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Culture

How Fungi Colonized Our Minds

They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky.

A brain made up of mushrooms.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Of all the imaginative ways to die in New York City — getting pushed in front of a subway car, flattened by a falling a/c unit, clocked by an exploding manhole cover, etc. — perhaps the unlikeliest is Death By Toxic Black Mold.

That hasn’t stopped me from thinking about it ... all the time. Every New Yorker seems to know someone who’s discovered the inky starbursts in their building and had months of migraines, runny noses, and sore throats snap into horrible clarity. Toxic black mold. With a name like that, how could you not be terrified?

Fungi have been a little more top-of-mind lately, though, because they’re everywhere.

I mean that beyond the literal sense that “fungi are everywhere,” which they also are: We’ve found them in Antarctica, gnawing through Shackleton and Scott’s century-old huts; at the bottom of the ocean, in multi-million-year-old mud; on antiseptically clean hospital walls; and at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Naturally, they survive “surprisingly well” in space.

Over the past decade or so, fungi have begun to infest our stories as well. This is particularly true of horror and sci-fi, including HBO’s recent The Last of Us adaptation, which expands on the 2013 game’s fungal zombie backstory. In 2017, Star Trek: Discovery introduced the idea that the whole universe is connected by mycelia, a concept explained to viewers by the fictional astromycologist Paul Stamets — not to be confused with Eldon Stammets, the mushroom-obsessed serial killer from season one of Hannibal (2013), nor the real mycologist Paul Stamets, after whom both characters were named (Bryan Fuller, a Stamets superfan, worked on both shows). Other memorable fungal sightings in fiction include Mike Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts (2014); multiple Jeff VanderMeers but perhaps most obviously Annihilation (2014, with a film adaptation in 2018); Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic (2020); and N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became (2020) — though there are many more. Taking a full inventory, it can almost seem as if, over the course of about a decade, writers collectively realized fungi are the perfect monsters: efficient, unknowable, hungry.

On the one hand, of course. We’re repelled by mold and mushrooms for the same reason we’re disgusted by rats or insects: They are symbols of death, disease, and decay, a reminder that in the end, we’re nothing more than fleshy neighborhoods for “postmortem fungal communities.”

But if there is something primordial about our fungus revulsion, there is something obtuse about it, too. Our lives have been entangled with fungi’s for as long as we’ve been human. The oldest dental records ever studied, belonging to cannibalized 50,000-year-old Neanderthals, indicate ancient hominids ate “primitive penicillin,” possibly for the same medical purposes that we use the mold-derived antibiotic today. Otzi the Iceman was wearing Birch polypores on a leather thong around his neck when he died. Some (admittedly fringe) scientists even believe mushrooms were the spark that set our Homo erectus ancestors on their journey to the higher consciousness of Homo sapiens.

What, then, soured in our multi-millennia-long human-fungus relationship to make us — as mycologist David Arora puts it — the “fungophobic society” we are today? The medical community’s acceptance of germ theory, and our modern obsession with cleanliness, are components, surely.

There is another possibility, too: The closer we’ve looked at fungi, the stranger they reveal themselves to be, and the richer and more possible our wildest fictions become.

Mushrooms might seem to sprout abruptly and at random. But in truth, they’re just the visible fruiting body of a much larger subterranean organism. Great speculative fiction works much the same way: While a story can appear to have sprouted from nothing, it’s been fed, just below the surface, by a tangle of science, headlines, and current events.

In the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing in 1945, for example, fiction warped the horrors of nuclear science for films like Godzilla (1954), Them! (1954), and Tarantula (1955). And after the moon landing in 1969, Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Alien (1979) all wondered who else might be up there?

When it comes to mycology, though, science is still getting started. Fungi didn’t even become their own taxonomic kingdom until 1969; before then, scientists just thought they were really weird plants.

Westerners have long approached fungi with suspicion. “The fields were spotted with monstrous fungi of a size and colour never matched before … Death sprang also from the water-soaked earth,” Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in Sir Nigel (1905-06), using fungi as an ominous mood-setter. Edgar Allen Poe wasn’t a fan either: “Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior” of the House of Usher, he wrote in 1839, “hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves.” Folk explanations posited that mushrooms shot from the ground where lightning struck, and “a vast body of Victorian fairy lore connected mushrooms and toadstools with elves, pixies, hollow hills, and the unwitting transport of subjects to fairyland,” explains Mike Jay in The Public Domain Review.

