Welcome, students of The last of us, for Fungus Zombies 101. In this seminar, we’ll cover the basics of what’s known as the cordyceps infection, how it spreads throughout a host’s lifetime, and why it should haunt your nightmares. Ready? Let’s dive in!
In the new HBO show The last of us— and the 2013 PlayStation video game that inspired it — zombies aren’t really zombies. They never died, and they were never reborn; instead, a scary mushroom crawled through their insides and took control of their still living bodies. Thus, the proper term for these creatures is “infected”, although “fungus zombies” is a commonly accepted colloquialism. (Just don’t tell the game developer and show the co-creator Neil Druckmann.)
There are four main stages of the cordyceps infection, plus a bonus stage we’ll get to in a bit. Each stage will only develop within the right conditions, whether it is time or environment. If these conditions are not met, some infected will remain in one state for long periods of time; others die before they have had a chance to progress through the final stage. Regardless, they’re all violent, bloodthirsty, and capable of spreading the fungus through bites, spores, or—in the show—long tendrils of mushroom-like stems. If that’s not enough to stir your survival instincts, read on for a few more reasons why you should invest in a good bunker.
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IN The last of us, there is only one real hope against this wave of teetering monsters: Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a 14-year-old girl who has developed immunity to the fungus. Whether she is really The answer to a long-awaited cure remains to be seen, so in the meantime, you’ll want to know the difference between your clickers and bloaters. Below, we’ll go over the types of Infected – and share a few tips on how to survive them. Study up and maybe stay away from pancake mix.
Stage 1: Runners
Runners are the most human of the infected, mainly because they are the most recently “turned”. Within two days of a bite (or inhaling a healthy dose of spores), but sometimes within hours, a human will lose control of their abilities and transform into a runner.
At this point, the fungus has not yet had a chance to spread throughout the body and pierce the skin, so while runners’ minds may be a lost cause, their bodies still look deceptively human. You know them instead by their hair loss and diseased-looking skin; their erratic, jerky movements; the snarls and screams that erupt unbidden from their throats; their torn, stained clothes and bloody mouths; and – if you dare to look close enough – the tendrils of cordyceps that sometimes appear between their lips.
In the video game, runners are the easiest group of infected to kill, although they tend to attack in groups and move at extreme speeds (aka “runners”). The runners in the HBO show exhibit similar tendencies: In the premiere episode, a runner chasing Joel and his daughter is so fast it almost seems supernatural. However, because these monsters have yet to develop any mushroom armor, runners are susceptible to gunfire, knives, and any other weapon that would take out your average pleb.
The internal consciousness of runners is the subject of debate in the world of The last of us, but there is evidence that runners are still “awake” enough to recognize that they are no longer in control of their own bodies. (Some runners moan and scream in agony even when not under attack, and others seem resistant or even remorseful about their bloody instincts.) It’s a nasty premise that the show will likely explore in more detail than the game.
Stage 2: Stalkers
Usually after two weeks of infection, runners change to stalkers, a phase they can remain in for over a year. At this point, fungal growth becomes visible on their bodies as it peels away the skin and bursts through openings. (If you get close, pray you have a good gag reflex.) These creatures begin to lose their human-like sounds and instead emit croaks, though they are still quiet enough to hide, track and attack their victims , giving them their “stalker” title. For this reason, they tend to prefer places with lots of places to hide; bonus points if it’s dark and damp.
Stalkers are also stronger than runners. At this stage they have sprouted the beginnings of what is essentially mushroom chain mail. A simple fistfight won’t cut it, so shotguns and flamethrowers are often a better choice if you have an arsenal at your disposal. But beware of getting too close to a stalker who already appears to be dead. The creatures are capable of temporary hibernation: they can attach themselves to buildings while they sleep, allowing tendrils to emerge from their bodies and climb the surrounding walls. If awakened, they can break out of this shell and attack again. Others remain in this state until the cordyceps fully consumes their bodies and they die.
