The idea of “fungus monsters” might conjure up comedic images of giant mushrooms chasing people through the streets, but that’s not what I mean when I say we need more “fungus monsters.” Well, not entirely what I mean.
In 2013, a new kind of zombie emerged—the fungus zombie—essentially, humans infected with Ophiocordyceps.
Ophiocordyceps is a parasitic fungus that infects ants. When infected, the ant is forced to climb a tree and attach itself to the underside of a leaf in the aptly named “death grip,” where the fungus will blossom, ensuring maximum dispersal of its spores and, in the process, killing the host. The fungus is so similar to something from a zombie film that scientists have trouble describing its real-worldness and can often only talk about it in terms of popular culture: “like something out of science fiction.” The infected ant, unsurprisingly, is called a “zombie ant,” highlighting the fungus’s ability to infect, adapt, incubate, and propagate like its zombie counterpart from popular culture.
Not to worry—Ophiocordyceps only infects ants…
In Druckman’s world, Ophiocordyceps works in various stages on the body, with the earliest stage—runners—appearing similar to the zombies found in other films, and the later stages, such as bloaters and shamblers, appearing increasingly inhuman. Similar to the real-world fungus that inspired Druckman’s zombies, the final step of the infection results in zombies fusing themselves to a surface and releasing spores into the air—ensuring maximum dispersal of the infection.
The Last of Us, however, is not the only purveyor of Ophiocordyceps zombies. In 2014, M.R. Carey published The Girl with All the Gifts, a novel that also pinpoints Ophiocordyceps as the root of the zombie infection.
Similar to The Last of Us, Ophiocordyceps in Carey’s world works in various stages on the body, with the final stage resulting in the infected laying down and sprouting treelike protrusions “to incredible heights” (Carey 368). These protrusions spore, but also these bodies spread and connect with other bodies, forming “a dense net like a million spiderwebs all woven together” (Carey 368).
While the 2016 cinematic adaptation retains Ophiocordyceps, it lacks the tentacular imagery that makes the novel so interesting in its resistance to the Anthropocene, which leads me to finally address the question, “why do we need more fungus monsters?”
Why We Need Fungus Monsters Now More than Ever
Fungus zombies represent a shift away from anthropomorphic imaginings. They allow us to stop constructing the natural world in our image and instead reposition ourselves in the image of nature. They dismantle individualist notions of human species superiority and replace the Anthropocentric imaginary with a more multispecies approach.
Ophiocordyceps can be considered a representation of Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene, which Haraway suggests in place of the Anthropocene as the proposed term to describe our current epoch. According to Haraway, the Chthulucene replaces the autopoietic—or self-produced—unit with a sympoietic—or set of interacting—organisms, resulting in a kind of tentacularity. essentially decentering the individualistic human and proposing instead an interconnected system that forces us to pay attention to our relationships with other species. The shift to the Chthulucene allows the barrier between the human body and the Ophiocordyceps fungus to collapse. In this manner, becoming fungus forces us to realize that the harm we do to the environment is literally harming ourselves.
Fungal Horror is not new, of course, but its seepage into the zombie subgenre is. Hopefully, the fungus zombie sticks around—after all, The Last of Us is coming to a T.V. near you in 2023—and provides us with more opportunities for understanding how a multispecies approach that imagines myriad ways of being with fungi can aid in understanding climate change. After all, if we resist becoming fungi, we resist going green.
Image source: Unplash