The Last Of Us Cordyceps: We Lose? (Spoilers Ahead)

The Last Of Us on HBO Go is a premier work of television, fusing melancholic scenarios with world-ending peril, yet remaining sanguine and hopeful with indomitable displays of human tenacity in the face of unforgiving circumstances. Whilst these coalesce to make a competent and terrific show, many have begun to wonder…is it prescient?

If you are unaware, the show is actually based off a game with the same name, having you control callous and jaded survivor Joel Miller, deftly portrayed on television by Chilean-born actor Pedro Pascal. Though differing in specifics, the story beats remain relatively identical, the show streamlining certain aspects that would function solely within the medium of gaming. I strongly recommend that you experience both the game and the show. Despite their similarities, what they offer as a conduit for entertainment differs immensely, both being radiant works of art that should be cherished for their nuanced and intelligent writing. As a result, not only are the relationships and situations in the show well written, but its concepts also inspire some speculation and pondering, if not a little bit mixed with fear.

Somewhat grounded in reality, both show and game introduce the prospect of fungal-induced frenzies being responsible for the grotesque transformation of people into our comfortably used colloquialism, zombies. 

As shown in the first episode, a jovial and cordial talk show host converses with two scientifically inclined guests, set in the backdrop of the late 60’s. One, an unnamed doctor and the other, an epidemiologist by the name of Dr. Neuman. It starts off in the middle of their conversation concerning the danger microorganisms pose to the human population. The exchange starts off relatively simple, addressing the capabilities of viruses and bacteria and how certain vectors such as air travel and tourism can help expedite the process of a pandemic, Dr Neuman’s lack of participation in the exchange made clear. The host then turns to him, inquiring if he shares similar views with the adjacent scientist.

Neuman disagrees, the host taking a jab at his contrarian views which mutually amuses them both. Though harmful, Neuman deflates the danger of viruses and bacteria, proposing that it is analogous to that of a war. Sacrifices made and millions die, but eventually, a cure is found and the war is won. Neuman then reveals that his biggest fear is the proliferation of fungus, which is met with muffled derisive giggles from the crowd and a flummoxed stare from the host. He elaborates, listing a litany of medical and psychedelic amenities that trace their origins to fungus. Neuman discusses the parasitic nature of fungus’, specifically insects. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, Neuman denotes. Burrowing into the brain of its unfortunate victims not to kill, but to control. It is granted complete autonomy over the ant’s body and influences the ant’s movements to its benefit, moving it to a vantage point before the fungus decides that the shell it commands must expire, using it to sprout off of and spread its spores to other ants and continue its life cycle.

The host is noticeably shaken, unnerved by such a morbid prospect. Neuman’s peer protests, understanding his line of thinking and attempting to ease the disconcerted host by informing the people that fungus are unable to survive in the internal temperatures of the human body. Neuman acknowledges this fact, but brings forward that any fungus is capable of adapting to changes in the environment, subtly implicating global warming as a cause. Given the array of common necessities to modern life necessitating fungus as an ingredient, Neuman explains that fungus adapting to survive internal human temperatures would allow it to easily infect most of the population, circling back to the harrowing reality that insects experience when afflicted with the infection. Neuman disparages the prospect of a cure, claiming the impossibility of its conception and the terrible fate a majority of the population will face. 

The audience is now silent, either fully invested in tellings of a grisly future or reeling due to its presented likelihood. The host, now introduced to a potentially dark epoch, asks Neuman humanity’s prospect of bouncing back from such a catastrophe.

Appositely, Neuman responds.

 SoDo we lose?

2003 in the show marks the year of the outbreak, forcing the collapse of society. Beginning from a flour factory in Indonesia, an incredibly humid country, the fungus spreads through the food supply of a country, which eventually contaminates the resources of other continents and eventually America, where the show is set in. Faux cures are conjured and rendered useless and vaccines do nothing to stop the spread. By the end of the pandemonium, 60% of the remaining population are infected, the 40% scattered across the world as communities are scant pockets of survivors. Aside from the method of dissemination, Neuman’s warning proves prophetic. Many are turned into thoughtless and heartless creatures, granting no quarter to survivors and spreading the fungal infection through bites and spores which, much like ants, sprout from their bodies after they die.

