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Renowned mushroom expert Paul Stamets calls out HBO’s hit show ‘The Last of Us’ for exploiting fear of fungi

“Not bacteria, not viruses, so…?”

“Fungus. There are some fungi that seek not to kill, but to control…viruses can make us ill, but fungi can alter our very minds.”

So warns the epidemiologist Dr Neuman at the beginning of HBO’s hit series The Last of Us, when asked which micro-organism he thinks humanity should fear the most.

Based on the mega-popular video game franchise of the same name that was released in 2013, The Last of Us tells a human story of connection and parenthood within the trope of a post-apocalyptic world caused by a zombie plague – though with the twist that the ‘undead’ in this story are actually victims of an infection by the parasitic Cordyceps fungi.

The use of a zombifying fungus in the storyline was reportedly inspired by a segment on Cordyceps and how they control insects’ minds, that was first broadcast in 2006 in the David Attenborough hosted BBC series Planet Earth:

The idea of becoming controlled by parasitic microorganisms is certainly a scary thought, and in recent years research has revealed it is actually shockingly prevalent in nature. However, legendary mycologist Paul Stamets has taken issue with the use of fungus as the zombifying mechanism in The Last of Us, saying on his Facebook page that to do so is “exploiting mycophobia: the fear of fungi”, when we should instead be embracing the positive aspects of these poorly understood organisms:

All organisms must eat. There are animals that are predatory. There are plants that are predatory. There are fungi that are predatory. We are all part of a giant food web where we are sustained by each other. [The Last of Us] is fiction weaved into a theme speckled with mycology and exploiting mycophobia: the fear of fungi.

It is natural for humans to fear that which is powerful but mysterious and misunderstood. In reality, fungi offer us today some of the best solutions that are needed for solving many of the existential threats that we face. In fact, Cordyceps-like fungi could replace the majority of chemical insecticides with an ecologically rational and economically scalable solution.

Insect infected by Cordyceps

Stamets has previously outlined the various possible benefits of fungi in his TED talk “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World“. It should be noted too, that Stamets’ company Fungi Perfecti actually sells (dead/inactive) Cordyceps as a health supplement, claiming the fungus has positive effects on well-being.

That’s not to say Stamets is a complete kill-joy on The Last of Us though. He also notes that, being a science-fiction fan himself, he does love how the the creative elements of fungi have been weaved into the narrative of The Last of Us, and believes that ulimately the show could inspire a new generation to look deeper into the world of fungi:

I applaud the writers for seeing this opportunity to take us on a literary adventure into the realm of sci-fi while exploiting the public’s fascination, fear, and joy of fungi…Who knows, a young person watching this series could become our Einstein of mycology and help save the world from the toxins we create.

Because for all the fear of what might happen if fungi took over the world, Stamets notes that it’s already too late for that: “Breaking news: they are everywhere, all the time, and you live with them 24/7. These very fungi exist under every footstep that you take.”

So we better figure out how to live with them, rather than thinking about them as an enemy. “Fungi will never be defeated,” Stamets points out.

“Our survival depends on a peace treaty with fungi.”

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