Brits were especially revolted by the “pariahs of the plant world,” to the great disappointment of R.T. Rolfe, who penned a rousing 1925 defense titled Romance of the Fungal World. In Shakespeare’s day, it was questionable if mushrooms were even safely edible; “a hogg wont touch um,” warned Edmund Gayton in his 1695 Art of Longevity. Americans inherited this wariness — “the general opinion [in the U.S. is] all forms of fungus growth are either poisonous or unwholesome,” observed one cookbook writer in 1899 — though many were beginning to come around by the late 19th century, taking cues from the more adventurous eaters of France. Not every culture has been quite so squeamish: mushrooms have long been cultivated in Asia; are a staple of Eastern European, African, and Slavic cuisines; and Indigenous groups throughout the Americas have likewise long enjoyed all that fungi have to offer.

The reevaluation of fungi in refined English society came about almost entirely by accident, via the fortuitous contamination of Alexander Fleming’s staphylococci cultures by the genus Penicillium in 1928. Still, it wouldn’t be until the second half of the 20th century when fungus science really started to get weird — even weirder, you might say, than fiction.

Because the fungi, it appeared, were talking to each other.

When ecologist Suzanne Simard captured the public imagination by describing in a 1997 issue of Nature how trees use webs of underground fungi to communicate with each other, networks — conceptually — were already having a moment. The internet, and the “network of cables and routers” that comprised it, had been around since the 1970s, mycologist Merlin Sheldrake explains in Entangled Life, but when the World Wide Web became available to users in 1991, network science started informing everything from epidemiology to neuroscience. Nature tapped into this buzz by coining the “Wood Wide Web” on its cover to describe Simard’s research, and in doing so, mesmerizingly blurred science-fiction, tech, and biology.

The oft-quoted theory of the Wood Wide Web suggests that fungal threads called mycelium colonize root systems of forest trees, and in doing so, facilitate the exchange of defense signals and other “wisdom” by moving nutrients between plants. “Mother” trees, for example, can supposedly nurture samplings in their communities by shipping excess carbon via fungi. Reviewer Philip Ball went as far as to marvel in Prospect, after reading an account of these and other systems in Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, that “fungi force us to reconsider what intelligence even means.” (Sheldrake’s enthusiasm for the Wood Wide Web is more restrained; he uses it disparagingly to illustrate “plant-centrism in action”).

Ball wasn’t the only one awed, though. References to the “alien language” of fungi began popping up everywhere in popular science writing, as McMaster University’s Derek Woods has observed. Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running helped bring Simard’s research to a more general audience in 2005, while Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2015), and Simard’s own Finding the Mother Tree (2021) followed — not to mention “dozens of imitative articles,” TED talks, documentaries, and offshoot studies. As recently as last year, The Guardian was trumpeting that “Mushrooms communicate with each other using up to 50 ‘words’.”

Some scientists have since raised doubts about the Wood Wide Web, characterizing the research as potentially “overblown” and “unproven" — but it’s a good story, isn’t it? Not to mention a rich jumping-off point for writers who were paying attention to the headlines. One can trace a line directly from Simard’s research, through Stamets’ amplification, straight to Bryan Fuller’s mycelium plane in Star Trek: Discovery.

Yet the phenomenon, as described, sounds far more Edenic than the terrifying, often sentient, man-eating, mind-controlling, city-conquering fungi that have overwhelmingly appeared in modern sci-fi and horror. Is today’s fungal antagonist just a product of those centuries of folk superstitions? Or is something else in the zeitgeist making our skin crawl?

Let’s return, for a moment, to the ways I’ve imagined dying in New York City.

Though the chances of being taken out by a subway or an unsecured a/c unit are slim, they have, tragically, actually happened. But when you start to look into Deaths by Toxic Black Mold, the picture gets a lot murkier.

Few people, verging on none, have definitively died of black mold exposure. You wouldn’t know that, though, from the headlines of the early aughts, which are peppered with celebrity lawsuits over mold, culminating in TMZ tying the mysterious 2009 and 2010 deaths of Clueless actress Brittany Murphy and her husband to mold inhalation (ultimately disproven by their autopsies).

But mold hysteria didn’t originate in Beverly Hills. It comes from Ohio. In the mid ’90s, 12 babies in Cleveland died of lung hemorrhaging and the main suspect was an outbreak of black mold allegedly brought on by unusually heavy rains. CDC investigators found all of the afflicted infants lived in homes with bad water damage, and, in many cases, those homes also had Stachybotrys, a moisture-loving black mold. Soon, stories linking the fungus to the deaths were making national news.

