseries have had lasting viral impact (2020’s Tiger King), while many managed only to drive social media conversation for a weekend before receding into the abyss (2021’s Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, among numerous others). There’s a clear house style for these miniseries; they’re heavy on over-lit talking heads, reenactments, and sometimes animated recreations. But one of Netflix’s recent documentaries, co-produced with the BBC, is rather unexpected, both in its creation and its subject. Murder Among the Mormons was co-directed by Jared Hess, the director of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Nacho Libre (2006), and it focuses on a conspiracy within the morally uptight Salt Lake City. The case of forger Mark Hofmann went deep to the heart of Mormonism, raising serious questions for Latter-Day Saints about the validity of their belief system.
In the 1980s, Hofmann made waves in the Mormon community as a rare book dealer and amateur archaeologist who specialized in artifacts related to the early history of the church. Many of his supposed finds were extremely controversial, as they called into question the official narrative about the church’s history. Most infamous was the “Salamander Letter,” which claimed that founder Joseph Smith had not been visited by angels as he claimed, but instead received his “new gospel” from a salamander. The church, notoriously protective of its image, spent untold funds to acquire these materials in order to bury them, even if they’d already done their damage. And then it turned out that these scandalous documents were complete fabrications. Hofmann spent enormous effort crafting papers that would cast doubt on the dogma that had dominated his life. All these deceptions were only revealed after Hofmann tried to escape mounting debt by orchestrating a bombing campaign which killed two people.
In his films Hess, who co-directed this series with Tyler Measom, is fascinated with material objects and books of bygone days. You can feel traces of his style in the series’ recreations and reenactments, which draw on the often tacky sense of wholesome kitschiness associated with Mormon culture. We see a family playing the astrology-themed board game Celestial Pursuit (framed next to a plate of Rice Krispies treats), shag carpeting, and clips from corny educational films that I’m all too familiar with. And Hess’s works have often been about characters singularly driven by things — the spiral notebook fantasies and instructional dance VHS of Napoleon Dynamite, the homemade lucha libre uniform of Nacho Libre, the pulp paperbacks of Gentlemen Broncos. And of course there’s Don Verdean, about a Biblical archaeologist led astray from his convictions by a wealthy evangelist. It’s hard for me to not connect this interest in material items endowed with an almost religious power to Mormonism itself. The religion is based on musty old parchments, alleged hidden brass plates, and “seer stones.”
Murder Among the Mormons enticed me with its bookish historical conspiracy and cast of obsessive nerds, but it also called out to me because of my background. I was raised in the same intense, all-encompassing religion as Mark Hofmann. Strangely, I almost find his case relatable. Hofmann couldn’t imagine not being Mormon even as he lost his faith, as so many other doubters do; though he apparently stopped believing as a teen, he still worked as a missionary, attended church and participated in events, and raised a Mormon family, all out of a deeply ingrained sense of obligation. He was driven to deceive people because he felt he’d been deceived his entire life. Like him, my own lineage goes back to the church’s origin — I had a great-great-great-or-something-grandfather who was in prison alongside Joseph Smith, and my family was in the second wagon when the Saints rolled into Salt Lake Valley for the first time. I know how difficult and even destabilizing it can be to find yourself outside an institution that shapes every facet of your being.
The series makes a sharp turn after its first two episodes, casting the church as a potential suspect in the bombings before revealing Hofmann as the culprit, whereupon the church becomes a victim in the third and final episode. Given Mormonism’s violent persecution in its early days, its membership has developed a sensitive self-image, and Mormons are often quick to guard against critics. It feels like Hess fumbles a bit by giving in to very church-mandated talking points about “anti-Mormonism” in the last episode, though he still goes further in his critiques than most other active members would ever dare. The LDS Church does not encourage discourse or debate. Hess does not draw a direct link between LDS leadership and a man who would commit murder to cover up his lies, but Murder Among the Mormons still raises some incredibly worthwhile questions about the religion’s relationship to its own history.
Murder Among the Mormons is available to stream on Netflix.