How ‘The Last of Us’ Made Its Zombie Swamp That Much More Real (and Scary)

Spoilers ahead.

One of the freakiest sequences in the premiere episode of HBO’s The last of us takes place not when the hordes of mindless infected bodies attack, but when an epidemiologist is asked for his thoughts on pandemics. During a flashback to 1968 in the episode’s opening scene, this epidemiologist—a man named Dr. Neuman – appears calm and calculated during a live talk show, retreating from any long-term concerns about viruses. In his seemingly cherished opinion, viruses always have and always will attack and kill humans, but humans have the tools to fight them. Individuals will die. Humanity will prevail.

But mushrooms, he claims, are a different beast altogether. “Mushrooms seem harmless enough,” he tells the audience. “Many species know otherwise. Because there are some fungi that do not seek to kill, but to control.”

His scientist scoffs; these types of fungi are not studied that distort humans, but rather ants. Dr. Neuman agrees. “It is true that fungi cannot survive if the internal temperature of the host is above 94 degrees,” he says. “And at the moment there is no reason for fungi to evolve to be able to withstand higher temperatures. But what if that were to change? What if the world were to get a little warmer, for example?”

At this point, alarm bells should be ringing for almost everyone watching at home. The earth is warming up, and not just a little. As Dr. Neuman continues, his words only growing more ominous. The fungus he cites has no other goal than to spread, by any means necessary, ravaging “billions of marionettes with poisoned minds.” Then he adds the real kicker: “And there are no treatments for this, no preventatives, no cures. They don’t exist. It’s not even possible to make them.”

Even the most oblivious viewer might be hard-pressed to watch this without muttering an audible “Uhh…?” And dear reader, your concern is valid. The last of us, based on the 2013 PlayStation game of the same name, strives to feel as real as possible, even when its monsters look more like alien abominations than the mushrooms most of us know. This is deliberate; an intelligent tactic to span the fictional and the factual. But how much worry in the real world is too much? We are still struggling through a pandemic; do we really have to start resenting each other? One with no vaccine? Is this simply Last of us terrifying or should I start giving portobellos the side eye?

The answer is yes and no. And that’s the brilliance of the HBO adaptation, which takes the already well-grounded horror of the video game and fills in the shadows just enough to invest us, addict us, and scare us. Beforehand, let’s discuss what is really worth being afraid of.

infected clicker from the last of us

One of the infected i The last of us.

HBO

Is cordyceps real?

Yes. In fact, there are several types of cordyceps mushrooms Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is the one from which The last of us retrieves his narrative. Game writer (and co-creator of the HBO show) Neil Druckmann first encountered the fungus in a 2008 The earth clip, which depicted an ant being slowly consumed – and controlled – by insatiable flowers that rained spores onto the ant’s colony. Druckmann inserted a version of this mushroom in the The last of uswhich switched victims from insects to humans via infected crops.

How does this zombie mushroom work in real life?

As science writer Ed Yong chronicled in grim detail for one 2017 history in Atlantic Ocean, the fungus plays a dirty game: When it infects an ant, it kills neurons and hijacks the insect’s control panel – without actually piercing the brain. As it deprives the insect’s body of nutrients, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis moves the ant to an elevated plant stem, one where the temperature and humidity conditions are ideal for fungi to flourish. There, it freezes the ant in place by paralyzing its jaws around the stem, giving the fungus time to spread through the body, burst through the head, and develop spores, which can then flow from above onto the rest of the ant’s colony as they trudge past . And then the infection spreads.

Yong describes this effect in chilling prose, citing that Pennsylvania State University entomologist and food safety professor David Hughes believes “[the fungus] effectively severing the ant’s limbs from its brain and inserting itself into place, releasing chemicals that force the muscles there to contract. If this is correct, then the ant ends its life as a prisoner in its own body. Its brain is still in the driver’s seat, but the mushroom has the wheel.”

You can understand why such a real-world effect would make for a delicious zombie story.