Serendipitous for us, the fungus that Neuman describes, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, does not have the ability to affect human cognition and take control. What he does describe about ants, however, is very real. 

A poor ant having its corpse perverted by a fungus, sprouting out from the base of its head. 

The fungus does what is dramatically and forebodingly described by Neuman in the show. Diminution of bodily control to nothing, but thought remains. The ant contracts the fungus and for the first few days, routine operations continue unobstructed. Surrounding ants are unable to detect any abnormalities with an infected individual, which spells an oddity given they have a social compulsion to exile any of their ailing brethren to avoid a disease from wiping out the colony. Subsequent days foretell an ill fate for the ant, as the fungus gleans more and more of the ant’s autonomy for itself, pushing the ant to have an ostensible antipathy for the colony’s typical foraging and gathering efforts. Compelled by the fungus, the ant seeks more humid environments to foster the improved cultivation of its uninvited guest.

The ant finds a vantage point on a relatively tall leaf. Once it does, its jaws sink into the leaf, acting like a harness to ensure it refrains from falling off its position. Whilst doing so, the fungus feeds on the ant’s innards for nutrition, gradually spoiling the ant from within whilst forcing it to enact its unwilling death throes. Once the ant expires, the fungus sprouts from the insect’s head, the now adhered and empty shell of a corpse acting as its foundation. The fungus spreads across the cadaver with growths of varying height, before disseminating its spores to repeat the process onto another hapless insect.

Zombie movies come in spades, a recurring and almost ubiquitous trope in the genre being the senseless goal to eliminate all life on earth. However, fungus’ are not interested in a world fully inhabited by their own kind. They still adhere to the rules of an ecosystem, including the consequences of wiping out a species wantonly. The spores of these insect-killing fungi are actually sparse, ensuring that if fate lends them an unsuspecting crowd of ants to infect, they do not fully exhaust their host population.

Harrowingly however, discoveries made in the field of parasitic fungi dictate an even more terrible fate for the insect. Opposed to common zombie tropes, the brain is not rendered dead and inept of thought by the fungus. Studies display a culmination of fungus around the ant’s body parts, from the abdomen to the head- yet never the brain. The fungus wraps around the muscles and nervous system of the ant, propelling it to fit its desires but denying it the basic clemency of death. To be a stranger in your own body and watching something alien pilot it until its demise; fates run scant in rivalling its morbidity.

The show posits that global warming permits the fungus to survive in higher temperatures owing to adaptation. This then allows it to thrive in the higher body temperatures of humans, allowing its previously insect-exclusive purview to seek greener pastures in us. 

The Last Of Us’ iconic motif and unique zombie design, ‘clickers’ are infected individuals who have been fully transformed by the cordyceps. Due to a lack of visual organs, echolocation is utilised through uttering a guttural ‘click’, hence the namesake.

Both show and game showcase a grotesque and tragic transformation into the titular infected. Intentionally, their barbaric and frenzied waltzes are meant to disturb and horrify. Though fear of the unknown is practically a mainstay in the aspect of horror, body horror is also a treasured hallmark. Violence is in surfeit, usually visceral dismemberment or in The Last Of Us’ case, a distortion of human features, mostly facial ones. The instinctive thing to do is to mull over the fates of those voraciously chasing our protagonists and the extent of their suffering.

Present only in the show, the third episode strongly implies that the infected have rudiments of lucidity, fully aware of their now ravenous instinct yet powerless to do anything about it. Joel’s companion Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey in the show, encounters an infected person constrained by rubble in a weathered store. Mushrooms sprout and proliferate as growths on its face and its eyes are stained with a sickly yellow. She goes to examine it and makes a subtly horrifying discovery. Flashing a light into its eyes, Ellie waves a knife around its line of sight. Its pupils follow.

