For the 25th anniversary of the Waco siege, a new two-part documentary asks survivors just what it was about David Koresh that made him their prophet, before it all went horribly wrong.
Nathan Jolly

29 Apr 2019 - 2:44 PM  UPDATED 3 May 2019 - 11:21 AM

By the time David Koresh was 18, he had memorised every word of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. According to him, he had also spoken to God Himself, who informed Koresh that he was the chosen one, the Messiah. 

This unwavering belief in his own divinity, combined with a photographic memory, led Koresh to build a flock of followers, using the shell of the Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventist religion as a cover for his own nefarious teachings. 

Koresh clearly had a charismatic hold over the Davidians, many of whom agreed that he was, indeed, the Messiah. His male followers led celibate lives under his command, while numerous women lived as his wives, birthing a dozen children to him. He claimed this was all part of the plan, as told to him by God. 

Koresh’s persuasive powers came not from his charisma alone, but from his encyclopaedic knowledge of and interpretation of the scriptures. A series of bootleg cassette tapes of Koresh dissecting the Bible and explaining how it tied in with his mission did the rounds of various church groups across America, and people were floored by his interpretation of the Book of Revelations. They flocked to Waco, Texas to hear him speak, and were quickly enchanted. 

Curiously, he had a levity absent in similar messianic figures like Marshall Applewhite and Charles Manson. He had a sharp sense of humour and was an avid guitarist, playing and singing at a local bar. His guitar playing was a key part of his Bible studies, which he held three times a day.

“At the same time, there were really horrible, dark things he did,” explains John Erick to Vanity Fair. Erick is co-creator of the series Waco, and consulted with David Thibodeau, a Waco survivor. “[Koresh] was definitely narcissistic and definitely used an abusive strategy to keep everyone on their toes.”

Thibodeau met Koresh when the pair began playing music together. He was one of those bowled over by Koresh’s take on the seven seals in Revelations. He visited Waco a few times and took in the teachings. Then, one day, he decided to stay. He has written a book, Waco: A Survivor’s Story, about his time at the compound, and feels that the media’s depiction of the Branch Davidians has been very flawed.

For one, he never called himself a ‘Branch Davidian’, a term he first heard on the TV long after he had left the compound. He also never considered Koresh to be the messiah, instead believing him to be a gifted prophet. He said those he lived with didn’t worship Koresh, but instead lived strictly by his teachings. The delineation may seem like semantics, especially when husbands and fathers within the flock freely gave Koresh their wives and daughters on his command.

Koresh’s persuasive techniques came with an iron-clad backing: The Book Of Revelations. Considering those who lived at the compound were first drawn there by Koresh’s interpretation of this text, and stayed once convinced by his mission, it’s not surprising Koresh was able to twist these teachings into a strict code of conduct, with his own self-interests at the heart of it.

Dr Stephen Diamond is a licensed American clinical and forensic psychologist. He worked for many years as a forensic psychologist for the Criminal Division of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, and is the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity. 

I contacted him to ask how Koresh was able to procure such a following. Dr Diamond likened his techniques to those of Charles Manson: “by identifying and targeting a vulnerable and needy group of people already seeking a messiah.” Those who were attracted by his tapes were perfectly suited.

“Such groups of people are comprised of individuals who are susceptible to suggestion and searching for someone to lead them out of what they perceive as Hell and into the Promised Land,” Diamond explains. “These individuals submit first to the will of the group, relinquishing their personal responsibility in order to avoid the burden of responsibility for one’s existence. 

“But most groups seek a leader, one who panders to the hopes and fears of its members while providing the delusion of ‘specialness’ and superiority to group members who, like those in the Manson family, felt confused, lost, inferior and angry with the world.”

Koresh also felt it important to keep his followers isolated from the outside world, to the extent of having no running water or electricity. “The world is an influence that is constantly pulling and distracting you from the message,” former Davidian David Bunds explained to ABC.

“His message changed over the years because he was always looking for the next big thing to teach that would shock people into listening to him.”

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Thibodeau admitted early last year, “but all I can say to that is a Bible-based community lives by the Bible, and that can be frightening in a lot of ways. That is a frightening book if you really break it apart. If that’s the only way that you’re looking at life, you’re going to be very one-sided, and there’s going to be all kinds of justification in that scripture.”

It’s all in the interpretation, after all. 

Two-part documentary, WACO: Madman or Messiah? airs on Sunday 5 and 12 May at 8:30 pm on SBS.

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