This week’s episode of The Last of Us, HBO’s zombie show, revealed the source of the apocalyptic outbreak to be a mutated cordyceps fungus that spread around the world via the global food supply. How? The mushrooms hitched a ride on wheat and flour, resulting in a global pandemic of psychedelic proportions.

The fungus in question was Ergot. It grows on rye grasses and has a range of effects on humans – some health-giving; some horrific. It has been linked to various historic episodes of delirium, madness, and death, and is known to cause the condition of ergotism, which can be fatal. Ergotism, for its part, can cause “tremors, delusions, prickling sensations on the skin, convulsing seizures, hallucinations, and violent muscle spasms,” according to researchers at the University of Nebraska.

Interestingly, many of the major “delusional” episodes might be traced back to Ergot including the Salem witch trials, the Dancing Plagues of the 14th to the 17th centuries, and even an outbreak in Brazil in 1999 that spread from that country into the U.S.

Ergot thrives on a cold winter followed by a wet spring and has been entwined with civilization for as long as we have cultivated grain. Whether it could mutate and turn us into clicking monsters is another matter entirely, but let’s not rule it out.

By John Biggs

John Biggs is an entrepreneur, consultant, writer, and maker. He spent fifteen years as an editor for Gizmodo, CrunchGear, and TechCrunch and has a deep background in hardware startups, 3D printing, and blockchain. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, Wired, and the New York Times.

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