Could climate change really create infected fungus zombies like the ones in The last of us? Can cordyceps infect humans? In short: Should I be worried?

The evolution of fungi in response to climate change is far from an unreasonable concern. Dr. Ilan Schwartz, a Duke University School of Medicine infectious disease specialist, put it this way Vulture: “It is not surprising, the argument that global warming has increased the thermal tolerance of a fungus. It has not been proven. It’s a hypothesis, and it happens on a fairly slow scale. But it is possible.”

That said, cordyceps cannot currently invade humans, and some experts believe the fungus is unlikely to move anytime soon, if ever. In an interview with ForbesJoão Araújo, an assistant curator of mycology at the New York Botanical Garden and an expert on insect-associated fungi, told Forbes it is “highly unlikely” that cordyceps can take over human bodies in the same way as insects. Hughes in his own Forbes interview, echoed those thoughts, adding that cordyceps infecting humans is “not that fanciful,” but that cordyceps controlling people who witness i The last of usis probably nothing to worry about.

In a separate Fandom.com interview as of 2019, Hughes – who consulted on the original The last of us game – explained that fungi are indeed a danger to humans, citing that 1.3 million people die each year from fungal diseases. But Ophiocordyceps “jumping from ants to humans and so on [to other people]…that probably requires too many [improbable] circumstances must happen.”

The last of us director Craig Mazin isn’t too worried about the fungus either. “It’s real—it’s real to the extent that everything [Dr. Neuman] say mushrooms do, they do,” Mazin shared The Hollywood Reporter in January. “And they’re doing it at the moment and have been doing it forever. There are some remarkable documentaries that you can watch that are quite frightening. Now his warning – what if they evolve and enter us? – from a purely scientific point of view, would they do to us exactly what they do to ants? I don’t think so. I doubt it.”

Final verdict: Cordyceps as a serious threat to humans – and their bodily autonomy – is not outright impossible, but it is unlikely. Still, these monsters on your screen are another good reminder of the importance of climate action.

dead ant due to cordyceps fungus, from Indonesian New Guinea

An ant infected with cordyceps fungi.

Reza Saputra//Getty Images

In theory, Dr. Neumann correct? There would be no cure for an outbreak like the one in The last of us?

We’re getting into tricky speculative territory here – but that’s also part of what makes it The last of us adaptation so brilliant. The entire plot hinges on a young girl named Ellie, who is supposedly immune to the effects of cordyceps despite her recent infection. After sustaining a zombie bite – which should have “turned” her within hours – she retains her humanity and sprouts no stalks or mushroom blooms. As such, she may be the long-awaited miracle vaccine developers need to create a cure.

So why did the show creators include Dr. Neuman’s warning at the beginning of the series? Are there really, as he says, “no treatments for this”? And if we already know Ellie’s mission is futile, why invest in it at all?

For one thing, Dr. Neuman could be wrong. Fortunately, an outbreak like this has never happened in humans, and there are signs of it in other species “tame” cordycepsand uses it as a biological friend rather than an enemy.

But he may also be right. As Dr. Schwartz told Vulture, fungi are more closely related to humans than they are to bacteria that cause infections; in other words, their “cellular machinery is the same as ours.” This makes antifungal agents much more difficult to develop than antibacterial agents, since antifungal agents must target fungal cells without also harming human cells. This could be the problem Dr. Neuman is quoted during the talk show.

We’ll have to watch more episodes to fully understand where The last of us lore and science diverge, and what specific concerns Dr. Neuman hinted in his speech. But the inclusion of this dialogue sets the whole thesis of the show (and the game). This is the moral question: What are you fighting for when the outcome is indeterminate? What is worth more, the cure or the girl? And if the answer is not clear, WHO must decide? With dr. Neuman’s words force the series viewers to think through a terrifying prospect: not to lose control, but to having that. What happens if you are faced with the possibility that your efforts are futile, that you will lose, and you must persevere anyway? What kind of person would you become in that environment?

Main photo by Lauren Puckett-Pope

Associate Editor

Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, television, books and fashion.

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