What I learned about: that thing in Waco, TX in 1993

Cults
Monument on Mt. Carmel compound in Waco, TX. Photo by Lorie Shaull

Let’s talk about Seventh-Day Adventists.

To understand the depressing, horrible thing that happened in Waco, Texas in 1993, one must know exactly where that crazy mustachio’d guitar-wielding white dude named David Koresh got his ideas.

Actually, let’s back it up further and say that a lot of cults have gotten their ideas from a little religious sect known as the Seventh-day Adventists.

The Seventh-day Adventists (SDA) was founded on the belief that the second coming of Jesus was to be October 22, 1844. Guess what? It didn’t happen. They were super disappointed. So they called it the Great Disappointment. Original, yeah? I think so, too.

Confession time, y’all. I used to work for an SDA corporation (long story, believe me), and it was messed up. It was like pandering to a bizarre circus every day. I wrote articles for them and was frequently reprimanded for using words like “yoga,” “coffee” or once, for including a link to a recipe blog that–heaven help us–had alcoholic beverage recipes on it, too. You’d think I’d sacrificed their next of kin. But the bonus was that I got to leave work at 3:30 on Fridays, because everyone was meant to be indoors before nightfall. Because Saturday was oh-so-holy Sabbath. SDA doesn’t believe in working on Saturdays. At all. Yeah, OK.

The SDA also enjoys releasing propaganda videos about how women shouldn’t be allowed to be in leadership positions (they even use words like “consequences,” oooh, reader, I tremble). Oh, but did I mention: their founder was a woman. Ellen White. That wacky broad. How dare she venture outside of the kitchen to create a whole new religion that didn’t believe in crazy shit like mustard, coffee, or yoga? And don’t even get me started on their weird diets (haystacks, anyone?).

Anyway, a guy named David Koresh (Vernon Wayne Howell) became the leader of the Branch Davidians, a splintered version of the SDA church. Koresh decided it was cool to sleep with underage girls, because, like, God told him it was OK. He convinced the men in this sect that they would have their pick of women in the afterlife, but he alone was burdened with reproducing with as many women in this life as possible. That’s not sketchy at all, right?

A few other fun facts about Koresh and the whole big mess:

  • Koresh tried to be a rock star (failed, just like Charlie Manson, sound familiar?), loved Ted Nugent
  • He went to trial for attempted murder in 1987 (after a really weird situation where another wannabe-cult-leader made a bargain that whoever could bring a former cult member back to life would reign supreme, a-la American Horror Story)
  • He believed everyone in his cult should have weapons and military training
  • Koresh built a compound in Waco that was–you guessed it–the ultimate battleground where he and almost 100 of his followers would perish
  • The Davidians weren’t dummies. Koresh’s right-hand-man was a theologian, and another was an attorney
  • The FBI hid recording devices in a milk delivery for the women and children trapped in the compound. The footage reveals that the Davidians started the lethal fires that day.
  • Apparently the compound had a really nice pool (according to many Google image searches), and I might fall for a place that had such a great pool

Ultimately, we know how this story ends. It ain’t pretty. It’s actually pretty heartbreaking. Koresh had many psychotic rants that were on the radio and TV. The ATF/FBI also really handled the situation poorly, using near-torture tactics to get Koresh to release his followers. The showdown, lasting 51 days, ended when the compound set fire after tear gas launched into the building caught fire. Before that, there was an infamous shootout with the compounders and the ATF.

The sad thing about this ending, is that Koresh created a self-fulfilling prophecy of the end times. He brought the apocalypse to his doorstep. Instead of four horsemen, there were jugheads with guns. Both parties were really to blame, and neither handled it the way they should. It’s a touchy subject for most, and after the limited series aptly titled Waco premiered on the Paramount Network, it’s getting easy to side with the Davidians on this one.

For more resources on the Davidians and the massacre at Waco in 1993, check out the series mentioned above. For brownie points, read the book that it was based on, titled A Place Called Waco: A Surivor’s Story by David Thibodeau.

There’s also a lot of great podcasts out there that have covered the Branch Davidians. My favorite is this one, here.

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The fascinating world of (researching) cults: What I learned about Heaven’s Gate

Cults
Pot pie: a cult favorite

So, I’m writing a book. Part of writing a book, in my opinion, is a massive, nearly-problematic tendency to fall into research rabbit holes. This is also the tendency of someone working in a library. You learn how to research.

Really, you learn how to Google.

Part of working in a library as frontline staff means that people think you are a fount of knowledge; you work with books, therefore you must have a card catalog and multiple databases installed in your brain. And in a way, we do. It’s just called The Internet, Research Skills, and the Ability to Ask One Very Important Question of that research: Who is the source? Are they trustworthy?

Being a skeptic is about 75% of my job.

So when it comes to researching cults, bizarre religions, and strange group behaviors surrounding Some White Guy That Wants Your Money (because that is usually the case), the trick is knowing how to take the source and filter it with that grain of salt. Because every “cult” website thinks it is 100% accurate and that spaceship is, indeed, arriving for us very soon.

I find this fascinating.

What makes a religion? There’s millions of people out there who think they know the answer. Usually based on the Bible, typically it’s some random prophet’s iteration of what, exactly, that Jesus guy meant to us, and how, exactly, God plans on destroying us all/bringing about the end of the world.

Doomsday cults are my favorite. Like Heaven’s Gate, the infamous purple-shrouded-Nike-wearing followers Do (Marshall Applewhite), who convinced 39 people to commit suicide in order to make it to their spaceship on the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997.

I was 11 years old when this went down, and it kicked off my weird fascination with cult behavior (not that I wasn’t already doomed, after reading The Shining at 9). I remember the news footage. I’ve been intrigued by it for a couple of decades now.

Perhaps my favorite thing about HG: they really liked chicken pot pie. Reportedly, they ate these as their last meal at a local Marie Calendar’s, followed by cheesecake topped with blueberries. Sounds good to me.

I heard on a great podcast (aptly titled, Heaven’s Gate, hosted by Glynn Washington) that the members really didn’t have beef with anyone, and were friendly enough (though they, themselves, may have been persuaded to be, y’know, castrated). They also had a sense of humor. The whole $5 bill and quarters in their pockets thing was downright snarky.

After choosing their poison in pudding or applesauce, the members bid farewell to this realm inside a rented a 9,200 square-foot mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, CA. The house was subsequently purchased by neighbors and leveled. The street name was changed. Those rich folk really don’t want to be bothered.

Here’s the thing. The mass suicide of 39 people might seem to us like a bizarre, twisted tragedy. But to Applewhite and his crew, maybe not. Maybe they did catch that ride, and I hope that they did. None of us know that they were actually, 100% wrong (just like any religion). That’s just my opinion, though.

The good news: the Heaven’s Gate website still exists, supposedly run by 2 remaining members (the group did, after all, make extra money by designing websites in the early ages of the internet). It’s a fantastic resource. Bring your grain of salt for some excellent further reading.

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