The first episode of The Last of Us takes place on a 1960s talk show on television. A group of academics debates the danger posed by recent viruses that might start a pandemic over the world. (It is difficult to ignore the similarities to our own world and period.) One of the experts claims that, at least with regard to viruses, he is not concerned about a pandemic. He says that these viruses have existed since the beginning of time and that new ones occasionally crop up. And why they might cause serious disease and death before humanity’s natural immunity adjusts and the epidemic is over.
Some mushroom strains can be highly hazardous and even parasitic, despite the fact that they appear to be innocuous to humans and that some fungi are actually quite helpful to them. They attach to a host, replace its tissue, and potentially take over control of the organism they are attached to. Due to their inability to survive in temperatures as high as those of the human body, these fungi do not attack people. The talk-show guest cautions that this may alter if the earth slightly warms and these mushrooms adapt to fit a warmer planet. And if that happened, there would be no cure or even a chance of treatment for a fungal infection.
That is what actually occurs in 2003, at least in The Last of Us’ made-up universe. People all around the world start becoming infected by a mutant Cordyceps fungus. Once infected, the victims essentially morph into violent zombies that chase after everyone who isn’t infected in order to sate their ravenous desires for human flesh. the only way to make a person feel better is to make a person feel better. This is the only way to make a person feel better. For the third time. For the fourth time. For the fifth time
Even though the Cordyceps infected zombies are obviously made up, the fungus itself exists and can infect insects in a manner that is somewhat similar to how it infects humans in the program. In fact, a particular species of Cordyceps known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has the capacity to produce “zombie ants”:
The fungus infects carpenter ants and snakes its way through the body, controlling the ants’ muscles. The ant will then leave the colony at dusk, find a high-hanging leaf or limb, and grab it with its jaws just before it dies. The fungus there releases spores that fall on unaware victims as the ant hangs immobile till it dies. This method has given it the moniker “zombie fungus.”
But what about walking dead people? the
Entomologist and biologist David Hughes, who served as an adviser on The Last of Us video games, has claimed that “humans acquire fungal illnesses all the time,” especially if they have impaired immune systems. He claimed that the real question is whether a fungus has the power to influence behavior, not whether it might infect a person. And he cited past instances where consuming rye contaminated by fungus caused people to have “convulsive deliriums.” (Mr. Hughes seems like such a good time.)
The last instance occurred in France in 1954 when someone purposefully sold a quantity of grain to a small French town that had the fungus. Yes, eating the fungus will make you crazy, and getting infected is probable. Everyone became insane, and some 12-year-old girl tried to kill her mother with a kitchen knife. However, it jumped from ants to humans before moving on [to other people]… That probably requires too many [unlikely] events to occur.
In other words, it’s not entirely unlikely, but it’s also not very likely.
The Last of Us did not create Cordyceps zombies, though. The Girl With All the Gifts employed a virtually identical idea to explain its zombie virus one year after the release of the first Last of Us game: Someone contracted Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which led to a global infection and the disintegration of society. The Girl With All the Gifts, which was adapted into a little-seen but excellent film in 2016, is largely set decades after the events of The Last of Us, when humanity’s few survivors are attempting to find a cure for the fungal infection that has infected a young girl but rendered her immune to its mind-altering effects.
Warner Bros. UK’s The Girl With All The Gifts official trailer
In essence, Cordyceps zombies are brilliant science fiction because, despite not existing in reality, they are based on enough actual scientific concepts and phenomena to be believable and, consequently, frightening.
The Last of Us has weekly Sunday premieres on HBO and HBO Max.
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