The following contains potential spoilers for Thor: Love and Thunder and Stranger Things.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding, the famous story of stranded boys on an island who descend into chaos, was a haunting reading experience for me in high school. I hated the story’s brutality, its ruthless portrayal of the boys’ downward spiral into meanness, savagery, and madness. Maybe I could have handled it if the story were about adults, but it was about children. As a teenager, still really a child myself, I wasn’t prepared to look into that mirror. 

There are many shocking, even horrific, moments in Lord of the Flies, but the most shocking comes at the very end. Abruptly, a violent chase to the death shifts perspective when adults arrive and the children—whom the reader has come to slowly perceive as warriors and leaders and even murderers—snap back into their ordered position in society. Through the eyes of a naval officer, the reader sees them again as kids, running on the beach, covered in mud and carrying sticks. 

It’s horrifying to read or watch a story in which kids are battling like adults—whether they descend into it like Lord of the Flies, whether they have to fight because no one else will, whether they must fight to save themselves, or whatever the circumstances may be. There is always an extra edge of tragedy to these stories. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be told; in fact, as an author, I’ve written a number of such stories myself! By their very nature, stories that position children as warriors can be quite effective at magnifying the horror of whatever the writer or storyteller is trying to say.

When kids have to fight for survival, the world is upside down.

Life far too often steals innocence from children, and the decisions and actions (or inactions) of adults don’t always give kids the option not to fight, whatever “fighting” looks like in the real world. Sometimes we need to see or read about the absurdity of child warriors on the screen or in the pages of our books to be reminded that great evil exists in the world, and children should not be asked to fight their own battles—that kids should be protected, and innocence is worth preserving.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest offering, Thor: Love and Thunder, gives us a story in which a villageful of children must be saved, and while the kids aren’t the main focus of the film, they do play an important role. In this movie, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has to “find himself” after numerous losses (which you can catch up on in all his previous MCU appearances), and along the way he discovers that he’s not the only Thor. His ex-girlfriend Jane (Natalie Portman) has come back into his life, and in an effort to save herself from stage four cancer, she’s called on the hammer Mjolnir and transformed into another iteration of Thor: the Mighty Thor. But there’s a god killer in town named Gorr (Christian Bale), and he’s bent his sights on a secret place in the universe that will give him the power to kill all the gods in one fell swoop. Ironically, he needs the Asgardian gods to help him do it, so he kidnaps the children of Asgard in order to lure Thor into his trap.

Thor: Love and Thunder ranks high on the MCU silliness scale, but it also has a lot of heart—and director Taika Waititi’s signature touches of horror elements. Gorr is a villain who brings shadows to life, who makes the things that “go bump in the night” a reality. And when he takes the children of Asgard away, he hides them in darkness and makes them wait for a hero who may not be able to save them. 

When Thor does arrive to fight Gorr and his army of shadowy beasts, he is alone and outmatched, except for the children whom he’s come to save. They’ve been waiting for most of the film to be rescued, and Thor has no choice but to include them as agents in their own rescue, imbuing them (as he says, “for a limited time only”) with his own power. 

Waititi plays the scene for laughs (he commonly deflects gravitas in his movies with humor) but he doesn’t fully distract from the strange poingance of the tiny space vikings fighting a battle against terrifying beasts. And the absurdity of the whole situation points to the obvious: kids shouldn’t be warriors. It heightens the wickedness of Gorr the god killer that he placed children in a position where they had to fight, because when kids fight and kill, the loss of innocence is profound. 

Similarly, Stranger Things delivered a fourth season almost entirely devoid of parental guidance or adult intervention in the main plot, heightening the wickedness of the villain and the tension of the stakes. Season four told the show’s most horrific story yet, in great part because the kids were on their own. 

In the final episode of the season, the kids prepare weapons to use in the Upside Down—a toxic, alternate dimension they have to go to in order to fight the monstrous Vecna, who is killing the residents of Hawkins. While pounding nails into trash can lids, crafting spears out of sticks and knives and duct tape, and donning homemade camouflage, they joke and wrestle and play. To observe them, you wouldn’t think they are preparing for war; you’d think they’re kids playing dress-up. It’s not that they don’t know that entering the Upside Down and fighting Vecna is dangerous, but they can’t change the nature of what they are. They are children, teens, young adults. And with youth comes the levity of innocence, even about things like fighting to save the world. Up until the moment they enter the real battle, their preparations are like a game of make believe; their weapons are sticks and they are little boys running on the beach, covered in mud. 

At least, that’s where my mind goes when I watch such scenes. Every time I see a child gear up for battle (or read about it in a book), I think of the final pages of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the loss of innocence, and the preposterous juxtaposition between warrior and little child. When kids have to fight for survival, the world is upside down. And there should always be an element of horror to these sorts of stories, because children shouldn’t have to be warriors, and it’s an evil world that sometimes demands it of them. 

Children should be free to be children; it’s the job of adults to protect and preserve innocent life. Stories with child warriors—from classic novels to movies to pop culture phenomenons—can remind us of these truths.