HBO’s TV adaptation of the video game The Last of Us opens with a news segment. Within it, two scientists and an interviewer are involved in casual conversation that immediately leaves us distrusting of something rather peculiar. It’s not featured in the video game itself, and it doesn’t involve the show’s typical visual horror, but it’s a horrifying scene nonetheless.
“There’s a fungus that infects insects,” says one of the scientists. “Gets inside an ant, for example, travels through its circulatory system to the ant’s brain, and then floods it with hallucinogens, thus bending the ant’s mind to its will… The fungus needs food to live, so it begins to devour its host from within, replacing the ant’s flesh with its own, but it doesn’t let its victim die. No, it keeps its puppet alive by preventing decomposition.”
The fungus the scientist speaks of is called cordyceps, found commonly in ants and most popularly known for the grotesquely beautiful presentation at the end of the insect’s life. The fungus causes the insect to climb and attach itself to a perch, after which the fungus will finally sprout from beneath the insect’s skin. It leaves the insect a carcass, like the discarded seed from which the fungus flourishes, and it spreads its spores to more insects below.
Cordyceps is a curious display of nature, and the concept of it is rather horrifying. Of course, it’s limited only to insects. At least this is what the other scientist in the scene claims—yes, cordyceps exist, but not in humans.
With this, the first scientist admits, “True, fungi cannot survive if its host’s internal temperature is over 94 degrees. And currently, there are no reasons for fungi to evolve to be able to withstand higher temperatures. But what if that were to change? What if, for instance, the world were to get slightly warmer?”
It’s a warning. It’s a direct indication of who the villain in The Last of Us will be: fungus.
The Last of Us is one of many horror pieces that seem to be captivated by the concept of fungi and its perverseness. The writers know that even within the disgust, there’s also something hindering us from looking away. There’s something off-putting, uncanny — something wrong with whatever’s been infected or contaminated. Horror writers keep reaffirming some collective terror in these concepts. The Last of Us, The Haunting of Hill House, Relic: all these medias use mycophobia, the fear of fungi, as the basis of their horror.
But just where does this fear come from?
At some surface level, The Last of Us equates fungus to death and destruction. This narrative’s version of the zombie apocalypse doesn’t rely on some ambiguous virus; it relies on the application of a fungus we can easily see in the real world. It takes humans, and it defamiliarizes them by warping them under the guise of fungus. Fruiting bodies will sprout from faces or tendrils will stretch from mouths until eventually those infected appear far more vegetative than human. Fungus is the destruction of that which we know, and in using it, The Last of Us forces us to depart from our comfort zone.
One particularly terrifying detail in The Last of Us is the beginning stages of cordyceps taking over the body. In the second episode, a doctor cuts the skin of an infected corpse, finding white systems of fungus running just below the epidermal layer. The corpse is, by all appearances, human. But creeping beneath the surface, something else spreads its hold across what we believed to be our own. Even our bodies are vulnerable to being warped and marred by this villain.
On the topic of bringing The Last of Us’s world to life, the video game writer Neil Druckmann says that the juxtaposition between normalcy and the upheaval is “not just decay and rot and post-apocalyptic grey, it’s a human world that we’re playing with when we portray this destruction.” As such, he refers to the “collision of the familiar and the unfamiliar,” or echoes of lives that preceded this apocalyptic present. Humanity’s traces are seen everywhere in The Last of Us, whether it be the ransacked bag of goods someone left behind or the walking corpse with fungi fruiting from its face — it’s just that these pieces of humanity are buried deep beneath the layers of change.
Similar ideas are seen in horror involving a subset of fungus: mold. Mold is a multicellular organism under the umbrella of fungus. This said, there seems to be a general consensus of mold being the more disgusting, less fascinating counterpart to the colorful displays of fungi like those seen in The Last of Us. Mold presents less uncanniness than fungi and more age and sorrow. Mold, too, coats our familiar spaces with something we see as hazardous and decrepit. Horror manipulates this imagery to symbolize what once was — what we have lost.
