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The Science Behind ‘The Last of Us’ Is Terrifying Fans

A bunch of men talking about science in the last of us

One common thread among zombie shows is that a lot of them are centered around bacteria. Some infection or bacteria gets into human beings and then spreads through a bite of some kind and thus the zombie apocalypse has begun. It has made for some real-life panics, like when bath salts became terrifying because people thought they were turning individuals into zombies. Point is, they all start with something that seems like it could happen, taken to its extreme.

What makes The Last of Us stand out as a post-apocalyptic story is that it is less about a bacteria forcing people to eat brains but more about a fungus taking control (and doesn’t feature zombies). In the pilot for the HBO series based on the game from Naughty Dog, we were instantly thrown into a scientific explanation for how this sort of outbreak could happen. And hearing the actual science behind it is…well, frightening.

I will be honest, I’m not the biggest zombie fan. It took me a really long time to start The Walking Dead because I was terrified of the zombie apocalypse and the only reason I was okay with The Last of Us is that if you just stayed put and let FEDRA ruin your life, you were pretty safe from a Clicker or two. And again, they’re not really zombies. They’re people with a fungal infection. But pair the idea of a fungus taking over the world with the global pandemic we’re still in the middle of and the start of The Last of Us really had fans shaking.

The series was made even more terrifying for those of us with a special interest in science, who fully knew what was being discussed and how it could happen. It is, in essence, a conversation about both Darwinism and global warming.

The future is bleak.

The 1968 storyline in The Last of Us features John Hannah as Dr. Neuman. He is on a talk show that is more of a debate on whether or not something like a Cordyceps could mutate into a fungus that takes over the brain function of something that has ingested it. In 1968, they were seeing it in smaller organisms and while Dr. Neuman was supposed to be the downer of the conversation, all the points he was making are things we’ve heard in our 21st-century lives.

The host of the show, played by Josh Brener, is asking Dr. Neuman and another expert played by Christopher Heyerdahl about potential pandemics. The other expert says Neuman’s theory is unrealistic because the Cordyceps cannot survive in a being who has a body temperature as high as a human’s.

The problem comes with global warming. As Dr. Neuman said, the Cordyceps could adapt to living in a higher temperature if the temp of the world forced them to do it to survive. It’s part of the larger conversations that many have been having about the effects of global warming. Yes, we can see certain problems right in front of us. But there are other adaptations that could change the world that we aren’t even aware of yet.

Cool, now I’m afraid of mushrooms.

Ellie fighting a clicker in 'The Last of Us'

The conversation between Dr. Neuman and the other expert was, essentially, just a rehashing of the conversations we saw around COVID-19. It was a lot of alarmist talking points but for the betterment of society. Dr. Neuman was right. He probably did not live long enough to see that he was correct but what he said could happen to Cordyceps clearly did.

It is the warning that was forgotten in real life with the Coronavirus outbreak and is constantly fought against by right-wing media. Dr. Neuman wanted people to trust the science and listen. And they didn’t. But now this has made me, I feel, irrationally afraid of mushrooms, my favorite type of veggie. Roxana Hadadi broke down for Vulture whether or not we need to be worried about something like this but that just tells you how good the show is at making the Cordyceps infection feel real.

It has made many fans now anxious about their intake of mushrooms.

When you think about it, other apocalyptic shows have been based in something that could happen but the science behind it is iffy. With The Last of Us, it was laid out for us just how it could happen in our own timeline because of how people are ignoring global warming and … okay I’m not eating pancakes or bread anymore.

As Dr. Neuman said, there is no reason for fungus to evolve … but what if it had to? What if the planet got warmer and they needed to find a way to survive? It’s so based on our own reality and the lack of fear that exists within people (forcing the rest of us to live in their selfishness) that it just made the series that much scarier.


Where would you rank HBO’s #TheLastOfUs in ALL-TIME video game adaptations? Its pretty high on my list. #hbo #videogames #movies #tvshows #gaming #naughtydog #joel #ellie

♬ The Last of Us – Gustavo Santaolalla


It’s only going to get more emotional and scary as we continue on with The Last of Us and honestly, maybe taking all those advanced science classes in school was a mistake. I feel like I know too much about Cordyceps and now I’m afraid of them.

(image: HBO)

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Resident Spider-Man expert, official Leslie Knope, actually Yelena Belova. Wanda Maximoff has never done anything wrong in her life. New York writer with a passion for all things nerdy. Yes, she has a Pedro Pascal podcast.