Step 3: Clickers
After the first year of infection, stalkers phase into clickers, arguably the most iconic of them all The last of us inventions. With huge flowers opening their skulls, clickers are more sponge than human – except for their mouths and teeth, which remain intact for snapping at victims. You better believe the breath is error.
Because the cordyceps have either covered, disfigured, or completely removed the body’s eyes at this stage, the clickers are blind, but they compensate for their inability to see with a tough form of echolocation. The croaks that began in the stalker stage now turn into “clicks” as the infection spreads, and the clickers use this sound to locate people and communicate with other infected.
Aware of a potential victim in their midst, the clickers are obsessed, completely absorbed in the task of finding (and gnawing on) the errant human. And when they are surprised or attacked, all bets are off; they go “berserk” and you better have one really reliable firearm in your back pocket. (Or a Molotov cocktail! You carry those around all the time, right?) The better option is to try to outsmart them and sneak away silently so as not to set off their unsophisticated sonar alarms. Clickers are much stronger than runners and stalkers, and they are hard to kill and even harder to dislodge from your dreams. Good luck!
Step 4: Bloaters or Shamblers
Several years after infection, stalkers grow into bloaters or shamblers, depending on the environment they grew up in. (Nature versus nurture, it comes to all of us!) Now, fungi almost exclusively have bloaters—if in drier climates—or shamblers – if they are wetter – few, if any, human-like features apart from their bipedal locomotion. The invading fungus has by this time hardened into plates that provide considerable protection, turning the once human skin into something wrinkled and indistinguishable.
Both bloaters and shamblers are slow-moving and clumsy, though they compensate for their two left feet with deep aggression. They can tear a human apart with just their bare hands if they manage to get hold of you. (Their low-pitched “click” mimics a clicker, but their blindness is more pronounced and their echolocation even less refined. If you spot one, keep it zipped!) Scariest of all is their actual inflated skin, which hosts glow-in – the dark bags of toxin or pus – toxin for bloated, pus for shamblers – which they can unleash on an enemy. These acidic weapons can burn and infect skin, so brace yourself if you’d rather not deal with a seriously nasty rash.
As for fighting them, I wish you all the best. You’ll want an army surplus store’s worth of ammo, or at least a reliable flamethrower. Once the mushroom armor is burned away, bloaters and shamblers will be more vulnerable to shots if you can keep your hands steady long enough to aim.
Step 5(ish): The Rat King
This section contains some minor spoilers, so skip ahead if you prefer to sleep better at night.
In the sequel to the video game, The Last of Us Part II, there is technically a fifth and final stage of the infection: a superorganism known as the Rat King. If, after several decades of infection and forced proximity, several infected hosts remain in the same area, it turns out that the cordyceps fungus is able to weave them togetherfusing them together into a huge mega-boss.
These symbiotic creatures are nearly impossible to kill due to their advanced armor and speed. You don’t just want guns, but bombs to take them out, and even then the Rat King is still able to split apart into individual stalkers, clickers and bloaters.
The only consolation I can offer is that these creatures are rare. They require many, many years of contained infection without external interference. Enter the rat king Part IIfor example, consisted of Seattle’s first patients, kept in quarantine when infected and never allowed to leave.
Phase 6: Death
Infected eventually die. They either succumb to damage or from something resembling old age as soon as the fungus has eaten enough of the human flesh. At this point, the host will find a place hospitable to the cordyceps – usually a dark and wet place – and grow quietly and become a corpse while the fungus itself continues to flourish. Over time, the dead body will turn into a kind of mushroom carpet that spreads over walls and surfaces and fills entire buildings with spores. (In the TV show – which did away with the game’s tracks for logistical reasons – tendrils are instead the resulting threat.) Only sunlight is able to completely wipe out this corpse-powered fungus; shine a light on the growth long enough, it turns pale and brittle, then dies. It is an apt metaphor for a tale which The last of usruled by the anti-authoritarian group known as the Fireflies and their motto: “When you’re lost in the dark, look for the light.”
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, television, books and fashion.