Mushrooms aren’t the threat The Last of Us shows. They’re our future

For the first few decades of my life, I hated mushrooms. I thought they were disgusting to look at, and disgusting to eat. And then one documentary changed my life.

Mushrooms have a bit of a bad rap. Beyond the general hesitation people can have toward the idea of eating a fungus, media like The Last of Us, Annihilation, and other fungal horror have successfully played up the unnerving nature they can have, sprouting in unexpected places and ways. But mushrooms are more than that.

In 2021, my partner and I bought digital tickets to the Indie Memphis Film Festival. We watched many movies that we loved, including We’re All Going to the World’s Fair and I Was a Simple Man (both on The Hamden Journal’s list of our favorite movies of 2022), and an incredibly funny documentary about a group of bus drivers who put on a stage production of Alien called Alien on Stage (still awaiting for the wider release of that one)!

But undoubtedly, no movie had as much of an impact on me as The Mushroom Speaks, Marion Neumann’s documentary on the healing powers of mushrooms for our world, and the importance of an alliance between humans and mushrooms for the long-term survival of our species on this planet.

Image: Intermezzo Films S.A.

The documentary spends time with a variety of people worldwide whose lives revolve around mushrooms. Some are explorers, some are scientists, some are activists — and some combine these roles. One of the key characters in the film is the matsutake mushroom, a delicacy in Japanese cuisine that is extremely expensive because of its rarity. The matsutake benefits from human involvement, growing in forests cohabitated by humans. Some say it was the first thing to grow in Hiroshima after the United States dropped the 1945 atomic bomb that killed over 100,000 people and left more with decades of radiation-related complications

The mycelial network is perhaps the perfect example of the wonderful mystery that is the world of mushrooms, one that we are still learning about. It is a vast network of underground roots that connects fungi and other organisms. Its powers, though somewhat known to us, are still mysterious. We know it is a vast communication network not just for mushrooms, but for plants and trees as well (the latter of which can use the mycelium to warn other trees of dangers like disease and insects). We know it can spread nutrients and water to organisms that need it. We know mycelium can extend for thousands of miles (famously, the world’s largest organism is a mycelial network), and possess some intelligence. But there’s plenty we don’t know.

This is the kind of stuff that makes mushrooms an easy villain, the cockroaches of the plant world that will outlive and outlast us. It is truly hard to fathom that such a vast and powerful network can exist and work in the magical ways it does, and when faced with something that’s hard to comprehend, an understandable impulse is to fear it. And as we’ve seen time and time again — long tendrils that stretch beyond our wildest imagination, growths in places we don’t want growths — it’s good stuff for horror fiction.

So it makes some sense that the mycelial network would be depicted as a terrifying, existential threat in The Last of Us, as prologued by a scientist (played with delightful Scottish glee by John Hannah) telling a horror story on television in 1978 about how fungi can alter our mind. I get it, and we’ve seen this in the world of literature over the past few years. From the horrifying transformative powers of Mexican Gothic’s mushrooms to the blood-red mushrooms of What Moves the Dead, mushroom horror has been growing like… well, you know.

A shot of an infected person stuck to a wall with overgrown mushrooms in The Last of Us

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Often, like in The Last of Us, fungal horror is used to convey a vast hive mind, or mimic human body parts like hair, or communicate through the bodies of the dead. Pretty spooky, right? But the truth is even cooler than our wildest fantasies could spin up.

Fungi like mushrooms can decompose organic compounds, and a mycelium network can remove pollutants from the environment. That’s right — mushrooms can literally remove chemicals from soil and water, and the process known as mycoremediation can decontaminate environments that have been polluted by heavy metals, petroleum fuels, pesticides, and other pollutants.

Fungi are also one of the only organisms that can compost complex biomass, and we can grow alternatives to plastic through mycelium. And that’s just scratching the surface of their potential, and of our relationship to them as we attempt to rehabilitate our relationship to planet Earth. Mushrooms have been here longer than us — they’ve been here from the dawn of time as we know it, and may have come from space (mushroom spores can survive out there, too)! They’re the experts on this planet, and compared to them, we’re still newcomers. If we want to continue living here, we should listen to them.

As environmental disaster looms, it’s easy to assume that humans are only a problem in this world. The matsutake shows a different path — one of living together with the world around us, and creating a better relationship with the Earth. We don’t have to be the problem here; humans can and should be a healthy part of this planet’s ecosystem.

An image of white and beige Mushrooms in The Mushroom Speaks.

Image: Intermezzo Films S.A.

The Mushroom Speaks encourages us not only to think about the role fungi play in our ecosystem, but the ways in which they can inspire us to make change in our world. Mushrooms are ever-changing to suit the world around them. What if we approached our place here in the same way?

Let’s go back to the point of fungi “altering our mind.” What if it could do that, on a societal level, for the betterment of the planet and our relationship to it? What if “altering our mind” instead looked like “altering our behavior,” ceasing our destructive practices to create a better tomorrow for us, for our children, and for the billions of other organisms we share this planet with? Telling the worst-case-scenario version of these stories is intriguing and captivating, to be sure, and any one person’s discomfort at mushroom-related imagery is completely understandable. But it’s not difficult to imagine an alternate path for this narrative framework. Thankfully, among mushrooms’ many lovely qualities, they are admirably immune to the tides of discourse, so their frequent depictions as a threat is of no concern to them.

It’s easy to embrace doomerism when it comes to the future of our climate. I’m prone to it myself. I was at a particularly vulnerable place about the topic when I saw The Mushroom Speaks, guarded about a movie that would touch on some of my deepest fears. Instead, I found hope for the future, and people fighting for it, alongside our fungal friends.

And that’s all from someone who only just recently began their journey into the world of mushrooms. If you likewise are interested in learning more about them, I would definitely recommend watching The Mushroom Speaks and reading books like Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World.

As we continue to destroy our planet, the solution for a better relationship with the Earth lies through mushrooms and the mycelium network. By understanding them better, working with them, and being more mindful of what we put into the world and its cost, we can create a better tomorrow. And it’s all through fungi. No matter how unnerving to look at or think about you might find them, they are even more invested in this world’s survival than you. And there’s no better ally than that.

The Mushroom Speaks is available for digital rental at dafilms.com.