Reevaluations of the outbreak later cast doubt on the correlation. In 1999, the CDC walked back its initial assessment, citing “serious shortcomings in the collection, analysis, and reporting of data.” More skepticism followed: If Stachybotrys is common wherever there is water-damaged wood, why were only babies in the Cleveland area being affected? And how do you explain that some of the babies lived in homes where no Stachybotrys was ever found?

Still, the story stuck, and the link between black mold and a whole host of health problems, including many that remain completely unproven, took root in the public consciousness. Soon, everyone was suing over black mold. “A single insurance company handled 12 cases in 1999,” mycologist Nicholas Money writes in Carpet Monsters and Killer Spores; by 2001, “the company fielded more than 10,000 claims.” The Washington Post likewise observed in 2013 that “experts say mold is not more prevalent these days; instead, we are more aware of it.”

Hypochondriacs eyeing mildew spots on their bathroom ceilings weren’t the only ones reading about deadly mold, of course. Writers were, too. And now fungi had two strikes against them: They possessed a weird alien intelligence and they were dangerous.

Then came the possibility they could control our minds.

The parasitic fungal genus Ophiocordyceps is at least 48 million years old. It has likely survived as long as it has because of its stranger-than-fiction method of propagating: Ophiocordyceps spores infect an ant and “hijack” its brain, forcing it to abandon its colony, climb a high leaf, and affix itself there with a bite. The ant then dies, still clinging to the leaf with its jaws, and the fungus sprouts out of its body, raining spores down onto other unlucky ants.

Humans turning into, or being consumed alive by, fungi had long fascinated writers (see: “The Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson from 1907, or Stephen King’s 1973 “Gray Matter”). But with our increased cultural awareness of Ophiocordyceps in the 21st century, fungal mind control went from being a revolting body horror trope to a plausible sci-fi starting point. Neil Druckmann, the creative director of The Last of Us, has said he learned about the fungus from a 2008 episode of BBC’s Planet Earth, and he went on to use it as the basis for the zombies in his 2013 video game.

Though Druckmann was an early adopter of Ophiocordyceps, the fungus didn’t exactly remain obscure. “Zombie fungi are not known to use humans as hosts. At least yet,” The Columbus Dispatchwrote in 2014 (and filed, cryptically, in its “how to” section). The X-Men comics introduced “Cordyceps Jones,” a “talking parasitic fungal spore, intergalactic casino proprietor, and notorious crime boss,” as a new villain in 2021. TheNew York Times even saw fit to inform its readers, “After This Fungus Turns Ants Into Zombies, Their Bodies Explode.” Try scrolling past that.

Through this process of scientific discoveries, eye-catching headlines, and a little exaggeration, it took only a handful of decades for fungi to make the leap from “pariahs of the plant world” to the perfect horror villain. The climate crisis will likely be a further creative accelerant. Thanks to intensified hurricanes and flooding, mold will be an ongoing issue in homes nationwide. Plus, fungi are nothing if not survivors, and some are already pushing past the climatological boundaries — and antifungals — that used to contain them.

Even The Last of Us added an explanation in the HBO adaption that the warming planet is what allowed Ophiocordyceps to evolve and make the leap from cooler-bodied insects to comparatively hot humans. The good news is, mycologists say this is all but impossible in real life due to the vast biological differences between humans and ants; the bad news is, a deadly fungal pandemic is absolutely possible and, shocker, experts say we’re not at all prepared for it.

At least, not institutionally. Fiction has already hashed out how Fauna vs. Funga could go in a hundred different ways. Sometimes, the fungus comes to us from outer space. Sometimes, it possesses alien sentience; other times, it just represents the indifferent efficiency of nature. Sometimes, it takes over our minds and turns us against each other. Sometimes, it brings us together to fight back.

Fiction is also beginning to wonder if those villainous fungi might just be our friends. Think of those universe-binding spores that connect us in Star Trek, or the fungal-facilitated hivemind in a popular Hugo Award-winning series, which likewise eludes a straightforward antagonist narrative. It only makes sense: If spores are intelligent colonizers, well, so are we. Maybe the next step will be to put our heads — or at least, our hyphae and neurons — together.

Because while science reveals fungi to be weirder by the day, it also further reinforces that we can’t live without them. They nourish us, heal us, relieve us, protect us, and one day, maybe, will save us.

And oh, how they entertain us.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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