Tom Paine said it is only a small step from the sublime to the ridiculous, so it seems fitting to move from last week’s blog, HANNIBAL, one of the most concise studies of the cannibal psychosis of postmodern society, to a glimpse of the bourgeoisie at play, or at least their aspirations of what that might look like. I refer, of course, to LOVE BOAT, a series that ran for an absurdly long nine years and 250 episodes. Aaron Spelling was the producer – he also made Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Beverley Hills 90210, Charmed and a string of other shows, which always seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the time.
Why are we watching Love Boat you ask (or wail, while pathetically covering your ears)? Well, there is an interesting cannibal reference in episode 13 of season 3, which went to air on November 24, 1979. The episode has the catchy title of “Not Now, I’m Dying / Eleanor’s Return / Too Young to Love” – there were always a few threads going on at the same time.
Warning: the following theme song is a mind worm and will be running through your head relentlessly during your worst hangovers.
Anyway, getting to the point. One of the main characters on the ship is the Doc (Dr Adam Bricker) played by Bernie Kopell, who also played the KAOS agent Siegfried in Get Smart. On this particular cruise, Lucy, a friend of Doc’s (Barbi Benton), comes on board with her boyfriend Peter (Dack Rambo). She wants a romantic conclusion, a proposal, but Peter keeps on making excuses.
Eventually, Peter “admits” to having a terminal illness, saying he has Kuru, a disease he spotted on the front of a magazine. Doc calls his bluff, pointing out that Kuru is only contracted by “eating people”. But then Peter drops a pen, can’t hold a book, and Doc realises that he really does have a disease – ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). A sad irony in that Dack Rambo was to die of complications from AIDS only five years after this episode went to air. Barbi Benton, who started off as a Playboy model, is still going strong, as is Bernie Kopell at the time of writing.
This is interesting not so much for the longevity of the stars but the mention of Kuru. This is a prion disease, a rare, incurable neurodegenerative disorder that was found in the Fore people of Papua New Guinea. Kuru is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, related to the “mad cow” disease that cured people from eating beef for many years and is still tested for when you go to donate blood.
Kuru was first suspected to be related to funerary cannibalism (eating your relatives rather than burying them, to return their life force to the village) after extensive studies by the Australian anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum starting in 1961. Kuru was found to be eight to nine times more prevalent in women and children than in men. Fore men reported that they considered that consuming human flesh would weaken them in times of conflict or battle, while the women and children were allowed to eat the bodies of the deceased, including the brain, where the prion particles were particularly concentrated. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, a virologist, was later awarded a Nobel prize for mapping the transmission of the disease to chimpanzees by transferring into them parts of the brain of an 11-year-old Fore girl who had died of Kuru.
Kuru is rare and hard to catch (even the Fore people have a high rate of immunity to the disease). It is, however, very popular among people who write about cannibalism on social media, as they think it proves that human cannibalism is a ‘bad thing’ because it can make you ill (although they don’t mention the bovine version, in case that ruins their dinner). The Nobel prize was the cherry on top of the brain tissue theory of cannibalism.
In 1979, the same year this episode of Love Boat was aired, an American anthropologist, William Arens of Stony Brook University, New York, published his book The Man-Eating Myth, in which he challenged the automatic assumption of cannibalism among those dubbed “savages” by the colonial powers of the West. In fact, Arens caused a major uproar in anthropological circles by saying he could find no adequate documentation of cannibalism as custom in any form for any society – it may have happened, but not as a socially sanctioned system. He was more interested in why people are so fascinated by the depiction or suspicion of it (and so am I, hence this blog). As for the Fore, Arens said “the evidence is circumstantial, since Fore cannibalism has never been observed by an outsider”.
So, did the Fore get Kuru by eating their dead? We’ll never know for sure, but we can be confident, with Doc, that Peter didn’t.