It emulates that same level of realism. The studies on ants and their involuntary contribution to the fungus is replicated here with a human subject. The showrunners obviously did their research, and the vague sense of scientific accuracy in a hypothetical situation draws in a level of belief from viewers. Ultimately, the goal is to engross and immerse, but the grounded premise paves the way for worry of its plausibility. Fortunately for us, those worries are completely unfounded.

A photo from the now defunct instagram account, @f*ck__mushrooms
A photo from the now defunct instagram account, @f*ck__mushrooms

These dumb spore spreading brain-cell lacking mushrooms lack the genetic splendour to have even a modicum of influence over the beatific sophistications of the human body. Any fungus that is capable of making mindless husks out of insects is only qualified to do so by the specific insect that it excels in overtaking. Evolution ties it to its specific insect and even that specific species. National Geographical tackled this subject matter, informing us of the limitations of fungus. “For example, a cordyceps that evolved to infect an ant in Thailand can’t infect a different ant species in Florida.” This means that a fungus is beholden to a host, branching out being an endeavour that would require incredibly drastic genetic alterations.

Organically, these genetic alterations could happen through that same process of evolution and they could affect us the same way they do with insects. However, to jump to a host with almost nothing in common with  concurrent ones would take millions of years of progressive changes, owing to our vastly more sophisticated biology as compared to that of insects. 

Some postulations by The Last Of Us, however, don’t come without merit. Though global warming won’t grant fungus mind-controlling abilities, it may increase the potency of existing human-related fungal ailments. As of now (and hopefully forever), fungus mainly thrives dermatologically or lung infections. Not nearly as distressing, yet still cause for concern. Skin infections occur under the cooler skin folds, providing a more suitable environment to foster growth of the fungus. Lung infections like histoplasmosis are caused by the inhalation of fungal spores, but primarily only poses a concern to those immuno-compromised who lack an adequate resource of infection-fighting cells to combat the invasion.

Fungi generally favour temperatures of 77-86°F or 25-30°C. Human body temperatures usually sit comfortably at 98°F or 36.6°C usually. Global warming however, raises the environmental temperature, even if slightly. 

This would act as conditioning for the fungus and not so much as stimulus for evolution, permitting a better tolerance for hotter environments and, theoretically, higher survivability within a human’s relatively high body temperatures.  What ails experts in the field is the fact that the difference between internal body temperatures and surrounding temperatures will be less drastic, posing a notable and potent threat that will be more resilient to our body’s defence mechanisms.  As inner body temperatures no longer weaken the fungal spores as much, defensive cells may work harder to eliminate the infection completely. 

What the show does is deliberately deceives you. Dr Neuman says verbatim, “-and currently there are no reasons for fungi to evolve to be able to withstand higher temperatures.” What this sets into the viewer’s mind is that the fungus already has the ability to infect humans the same way as it does insects, the only barrier preventing their autocracy on sentient thought being the innate temperature of the human body. That notion, however, couldn’t be any further from the truth. Yes, higher temperatures make a fungus more tolerant of harsher environments, but it lacks the complexity to fully overwhelm the human immune system and bend it to its will. 

So, back to the question. Do we lose?


Frankly, I don’t think we can even participate in the proverbial battle. A fungal incursion similar to The Last Of Us is only possible if an absurd amount of time is allowed to pass. Even if it does evolve to comfortably use humans as its Sunday best, advancements in human technology by then could probably render any ailment a minor inconvenience, assuming we survive that long.

On the many and continually expanding list of things that may spell humanity’s swan song, a fungal infection is not particularly the most worrisome calamity. Besides, it would be a pretty underwhelming end to our illustrious and colourful history. Something else will do us in, surely, but rest assured it won’t be fungus. 

If you were tentatively eyeing any fungal related products at the store, fret not for your safety. Chow down to your heart’s content on some mushroom soup, it won’t kill you. At least, not until a few million years.

Photo Credits: National Geographic/ The Last Of Us (Television Series)/ @f*ck__mushrooms. (Deactivated Instagram account)