Mold presents less uncanniness than fungi and more age and sorrow. Mold, too, coats our familiar spaces with something we see as hazardous and decrepit.
Mike Flannagan’s show The Haunting of Hill House is all about the split between past and present. Switching between the main characters’ childhood and current day, dark and gray filters frequently present this contrast and the wearing of time the characters have experienced. This is showcased especially well in a common setting between the two time periods: Hill House itself. And even better representing this contrast is this one scene, where main character Nell revisits the house after decades of being away.
The house supernaturally manipulates Nell; it welcomes her in with illusions of brightly lit rooms, her beloved family, and warm colors filling the living, breathing house. The house looks as it frequently did when Nell lived there as a child. She dances about the rooms, she smiles, and she enjoys the company of her loved ones. And in a harsh transition, silence befalls the audience, the colors cut away, and we see the reality of Nell’s situation: she dances about an empty house, vines and dust covering the floor, mold encompassing all that was once warm.
The Haunting of Hill House uses mold as an integral part of its setting. When contrast is key between past and present, mold forces us to confront the passage of time and the disregard we’ve shown certain people, places, and objects. Mareena Francis in How ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ Championed the Horror Genre puts it nicely: “The Haunting of Hill House reminds us of what horror truly is. Rather than jumps-scares and moments of fright, it is a creeping, icy grip of memory and foreboding. It is being afraid of the past and the future, poisoning the present. It is in ghosts and banging on the walls, but also in grief and the relentless passage of time.”
Mold encapsulates our fear of things corroding, wearing away. There’s disgust, there’s discomfort, and there’s distrust in mold. There’s grief for what once was — what can never be recovered, and there’s nothing more horrifying than that.
One more piece of media captures both The Last of Us’s uncomfortable body horror and The Haunting of Hill House’s symbol for grief and age. Relic, a 2020 Australian horror film, largely flew under the radar in public discussion. The story relies heavily on disorienting its audience, presenting unnerving settings, and crafting an unreliable story: Just what is Relic trying to say?
The movie follows three generations of women as the two youngest try to help the eldest, Edna, while she grapples with the terrors and confusion of dementia. The horror lies in the unease. It seems that there’s some sinister force inside Edna’s house; Edna keeps disappearing, and the structure of the house keeps shifting. In all this, black mold is rampant in the shadowy corners, the dark memories. But what truly encapsulates the larger message in the ending scene.
Spoilers: in a dismal display of symbolism, after Edna’s dementia has turned her monstrous, the three women lie in bed, peeling Edna’s skin away to reveal a decrepit figure with black skin. The same black mold that has taken over Edna and her house appears on the back of Edna’s daughter, signifying the inheritance of this infliction.
Black mold symbolizes dementia and its transformative properties in Relic. It’s the defamiliarization of people we once knew — people we once were, and the inescapable future we’ll confront.
Director Natalie Erika James says that the black mold “[is] more important in an allegorical sense.” In the story she wishes to tell, she hoped to depict Edna as this unfamiliar being, monstrous-like but ultimately representative of what people with dementia may become. “For me, it really mimics what people are like at the end of their lives when they’re wasting away, when they’re really close to death,” she says. “They can have an almost alien feeling about them because they’ve wasted away so much from who they were when they were healthy.”
When James speaks on the horror genre as a whole, she underscores its subjectivity and the power it has to physicalize one’s fears. Fungi and mold, with all their connotations and symbolism, offer so much terror in their uncanniness, decrepitness, unfamiliarity, and inevitability. The recent trends in the horror genre that take advantage of this message attempt to go beyond the viscerally scary and impart some inherent and deeply emotional fear in us.
“To learn what we fear is to learn who we are,” says character Shirley in The Haunting of Hill House. “Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls.”
What can we become? What have we become? And can we ever get ourselves back?
The fear of fungus reflects our fear of change and our capacity to change unwillingly. That type of fear will stick with us more than a jumpscare or some gore. That fear persists long after the credits roll.