Screenshot from "Waco"

What ‘Waco’ Taught Me About Cults and Their Leaders

The Netflix miniseries covers the 1993 siege and highlights the tremendous power David Koresh had over his followers.
June 12, 2020
5 mins read

I recently binged the Netflix miniseries “Waco,” and honestly, my heart hasn’t pounded like this in a long time. The explosive show tells the true story of cult leader David Koresh, his followers and the government officials that took him down 27 years ago.

In 1993, the Mount Carmel compound in Waco, Texas, was set on fire after a 51-day standoff between the Branch Davidians, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The miniseries was adapted from first person accounts by David Thibodeau and FBI negotiator Gary Noesner. After premiering two years on Paramount Network, the show landed on Netflix a few months ago. Here are a few things I learned from “Waco” about cults and their seemingly invincible leaders.

Charismatic Leader

Every successful cult has a charismatic leader. It is often someone who is seen as an eternal being or a prophet. David Koresh (played by Taylor Kitsch), the fearless leader of the Branch Davidians, began his work with a vision that he was the second messiah and had a duty to save the world through promoting love and community.

In 1983, Koresh claimed he could see the future. He believed this so extensively that in 1990, he changed his name from Vernon Howell to David Koresh. The name David symbolizes a direct lineage to King David, and Koresh relates to Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who freed Jews and was called “messiah.”

Koresh’s people worshipped him and let him take their wives as his very own — Koresh even had children with some of them. His second-in-command, Steve Schneider, attempted to leave the compound, but Koresh convinced him to stay and submit to him, even though Koresh took his wife.

If you can imagine it, Koresh probably did it or convinced his followers to do it. From stockpiling weapons to recruiting followers through rock music, David Koresh is widely considered one of the most charismatic cult leaders of the 1990s.

Why do people even join cults in the first place?

Many individuals are looking for a place to belong and, most importantly, something to believe in. Koresh taught his followers love and community reigned supreme. He also preached that God loved everyone and it was their mission to spread his love to others.

In the first episode of “Waco,” Koresh meets David Thibodeau (played by Rory Culkin), a young drummer who is leaving a local nightclub. Koresh asks Thibodeau to fill in as a drummer for his band. Thibodeau tells Koresh he has often felt like an outcast in his life and is struggling financially to make ends meet. One thing leads to another and Koresh invites Thibodeau to stay with him at his compound until he has the money to get back on his feet.

Thibodeau never leaves. Koresh even convinces Thibodeau to marry one of Koresh’s wives so Koresh won’t be sent to jail for marrying and having a child with an underage woman. Thibodeau becomes a victim of the cult mentality to the extent that he is brainwashed until the very end of the series, when he sees his mom cry on the TV, which sparks his eagerness to escape the compound.

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Allegations of Abuse

Unfortunately, abuse is often reported in cults. “Waco” specifically deals with child abuse. Koresh’s House of David doctrine allowed him to marry both single and married women, as he considered having sexual encounters with women to be a burden he was willing to carry.

In 1992, Texas Child Protective Services conducted a six-month investigation into the compound, but was unable to find substantial evidence of abuse. Many believed Koresh hid the abuse from the government by having other men marry the underage women.

One of the former members of the Branch Davidians claimed Koresh spanked his son Cyrus many times, leaving bruising and scars, but the claim fell flat.

Another former member of the Branch Davidian, Jeannine Bunds, declared in an ATF affidavit that Koresh had fathered 15 children and forced all of the couples who joined his community to annul their marriages so he would have exclusive sexual access to all women and girls.

These allegations are incredibly gruesome. They show how far some people will go and what they are willing to give up to belong to a community.

Tragic End

Koresh’s compound began its demise on Feb. 28, 1993, when the ATF raided the area after suspecting the group of stockpiling illegal weapons. The raid resulted in the death of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians.

FBI agent Gary Noesner began negotiations with Koresh and Schneider, but little progress was made as Koresh began to renege on his promises. As a result, the FBI took matters into their own hands. They pumped tear gas into the compound, resulting in a deadly fire.

By the time the siege concluded almost two months later, around 76 people, including 25 children, had perished from smoke inhalation, mercy killings or suicide.

As seen in “Waco,” cults can bring out the worst in people, often masquerading as a safe home for the abused while actually being a center for abuse. David Koresh seemed to believe he was the “messiah” and clearly had tremendous influence over the people who were willing to die for him and the message he believed in.

Abigail Adeleke, University of Miami

Writer Profile

Abigail Adeleke

University of Miami
Journalism and Psychology

Abigail Adeleke is a Journalism and Psychology major at the University of Miami. The rising senior is the Student Government President, has a passion for photography, and is obsessed with the hit TV show “Psych.”

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